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What we know comes from the American Army’s Schmidt report, which details techniques also known as “torture lite”. Many of sections of the Schmidt report are still censored, but it details techniques such as 18 to 20 hours a day of questioning for 48 in 54 days, blasting prisoners with strobe lights and ear-splitting rock music, the use of snarling dogs, threatening to hurt detainees’ families and sexual humiliation. On that
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basis, I propose that a delegation of British parliamentarians be allowed to visit the detention complex in Guantanamo to assess the treatment of detainees. I should be grateful for the Minister’s support for such a visit. If that is not possible, he should consider arranging a visit by our excellent Attorney-General so that he can assess the conditions of the detainees, as he has made his interest in the matter clear.

Sir Winston Churchill noted that America always does the right thing after exhausting every possible alternative. In the case of Guantanamo, our ally is running out of alternatives and I am sure that, in the fullness of time, Washington will indeed do the right thing. I call on the Minister and his Department to help to ensure that that happens sooner rather than later. In particular, will the Minister clarify his position about the continued imprisonment of eight individuals who claim to hold British residency?

On Thursday 5 May, representatives of two of those men lost a bid at the High Court to force the Foreign Secretary to intervene on their behalf. A Foreign Office spokesman said that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was unable to provide consular assistance to

which is a very strict interpretation of the Foreign Office remit. British diplomatic influence is not solely limited to the protection of British citizens; it also applies to British interests, which include upholding the principle of inalienable human rights. For example, Abdul Rahman is an Afghanistani who, on conversion to Christianity, was threatened with the death penalty. At the time, the Minister was on the record as deeply troubled by the case and he sought urgent clarification from the Afghan authorities. I commend him for having done so. Mr. Rahman was not British; indeed, he was on the other side of the world at the time. Surely, that is a common precedent whereby the Government can represent our concerns about the men with British residency held at Guantanamo. Will the Minister make such representations?

The Prime Minister will be meeting President Bush later this week. I hope that he will use that visit to state the Government’s concerns about the situation in Guantanamo Bay. Will the Minister confirm that that will happen?

I also ask the Minister whether he would consider positioning the UK in the role of co-ordinator for those countries that still have detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo. The UK’s relationship with the United States and its experience of having a number of citizens detained at that facility for years would allow the Foreign Office to operate in that much-needed capacity. However, such measures would be only half a solution. The problem with Guantanamo Bay is the existence of the detention facility, the way that it operates and the image that it presents to the world. It runs counter to the fundamental values that we hold dear and wish to protect: the right to fair trail, the right not to be tortured or treated inhumanely and the belief in the strength of openness, transparency and accountability. I call on the Minister to support the view of the Attorney-General—Guantanamo Bay must close, and it must close now.

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10.15 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on securing the debate, and I welcome the opportunity to debate these issues today. First, I want to reiterate the Government’s position on Guantanamo. We have made it clear that we regard the circumstances under which detainees continue to be held at Guantanamo Bay as unacceptable. The US Government know our views. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said as recently as four days ago, it would be better if Guantanamo were closed.

We continue to raise these concerns in our regular discussions on detainee-related issues with the US Government. We seek to ensure that the handling of detainees is consistent with the British Government’s other objectives, including preventing further terrorist attacks, undermining the work of those who recruit terrorists and upholding respect for human rights and the rule of law. As we do so, let us reflect on the circumstances that led to Guantanamo Bay.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I am afraid not. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I have not much time in which to answer a very big contribution.

As my hon. Friend has reminded us, almost 3,000 people were killed during the terrorist attacks on11 September 2001. As the Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee on 15 March, if September 11 had happened in this country rather than the United States, it would have changed our politics and security parameters just as it has changed those of the Americans.

It is also important to recognise the dilemma faced by the US Government in considering Guantanamo’s future—how to balance collective security and respect individuals’ human rights at the same time. More than 270 detainees have been moved from Guantanamo back to their home countries or their country of origin. Many more are being considered for the same, under arrangements designed to ensure that they will be treated humanely on their return. That is not an easy process; it will take time.

We expect the United States to be an example of fairness and justice, where civil liberties and human rights are protected and cherished. Sadly, they are not protected and cherished in some countries. Indeed, there are places where they hardly exist at all. The question is what happens to those who are left. One obvious answer—we have heard from some quarters—would be to release all the detainees at Guantanamo. I fear that that would not be entirely wise. It would hardly serve not only the US Government’s own citizens but everyone else in the world if the Americans were suddenly to release people who could return to terrorism, as some of those already released have.

My hon. Friend’s question raises a number of detailed issues that I am happy to try to address this evening. First, on the legal aspects of indefinite detention, it is useful to understand the US Government’s legal position, even if one does not necessarily agree with it. The US Government believe that they are in a continuing state of at least potentially worldwide armed conflict with al-Qaeda—that is, at war. They believe therefore that
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the laws of armed conflict apply to those whom they detain. The US Government’s view is that under the laws of armed conflict, they are entitled to detain people until that war is over, as they did, for example, during world war two, when again no one knew how long the conflict would last.

The British Government’s view is that, whatever the status of the so-called global war on terror, the detainees at Guantanamo are entitled to humane treatment and, if prosecuted, to a fair trial. We have made that clear to the United States authorities. The United States is well aware of the UK’s opposition to the death penalty under all circumstances. In private diplomatic discussions, at both ministerial and official levels, the UK has made its views known to the US Government and has made representations to them about the circumstances in which, and conditions under which, detainees are held at Guantanamo.

After a lengthy series of discussions with the US, which were led for the Government by the Attorney-General, in 2004 the Government concluded that the military commissions process would not provide sufficient guarantees of a fair trial according to international standards. That eventually led to the release and return of the British detainees at Guantanamo. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that most of the military commission’s proceedings have been stayed, pending a US Supreme Court decision in June on the right of the detainees to challenge the legality of their detention.

My hon. Friend raised the question of torture and other allegations of abuse at Guantanamo. Let me make our position on torture absolutely clear. The United Kingdom condemns unreservedly the use of torture and works hard with its international partners to eradicate that abhorrent practice. We abide by our commitments under international law, including the UN convention against torture and the European convention on human rights, and we expect all other countries to comply with their international obligations. We are active in pressing them to deliver on those human rights commitments.

The US Government have given repeated assurances on this matter and on the treatment of detainees. Those assurances include the detailed public statement made by the US Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, on 5 December 2005, which confirmed that the US respects the rules of international law, including the UN convention on torture. Dr. Rice stated that the US does not authorise or condone the torture of detainees, and that torture and conspiracy to commit torture are crimes under US law wherever they may occur in the world. In addition, the US Detainee Treatment Act, which was enacted on 30 December 2005, provides that no individual in the custody or under the physical control of the US Government, regardless of nationality, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. That legislation makes a matter of statute what President Bush has made clear was already US Government policy.

My hon. Friend has reminded the House of a report submitted on 15 February by five holders of mandates of special procedures of the UN Commission on Human Rights. A number of serious criticisms about the reported situation of detainees in Guantanamo Bay were made in that report. In their formal reply on
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10 March, the US Government strongly objected to the report both in terms of process and of substance, and argued that factual and legal assertions in it were inaccurate and flawed. It is clearly important that the US Government and the UN continue to engage on those issues.

My hon. Friend listed some of the techniques allegedly used at Guantanamo. Those allegations have surfaced previously in relation to UK nationals. I want to make it clear that, we take allegations of abuse and mistreatment made by UK nationals previously held at Guantanamo very seriously. In respect of the British detainees, we raised concerns about issues including isolation, lack of access to daylight, lack of exercise and delays with mail. We pursued those concerns with the US authorities and secured a number of improvements in the physical conditions of the detention of the detainees, as well as improvements to the exercise regime and mail service.

The nine visits made by Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials to check on the British detainees’ welfare showed us that, overall, the detainees appeared in sound physical health. The families of the detainees were given read-outs of the visits and statements were made to Parliament. Our visits found that medical facilities at Guantanamo were of a high standard. On each of the nine visits, we gave the British detainees the opportunity to express concerns about their treatment. None of them alleged to us that they were systematically mistreated at Guantanamo.

Over the past few months, several right hon. and hon. Members have raised the circumstances of the former UK residents who are detained in Guantanamo. It is the longstanding policy of the UK Government not to offer consular assistance to non-British nationals, except in cases in which a specific agreement to do so exists with another state. My hon. Friend spoke of exceptions to that rule, such as the case of Abdul Rahman, the Christian convert in Afghanistan who faced the threat—it was a remote possibility—of the death penalty.

Hon. Members will no doubt be aware of the recent judicial review of the former Foreign Secretary’s decision not to make formal representations to the United States Government for the release and return to the UK of three of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay who were formerly resident in the UK. The court held that there was no duty on the Foreign Secretary in domestic or international law to make the formal request sought by the claimants. The claimants have been granted leave to appeal, so it would not be appropriate for me to say any more about the case at the moment.

The court also recognised that the Government have made informal representations on humanitarian grounds to the US Government in respect of the detainee claimants. In 2005, my predecessor, Baroness Symons, agreed exceptionally to meet the families and representatives of those detainees who we knew were formerly resident in the UK, but were not British nationals, on a humanitarian basis. We passed on the concerns expressed to us by the families to the US authorities.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend that there needs to be greater understanding of how Guantanamo operates. A visit by, say, the Foreign Affairs Committee
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would clearly help to achieve that. I understand that the Committee is already in touch with the US Administration about visiting the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

As I have said, it is important that we never forget the context in which Guantanamo came about: the slaughter of 3,000 innocent people on 11 September. That was followed by atrocities in Madrid, Bali, Sharm el Sheikh, Amman, Istanbul, Riyadh and Moscow, and then last summer by the attacks on the London underground. The intent is clear. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrorists want to destroy new-found freedom and democracy and to kill people. I was in Baghdad when al-Zarqawi’s suicide bombers murdered hundreds of innocent Shi’a Iraqis in just a couple of bloody days. Understandably, I suppose, the fate of those poor people has not been the subject of intense legal and human rights scrutiny in the way in which the detaining of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo has. We do not expect civilised behaviour from al-Qaeda henchmen, but we should not forget that those people had human rights, too. It is right that Britain should stand firm with our friends and allies against such evil.

All of us who care for the cause of civil liberties and human rights should pause and recall that those who
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were so brutally murdered in London on 7 July and in many other atrocities had human rights. Self-appointed executioners took those rights away from them, so we will continue to pursue those who commit acts of terrorism. At the same time, we shall maintain absolutely our commitment to civil liberties and human rights.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I will not.

It will not surprise my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East that it is not in my gift, nor, indeed, in the UK Government’s, to close Guantanamo Bay. Our position is clear and consistent: it would be better if Guantanamo were closed. We will do what we can to bring that about, but hon. Members should recognise that that is not an easy task and that balancing security and liberty never has been easy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o’clock.

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