Ian Cobain, 18 August 2011
Man claims he was kidnapped in Kenya and driven across border to Uganda where he was abused by British and US interrogators.
The British government is facing a legal challenge from a terrorism suspect who alleges that he was physically abused both by British and American interrogators after being kidnapped in Kenya and driven across the border to Uganda.
In the first case of alleged UK complicity in such mistreatment since the formation of the coalition government, lawyers representing Omar Awadh Omar say that when he was illegally "rendered" to Uganda last September, a British intelligence officer was waiting to question him alongside a number of men who identified themselves as FBI agents.
According to a claim being brought in the high court, the Americans punched, slapped, threatened and sexually humiliated Awadh while questioning him about alleged connections with Islamist militants in east Africa and trying to persuade him to become an informant. At one point, Awadh's lawyers allege, the British intelligence officer joined in the abuse by stamping on their client's bare feet while demanding answers to his questions.
The case is one of a number of legal challenges the government is facing since it rewrote the secret policy governing intelligence officers questioning people held overseas.
Earlier this month, the Guardian reported that the previous version of the policy, which was in force until July last year, instructed senior intelligence officers to weigh the importance of the information being sought against the amount of pain they expected a prisoner to suffer. It also warned MI5 and MI6 officers that what they were doing could be illegal, and that the British public could be at greater risk of terrorist attack if the existence of the policy became known, as it could lead to greater radicalisation of Muslims.
After the secret policy was rewritten by the coalition government and made public, human rights groups warned that it contained a number of loopholes that could continue to result in MI5 and MI6 officers being closely involved in the torture of terrorism suspects held overseas.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) brought judicial review proceedings in the high court, arguing that the new policy failed to meet the UK's obligations under international and domestic law. Judgment is expected later this year.
Lawyers in the Awadh case are demanding that the government disclose any information it holds that supports their claim that "the UK Security and Intelligence Services have become mixed up in serious wrongdoing". The case is expected to follow a course similar to proceedings brought on behalf of Binyam Mohamed, which triggered a Scotland Yard investigation of MI5 that is still in progress more then two years later.
Although William Hague, the foreign secretary, is named as the defendant in the case, the Foreign Office referred queries about Awadh to the Home Office, possibly indicating that MI5, rather than MI6, were involved in his interrogation. The Home Office declined to comment on the specific allegations, but said: "The Security Service does not act outside the consolidated guidance on detainees and is not complicit in torture."
The rewritten interrogation policy stipulates that intelligence officers cannot question a detainee, or hand over questions to be put to that person, if they "know or believe" they will be tortured – a threshold the EHRC says is too high.
Under most other circumstances, ministers can authorise the interrogation of detainees, even where there is a risk they have been, or will be, tortured.
Asked whether the home secretary, Theresa May, or any other minister had given MI5 permission to interrogate Awadh in Kampala, the Home Office replied: "We do not comment on operational security matters." The FBI also declined to comment.
Awadh's British solicitor, Tessa Gregory of Public Interest Lawyers, said: "This case once again raises grave concerns about the conduct of UK security services overseas. Our client was unlawfully rendered, detained in appalling conditions and subjected to cruel and unlawful treatment by MI5, FBI and Ugandan agents. The coalition government promised to end torture under its watch but that promise has already been broken and many uncomfortable questions now fall to be answered."
The abduction and interrogation of Awadh, 37, a Kenyan car dealer, comes as the US Department of Defence draws up plans for significant new investments in counter-terrorism initiatives in east Africa. Almost $45m (£30m) is being earmarked to assist Ugandan and Burundian forces in Somalia, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press news agency, with further millions in military aid planned for other nations in the region.The Pentagon is said to be concerned that al-Qaida is denied a chance to regroup in Somalia following the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The package is said to provide for just $600,000 for human rights training in those countries.
Awadh was abducted in daylight from a Nairobi shopping centre on 17 September last year by a number of well-dressed men who handcuffed him before bundling him into the back of a Subaru station wagon with tinted windows. Awadh says he was taken before a senior Kenyan counter-terrorism official and then driven to Uganda, a journey during which he was beaten and at one point subjected to a mock execution at the side of the road.
At the border he was handed over to Uganda's Rapid Response Unit, a body that Human Rights Watch says tortures and even murders its prisoners.
The following week, Ugandan government officials told local journalists that Awadh was a leading al-Qaida terrorist who was planning a bomb attack in Kampala. They said he had entered the country on 7 September and had been kept under surveillance for eight days before being arrested at a hotel in the city.
When inquiries were made by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a human rights body founded by the philanthropist George Soros, a number of witnesses came forward to contradict the official Ugandan account, saying they had watched as Awadh was abducted in Nairobi on 17 September. The organisation's researcher, Clara Gutteridge, a British national, was subsequently deported from Kenya on the grounds that her presence was said to be prejudicial to the national interest.
Awadh was charged with being present at a meeting at which plans were drawn up to mount two suicide bomb attacks at a restaurant and a rugby club in Kampala, where crowds would be watching the football World Cup final.
The attacks claimed the lives of 79 people and injured more than 70. Responsibility was later claimed by al-Shabab, the Somali militant group.
If convicted, Awadh faces a death sentence. He maintains he has not been questioned about the bombings, however, only about associates in east Africa; he says his British and American interrogators have acknowledged he was not involved in the bombings.
In a statement given to his lawyers, Awadh – who is being held in Luzira prison, Kampala – said: "If I could obtain the notes of my interrogations by British and American agents it would be very helpful to my criminal defence. I was never asked anything about the Kampala bombings during interrogations."
Despite the poor reputation of the Ugandan police unit that held Awadh, he says he was abused only once by one of its officers, who forced a gun into his mouth. Most of the mistreatment, he says, was the responsibility of the men who told him they were FBI officers.
According to his statement, Awadh was taken for his first interrogation at an office where three white men were waiting for him. Two were Americans, one with long blond hair tied back. The third – "Frank" – was English, plump and bald. "He had a fat face. He had a high level of knowledge about Kenya and could speak Swahili. I sat down and another, very muscular white guy came in. I was looking down. I was still shackled. He pulled my chin up. He took a picture of me using his BlackBerry phone. I told him: 'That's very rude of you.' I could see he wanted to hit me, but he did not."
Awadh says when he complained that his handcuffs were too tight, one of the Americans further tightened them. During his second interrogation, that afternoon, the handcuffs were tightened yet further, and one of the Americans grabbed him by the back of his neck and dragged him around the room.
After spending the night in a brightly lit cell, Awadh underwent a second day of interrogation at which he says a fourth American took notes. "The interrogations got rougher by the day. I was very often grabbed by the neck and pulled and pushed around."On the third day, he says, "Frank" asked him about associates in the UK. During his fourth session, Awadh says he was shown a series of pictures depicting a woman in a swimsuit, the same woman looking into a mirror which gave the impression she was overweight, and the same woman on a drip, before being asked a series of bewildering questions. He says he was also punched in the back during this session. Over the next three weeks he estimates he was interrogated 15 times, and usually beaten. "The interrogators were concerned not to hit me on the face, other than to slap me. They hit me on my body."
During one session, in which Awadh was being questioned about two British Muslims who had been arrested in Nairobi the previous year – and who are regarded as a serious threat to the UK – "Frank" is said to have stamped on his bare feet.
Awadh says he was also threatened with rendition to Guantánamo, Bagram or Belmarsh Prison in south London and alleges that one of the Americans threatened a serious sexual assault.
Awadh also alleges that during his final interrogation, two Americans whom he had not seen before offered him "well-paid work" in Nairobi. When he refused, they attempted to take a DNA swab from his mouth: his resistance led to a struggle which resulted in a senior Ugandan policeman telling the Americans to leave him alone.
Shortly afterwards he was transferred from the Rapid Response Unit headquarters to prison, where he remains.