Cruel Britannia: Torture history exposed
2012-11-20 0:00

By Maeve McClenaghan |

At the beginning of 2012 the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg stated that the government ‘completely condemns torture and inhumane treatment’ and that ‘we never support it or ask other people to do it on our behalf.’

They are words that have echoed for decades, in one form or another. The UK is a signatory to the International Convention Against Torture and our political leaders are vociferous about the fact that we do not practice torture. The UK has even gone to war, in part, on the premise of toppling torturous regimes.

But these words are beginning to lose their meaning, juxtaposed as they are against images of orange-jump-suited British prisoners kneeling in the unforgiving Cuban sun at Guantanamo Bay; stories of UK soldiers torturing civilian victims at black-site bases in Iraq; or the sight of British national Binyam Mohammed stepping off the plane back onto UK soil after being held and tortured in Pakistan.

Still the UK government has tried to distance itself from these images. Rogue soldiers misbehave, we are told. The UK had no way of knowing what happens to their citizens held in prisons outside our shores. And, of course, we certainly would never condone such behaviour.

But the cracks in the system are beginning to show. Clegg’s words came in the wake of a decision by the Criminal Prosecution Service that MI5 and MI6 agents would not be charged with the ill-treatment and torture of UK resident Binyam Mohamed while he was in Pakistan. Nor would they be charged for the torture of another detainee who had been held at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

And so the public is left wondering, just who is telling the truth here, and can we believe the government’s denials any more?

The search for answers to these questions has molded much of Ian Cobain’s professional life. As an investigative reporter Cobain has for years followed cases of alleged torture and renditions. He has now pulled together his wealth of experience in the book Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture. The result is a compendium of examples that together lend weight to the argument that not only does the UK practice torture even against its own citizens, but has a well-developed, if informal and unwritten, policy on how and when such methods are used.

How did we get here?

The title of Cobain’s book promises a history and that is what he delivers. The story stretches as far back as the Second World War when one of the most sought after streets in Kensington Palace Gardens became the address for a UK internment base, where prisoners of war were held and interrogated. As their upper-class neighbours went about their daily business, residents of what became known as the London Cage suffered beatings, grueling tasks, were deprived of sleep and forced into stress positions, all in attempts to extract information.

A few years later, during the UK’s colonial rule of Kenya, torture was again used by the British forces to put down the Mau Mau uprising for independence. Just last month those torture victims, now in their 70s and 80s, were told they could sue the UK government for the treatment they received, which they say included castration, brutal beatings and detention.


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