Ships, torture claims, and missing detainees: America may have held terror suspects in British territory, despite UK denials
June 2, 2008 – The controversy over prison ships was first highlighted in June 2005 when the UN’s special rapporteur on terrorism spoke of “very, very serious” allegations that the US was secretly detaining terrorism suspects in various locations around the world, notably on vessels in the Indian Ocean.
The US authorities have not denied that ships have been used to incarcerate detainees. Questioned four years earlier about the purpose of holding prisoners on ships, specifically the USS Peleliu, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, spokesman for the US joint chiefs of staff, replied: “I don’t know the specifics. Central command determines for either medical considerations, for the protection of those individuals, for the isolation in the sense of not having forces that would try to come get somebody out of a detention centre, for a security aspect, and obviously an interest to continue interrogation.”
The US has admitted that the Bataan and Peleliu were used as prison ships between December 2001 and January 2002. After the post-September 11 bombing of Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, the commander of US forces, referring to the “American Taliban”, John Walker Lindh, said: “We will continue to control him on the Peleliu until the determination is made regarding whether we handle him within the military or whether he is handled on the civilian side.”
Lindh is now serving a 20-year sentence in jail in California.
President George Bush admitted in September 2006 that the CIA operated a secret network of “black sites” in which terrorist suspects were held and subjected to what he called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, a term described by the Council of Europe as “essentially a euphemism for some kind of torture”.
The CIA is also believed to have run prisons in countries in almost every continent, including Thailand, Afghanistan (at Bagram, near the military airport, north of Kabul), Poland, Romania, and Djibouti, the former French colony at the southern end of the Red Sea, as well as at Guantánamo Bay.
It may also have secretly imprisoned suspects in the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia, despite UK government denials. In addition, prisoners have been subjected to “extraordinary rendition” – secretly transported to destinations where they risked being tortured. There is evidence a number were tortured.
Prisoners seized by the US in the west as well as Afghanistan and elsewhere have been flown to prisons in Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt.
According to a US Congress report, up to 14,000 people may have been victims of rendition and secret detention since 2001. Some reports estimate there have been twice as many. The US admits to have captured more than 80,000 prisoners in its “war on terror”.
The human rights group, Reprieve, points to a statement by Bush on September 6 2006 that “the secret prisons are now empty”. Reprieve says this is not the case.
Over the past six months alone, Reprieve and other human rights groups have uncovered over 200 new cases of rendition and secret detention. Many prisoners remain unaccounted for, held without any legal protection.
Years of questioning by MPs and by the media, including the Guardian, met with repeated and categorical denials from ministers that Britain had colluded in America’s rendition programme in any way since 2001.
The Guardian reported that the CIA had flown aircraft used for rendering prisoners in and out of UK civilian and military airports hundreds of times. Ministers said no prisoner had been on board any of them. Specific allegations about the use of Diego Garcia were similarly dismissed.
Then last year, parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) suggested that Britain had protested about US policy. “Although the US may take note of UK protests and concerns, this does not appear materially to affect its strategy on rendition,” the committee reported.
It added that both MI6 and MI5 “were slow to appreciate [the] change in US rendition policy”, specifically over the case of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, British residents seized by the CIA in the Gambia and sent to Guantánamo Bay.
Paul Murphy, then chairman of the ISC, and now the Welsh secretary, said : “Our inquiry has not been helped by the fact that government departments have had such difficulty in establishing the facts from their own records in relation to requests to conduct renditions through UK airspace”.
In February, the foreign secretary, David Miliband , in a humiliating episode, admitted to MPs that contrary to earlier explicit assurances, two US rendition flights landed at Diego Garcia in 2002. British and US officials refused to give details about the two detainees in question, other than that one was in Guantánamo Bay and the other had been released. Miliband said he had asked his officials to compile a list of all UK-related flights on which rendition had been alleged.
Manfred Novak, the UN’s special investigator on torture, has said he has credible evidence from sources he cannot reveal that detainees were held on Deigo Garcia between 2002 and 2003. Nothing more has been heard about the matter.
However, shortly after Miliband’s admission, Ben Griffin, a former SAS soldier, said that individuals detained by SAS troops in a joint UK-US special forces taskforce had ended up in interrogation centres in Iraq, including Guantánamo Bay. “These secretive prisons are part of a global network in which individuals face torture and are held indefinitely without charge,” he said.
“All of this is in direct contravention of the Geneva conventions, international law and the UN convention against torture.” The Ministry of Defence obtained a high court injunction preventing him from making any further allegations.
USS Bataan Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, 257m x 32m. Carries 3,200 people. Took part in activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holds a 600-bed hospital
USS Peleliu Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship, 250m x 32.5m. Carries 2,805 people. Was deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, on August 22 2003, and took part in activities in south Iraq and Persian Gulf
USNS Stockham Used to provide support for the US Marine Corps
Other ships that have been stationed at or near Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, which warrant investigation regarding possible secret detention facilities, are, according to Reprieve: USNS Watson, Watkins, Sister, Charlton, Pomeroy, Red Cloud, Soderman, and Dahl; MV PFC William B Baugh, Alex Bonnyman, Franklin J Phillips, Louis J Huage Jr, and James Anderson Jr