Metropolitan police detectives have launched an investigation into allegations that MI5 and MI6 officers involved in the interrogation under torture of an al-Qaida suspect committed serious criminal offences.
Scotland Yard has confirmed that a senior investigating officer, who is familiar with other rendition cases, has begun examining the role of UK intelligence officials during the questioning of Abu Zubaydah at CIA so-called ‘black sites’.
The Saudi-born Palestinian was seized in 2002 in Pakistan following the previous year’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. He was held at secret US military detention centres in Thailand, Poland and Lithuania, subjected to waterboarding and eventually transferred to Guantánamo Bay.
A four-year-long inquiry by parliament’s all-party intelligence and security committee published its report last year establishing that MI6 had “direct awareness of extreme mistreatment and possibly torture” of Zubaydah at those locations.
It continued: “In May 2002, a US official briefed SIS [MI6] that Abu Zubaydah was being held in Stirling [believed to be the code name for one of the black sites]. SIS became aware that he was being subjected to some harsh interrogation techniques, including sleep deprivation, and that it was considered that 98% of US Special Forces would have broken if subject to the same conditions.”
The report by MPs and peers added: “The case of Abu Zubaydah shows direct awareness of extreme mistreatment – and, probable torture … However, the Agencies [MI5 and MI6] continued to send the CIA questions to be used in interrogations without seeking any assurances regarding Zubaydah’s treatment in detention, until at least 2006.”
The parliamentary report noted that, according to a 2014 US Senate select committee on intelligence report on the CIA detention and interrogation programme, Abu Zubaydah was routinely subjected to treatment that by UK standards would be considered torture, including being waterboarded.
The European court of human rights ruled in 2014 that Poland was guily of multiple human rights violations in its treatment of Abu Zubaydah, whose full name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn.
The judgment included Abu Zubaydah’s account of how he was suffocated, subjected to deafening blasts of music and denied solid food. Describing the waterboarding, Abu Zubaydah wrote: “I was … put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position.
“The bed was then again lowered to horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die.”
The Metropolitan police launched their inquiry after Raju Bhatt, a solicitor with the London law firm Bhatt Murphy who represents Abu Zubaydah’s interests in the UK, wrote to the force requesting that it launch a criminal investigation or explain why it had failed to take action.
In his letter to the Met, Bhatt wrote: “It is plain that Mr Zubaydah has been subject to mistreatment amounting to torture, and that there is, to say the least, compelling and credible evidence that UK officials had direct awareness of that torture, but nonetheless sent to US officials questions to be put to him in interrogation.
“It is equally plain that such conduct on the part of the UK officials amount to the commission of serious criminality, including offences under section 134 [of the] Criminal Justice Act 1988 and misconduct in public office.”
Abu Zubaydah, he added, “has been unable to make any such complaint until now. He was unaware of the involvement of UK officials prior to the publication of the ISC report, and the circumstances of his detention mean that there has been unavoidable delay … in his ability thereafter to identify and instruct suitable legal representatives in the UK.”
A lawyer for the Metropolitan police wrote back confirming that a senior investigating officer, who worked on Operation Hinton and Operation Iden, would begin investigating.
Operation Hinton was an inquiry into MI5’s interrogation of Binyam Mohamed after the CIA told the agency he was being “continuously deprived of sleep”. Operation Iden was a parallel police investigation into the actions of MI6 officers who interrogated suspects at the US-run prison at Bagram, Afghanistan, in January 2002. In both cases the Crown Prosecution Service concluded there was insufficient evidence to press charges.
The Foreign Office said it would neither confirm nor deny that a police investigation had begun.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan police confirmed that “it is reviewing allegations regarding the treatment of a non-British citizen who has been in detention in locations outside the United Kingdom since 2002.
“The Met was requested to review these allegations via a letter to the Commissioner on 30 January 2019. The review will involve an assessment of the knowledge and actions of British personnel, and will report through the Deputy Commissioner Sir Steve House. “
Who is Abu Zubaydah?
Held since 2006 in one of the most isolated sections of Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, he has reportedly been subjected to waterboarding 83 times during interrogations.
Born in Saudi Arabia in 1971, he was brought up on the Palestinian West Bank. He joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal and was injured in fighting during the civil war.
He helped run a training camp, which the CIA said was linked to al-Qaida, and had become the target of US surveillance before 9/11, when he was alleged to have been involved in attacks in Jordan.
In 2002 he was tracked down by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence services to a safe house in Faisalabad. Injured in the raid, he was treated in hospital before disappearing in a secret network of US prisons.
In 2016, carrying an eyepatch, following the loss of sight in one eye in disputed circumstances, he appeared during a parole hearing in Guantánamo Bay that was transmitted live to journalists and human rights observers in Washington.
An unseen lawyer read out allegations against him, including that he had played a “key role” in al-Qaida’s communications with supporters and operatives abroad in the 1990s and interacted closely with its second-in-command at the time, Abu Hafs al-Masri.
Abu Zubaydah, the “detainee profile” asserted, had sent operatives to al-Qaida senior member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to discuss the feasibility of exploding a radiological device in the US and backed the use of remote-controlled bombs against US and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
But his then lawyer, Brent Mickum, defended his client in a 2009 article, observing: “Zayn’s capture and imprisonment were touted as a great achievement in the fight against terrorism and al-Qaida. There was just one minor problem: the man described by President Bush and others within his administration as a ‘top operative’, the ‘number three person’ in al-Qaida and al-Qaida’s ‘chief of operations’ was never even a member of al-Qaida, much less an individual who was among its ‘inner circle.’”
Poland and Lithuania have both been ordered by the European court of human rights ruled to pay Zubaydah €100,000 (£86,000) each for violating his rights. He has not been charged by the US government with any offences.
Police investigating role of UK officers in torture of al-Qaida suspect – The Guardian