‘Seven years of torture’, by James Turley
Binyam Mohamed is one of the many victims of the state’s ‘war on terrorism’ since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born British resident, was released from the American interrogation camp at Guantanamo Bay after seven years imprisonment. He had been arrested in Karachi after travelling with a false passport, and was thrown into the torture infrastructure of the US and its allies – imprisoned in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan before arriving in Camp Delta in 2004.
Mohamed differs from many in that he is not prepared to retire to a quiet life and stay out of trouble. He has engaged himself in vigorously pursuing MI5 for their part in his ordeal, and has already drawn a statement from the high court condemning his “unlawful” treatment. Showing some impressive political nous, he has refused to name the MI5 agent directly involved with his case, under the (very understandable) impression that the latter would be hung out to dry and those who directed him quietly cleared of all responsibility. Mohamed has his eye on the top of the chain of command, not on its grunt-level patsies.
Unsurprisingly, liberal institutions from The Guardian newspaper to the civil liberties charity Liberty have jumped on his case. “These are more than allegations – these are pieces of a puzzle that are being put together,” said the latter’s director. “It makes an immediate criminal investigation absolutely inescapable.”1 The Guardian’s regular op-ed contributor, Timothy Garton Ash, an influential social liberal, went further – only a criminal investigation by the director of public prosecutions would be authoritative enough to avoid accusations of a political whitewash.2
The fact that a Labour government has overseen this particular instance of state violence has allowed the right to get in on the action as well. The Conservative Party’s born-again libertarian, David Davis, contributed an article to The Observer, claiming without apparent irony that things were different in his day.3
What links all these people (except, explicitly, Mohamed himself) is the call for some kind of investigation, to find out who is responsible and mete out appropriate punishment. As Garton Ash reminds us, torture is illegal under various UN conventions, as is collusion in it; British law forbids it too, and – despite the textual contortions inflicted on it by various Bush-era attorney generals – American law as well. Probably not even Garton Ash is so naive as to believe that international law is in any meaningful sense binding – but surely the MI5 colluders can be brought to book domestically?
It is not the only state investigation on the menu recently. The three most prominent members of Military Families Against the War – Reg Keys, Rose Gentle and Peter Brierley – delivered an open letter to Gordon Brown demanding a “full public inquiry”4 into the Iraq war – a call echoed by William Hague, former Tory leader and now shadow foreign secretary.
Military Families Against the War are transparently sincere. As for Hague and the Tories, well, they are just damned hypocrites. Hague voted for the war, along with the vast majority of his Tory colleagues, and like them has affected shock at the deceptions perpetrated by Tony Blair’s inner circle. To hear the Tories tell it, the Iraq venture was a matter of malevolence and incompetence, where ‘unreliable’ information was married to outright lies, sold to an ambivalent-at-best British public and the oh-so-credulous, innocent souls of the Conservative Party’s front bench.
They have comparatively little to lose from a public inquiry – it was not on their watch – and everything to gain, as once again the sorry saga of Campbell, Powell et al rolls on in the public view. Needless to say, when these crusaders for goodness and justice again form a government, they will lie and make war according to the demands of the day – no inquiry can stand in the way of imperialist slaughter.
Likewise, there is, on the surface, not much to be said against a public criminal investigation into MI5 collusion in Mohamed’s torture. After all, there can be nobody left who seriously doubts that torture not only took place in these camps in various forms, but was their very reason for existence (and, despite their considerable rollback under the new US president, remains so). Mohamed’s list of allegations is chilling enough – from genital mutilation to 20 days in a dungeon with American rap star Eminem looping at high volume 24/7.
Yet demanding an “independent” criminal investigation, simply begs the question – independent from what? The answer (and a rather shaky one) is: independent from party politics. In other words, what is at issue is precisely the same problematic as the promised Iraq inquiry – a no-holds-barred assault on those ‘bad apples’ who sanctioned MI5 collusion in torture, and if it can be laid at David Miliband’s door (as David Davis hopes), so much the better.
In reality, there is an ‘independence’ which is far more urgently required in dealing with these issues – independence from the state. All three major political parties are deeply integrated into the state structures, with tentacles deep in the civil service and repressive apparatuses. The relationships here are complex, and should not be viewed mechanically. It is only necessary to note that, with regard to the self-policing of the state apparatuses, ‘independence’ as non-partisanship is simply a red herring to disguise the deep complicity of the state machine – parties and all – in administering the imperialist system. To sow illusions to the contrary is to disarm us before the very system we oppose.
This is not to say it is never correct to demand such inquiries – but we must do so with open eyes, as precisely a tactical manoeuvre to induce discomfort in the ruling class and expose the breadth of its complicity in events widely regarded as atrocities; and we must use such demands as one weapon in a whole arsenal of tactics. In this regard, it is no different from demands for workplace reforms and the like – it is not the fight for reforms that is reformist, but quietism on the question of the state.
In this regard, another telling aspect of Binyam Mohamed’s ordeal is the way in which it highlights the question of the secret services as such. David Davis, for all his startlingly naked opportunism, actually raises an interesting point in his Observer article – though for many decades it has been common knowledge that the UK state has a secret service, its existence was still technically the subject of official denial down to the 1990s. It was then that the secret state was given a legal status and a somewhat awkward official public profile.
In practice, of course, the secret was not even as closely guarded as other notorious examples (the Israeli bomb, the Armenian genocide). Still, the obvious needs to be stated – the secret services are secret, their operations are necessarily obscure to the population at large and must remain so if counter-intelligence is to remain meaningfully possible. Behind the veil of official semi-denial, the secret services were and are able to keep tabs on all significant dissident organisations; they can tap phones, burgle houses and bug offices. They can also, needless to say, torture, or liaise with those who do. They can do this 90% of the time avoiding any serious consequences to their political standing because they do it all behind our backs. The demand must be – abolish MI5 and the entire secret state.
It is this which is the central democratic question here – the opacity of bourgeois rule, the manipulation of the economy of information in order to maintain the state’s grip on the masses. The secret services are simply a particularly condensed version of this phenomenon.
That Binyam Mohamed cannot be considered a particularly unlucky victim of it is a testament to the virulence of imperialist oppression. Marx wrote of British rule in India: “… the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”5
The colonies may be (mostly) gone, but the naked brutality remains.
2. The Guardian March 12.
3. The Observer March 29.