'Diplomatic assurances', Ricin & turning a blind eye to torture overseas

Lawrence Archer, the jury foreman from the famed ‘Ricin trial’ (also known as the ‘No Ricin trial’ – they never found any) spoke last night at a fascinating event here at Amnesty’s Human Rights Action Centre in London. Very timely too, as it was about the use and misuse of UK counter-terrorism legislation.

Renowned human rights barrister Michael Mansfield was also on the panel, and heaped praise on Lawrence and his fellow jurors. In the face of huge pressure exerted on them by the authorities via the media, who were all reporting on the ‘Ricin plot, they acquitted all but one of the defendants. Lawrence Archer told us how shocked he was by media coverage after the trial, which bore little resemblance to the evidence he'd actually heard in court.

Lawrence has a book out about the trial and its aftermath, which I now need to get my hands on.

We also heard (by phone) from ‘detainee Y’, one of the former Ricin trial defendants. Despite his complete acquittal, he has been held under bail conditions of virtual house arrest ever since, pending his deportation on national security grounds. He told a rapt audience of 200 people that he is tagged, subject to a 20-hour curfew and only allowed to travel a limited distance for his home. He has no visitors without Home Office clearance.

The everyday detail of his life is tragic. He’s allowed out for an hour in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, but it takes him 40 minutes to get to the nearest shop to buy food – so that’s pretty much all he can do.

And of course, he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to have done. The SIAC (Special Immigration Appeals Committee) hearing was mainly in closed session using secret evidence, and he wasn’t allowed to talk about the secret evidence or the case to the Special Advocate representing him. The ‘open’ part of the case is negligible, he told us – they mention that he was charged (and acquitted) in the Ricin case. But he doesn’t know any of the evidence against him and can't challenge it in a fair hearing.

I had to get a word in, of course, and told the audience about a little-discussed aspect of this week’s Counter-Terrorism Review. What passed unnoticed in the debate around the counter-terrorism review was its proposal to try and deport more people to countries where they may face torture, using ‘diplomatic assurances’ – agreements with countries known to use torture.

These ‘diplomatic assurances’ are unenforceable, totally unreliable and put people at risk of torture. The countries with whom the UK has signed ‘Memoranda of Understanding’ – Ethiopia, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan and, on a case-by-case basis Algeria -  have already promised not to torture people when they ratified the UN Convention Against torture. Amnesty has documented how they have broken that promise, so why should we believe another, unenforceable promise to the Home Secretary?

It’s also shocking that there was no opposition to this from any of the three main political parties – it seems to have become politically acceptable to try and ship people off to face possible torture. Out of sight, out of mind.

It wasn’t lost on anyone present last night that this could have a direct bearing on the man we’d just heard from. He had already fled Algeria once, alleging torture. He says he will certainly face similar treatment if he’s sent back there. And yet this is what might happen to him, clutching a bit of paper saying “We promise not to torture you” – I imagine he has about as much faith in that as I do.

There were some small steps forward in the Counter-Terrorism Review regarding the limits to the powers of the new Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures. Teresa May still didn’t provide any reassurance that people subjected to them will get access to a fair hearing, so our fair trial concerns remain.

But, as “Detainee Y” told us last night, the “Tpims” measures don’t apply to him. For the eight foreign nationals subject to SIAC deportation bail conditions, they face an agonising wait, largely confined to their own homes, to see whether the UK government will succeed in returning them to the countries that they fled from in fear.

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