Thursday, January 19, 2006

Memo stokes 'terror flights' row

Memo stokes 'terror flights' row

The US may have used UK airports to transport terror suspects on more occasions than the two so far admitted, a leaked government memo suggests.

The Foreign Office memo, leaked to the New Statesman, warned that the process of "rendition" would be illegal if the suspects were to face torture.

It advises that the government avoid detailed questions on the flights, and stress their anti-terrorist purpose.

Opposition parties have demanded more government transparency on the issue.

'Not aware of more'

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told MPs on 12 December that only two cases, in 1998, had been found where such transfers were approved, and none had been found since 11 September 2001.

But the memo, written in early December and apparently designed to prepare Tony Blair for questions about the flights, said officials were urgently examining the files.

"We cannot say that we have received no such request for the use of UK territory.

"The papers we have uncovered so far suggest that there could be more than the two cases referred to in the House by the Foreign Secretary," it says.

It adds: "It does remain true that we are not aware of the use of UK territory or airspace for the purposes of extraordinary rendition.

"But we think we should now try to move the debate on and focus people instead on (US Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice's clear assurance that US activities are consistent with their domestic and international obligations and never include the use of torture".


The memo suggests that Whitehall officials were worried that US activities may be illegal under international law.

"In the most common use of the term - ie, involving real risk of torture - it could never be legal because this is clearly prohibited by the UN Convention Against Torture," it says.

The Foreign Office and Downing Street both refused to comment on a leaked document.

But a Foreign Office spokesman said Mr Straw had already made clear the UK had not agreed, and would not agree, to help transfer people to places where there were "substantial grounds to believe they would face a real risk of torture".

'Strategic avoidance'

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said: "This leaked memo requires fresh explanations from the Foreign Office. It is important that any further requests, in addition to those already confirmed by the Foreign Office, are revealed.

"We still need to know from ministers whether they are entirely satisfied that UK airspace and territory has not been used for the transfer of suspects leading to their torture."

The Liberal Democrats have asked for Mr Straw to make a statement to MPs on the latest revelations.

Human rights group Liberty, which had called for the issue to be investigated, said it was "disappointed" in the government for its "strategic avoidance".

Liberty's director Shami Chakrabarti now called for new laws allowing UK police officers to board US flights and if necessary investigate them.

The government should co-operate "more robustly" with the police investigation, and ask some "rather more difficult questions of the Americans than they have in the past".

Story from BBC NEWS: