EXCLUSIVE: British Human Rights Lawyer Gareth Peirce Says Torture “Is the Recipe for the Destruction” of International Human Rights

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In a Democracy Now! exclusive, we speak with leading British human rights lawyer, Gareth Peirce. She is the lawyer for two of the four British citizens recently released from Guantanamo Bay and has represented the Birmingham Six and Guilford Four. Actress Emma Thompson played her character in the movie “In the Name of the Father.” In a rare interview, Peirce says that Guantanamo Bay is evidence of “an appalling chasm…for the whole of our society morally to have fallen into.” [includes rush transcript]

A federal judge ruled Monday that the military tribunals set up by the Pentagon to determine the status of men and women held at Guantanamo Bay are unconstitutional in nature since they don’t allow detainees access to lawyers or to evidence against them.

More than 540 men and women from 42 countries are still being held at Guntanamo. The judge wrote the war-on-terror cannot “negate the existence of the most basic fundamental rights for which the people of this country have fought and died for well over two hundred years.”

The ruling comes a week after four British citizens were released without charge from Guantanamo after nearly 3 years in custody. They are now suing the US government for tens of millions of dollars in damages. The four are: Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar.

On Democracy Now!, we have covered these cases extensively, particularly that of Moazzam Begg. He was detained in Pakistan in 2001 and was imprisoned without charge or trial in Guanatanmo after being transferred there from a base in Afghanistan. For nearly two years, he had no contact with fellow prisoners, denied access to daylight and kept in seclusion

In a 25-page testimony written while in solitary confinement, Begg accuses the US of threatening his family, killing his fellow detainees and interrogating him more than 250 times. The testimony was obtained by the London Independent. Begg said his interrogation included being shackled and dragged, having a “suffocating hood” placed on his head and being struck on the head several times.

Gareth Peirce is the attorney for Moazzam Begg as well as Richard Belmar. Peirce is one of the leading human rights lawyers in Britian. She represented the Birmingham Six and Guilford Four as well as the three other British citizens released from Guantanamo last year known as the “Tipton Three”. Actress Emma Thompson played her character in the movie “In the Name of the Father.”

This past weekend, I was in England and Ireland as part of the international “Exception to the Rulers” book tour. I had the rare opportunity to sit down with Gareth Peirce in her home for an extended conversation.

  • Gareth Peirce, British human rights lawyer.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This past weekend I was in Britain and Ireland as part of our international Exception to the Rulers book and media tour, and we had the chance of a rare interview with Gareth Peirce, sitting down in her home for an extended period of time. I began by asking her about the release of Moazzam Begg.

GARETH PEIRCE: The experience of the four detainees coming back was a very contrived affair, done for public consumption, not just in this country, but for America as well, and was totally bogus. And at no point, I’m completely sure, was there ever an intention properly to interrogate the detainees; and there was no conclusion ever likely to happen, other than that they would be released very quickly. So, it was an extravaganza for the purposes of press and publicity, with no proper investigative purpose whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was it like when Moazzam came home, one of the four detainees, and saw his family?

GARETH PEIRCE: I knew Moazzam Begg from years before. He was a passionate campaigner on behalf of other people wrongly imprisoned. I had in my mind’s eye how he was, and I was shocked when I saw him again in the police station. He was in the shape of someone who has, against all of the odds, retained his mental agility and his depth of serious thought. But at what cost? One could see some of that. He had lost enormous amounts of weight, a man who didn’t have enormous amounts of weight to lose. And one sees the strain. One sees the effect.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the effect on his family? He has a wife, and -

GARETH PEIRCE: He has a wife and four children. He hadn’t met his youngest child. His youngest son was born after he was unlawfully seized in Pakistan. I think when people emerge from wrongful conviction, or from having been taken hostage, then the reacquaintanceship between family members is far more difficult than is anticipated. All of the hostages who have returned from the Lebanon, all of the men and women in this country wrongly imprisoned, say the same thing: that for years all of your thought is that, if you got out, or if your husband got out, or your son, everything would be fine. And, of course, in many ways, it is. But your own psychic space within society has been filled, and you’re coming back, and you’re not just re-entering a life that’s had to go on without you. You’re reacquainting yourself with people, however well you know them, who have been forced to change because of what has happened to you. And so, if you’re Moazzam Begg, you left a father who was an invalid, who you were worried about. Only in captivity, you learned that he had, in fact, had a successful operation. But when you come back, you find a father who has been campaigning for three years, solidly, and who has become a well known national figure, and you left yourself in anonymity; and you have come back, and you’re known, and your name is known, and you’re not just someone the press wants to speak to. You’re someone other aspects that the press wants to vilify. There is one scandalous tabloid newspaper here that has effectively put a bounty on the heads of those who have returned, who said that if you know the whereabouts of these men, ring the Sun newspaper this number. They are unable to re-enter the life they left in the same way. They’re not the same people, and they can’t pick up where they left off. Sorry, that’s much too long for your purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: No, that’s fine. We’re not sound bite radio. So we really appreciate a full explanation like this. What was Moazzam Begg charged with?

GARETH PEIRCE: Oh, he is not charged with anything. He was tortured, and brutalized in wholly unlawful conditions for three years. He was living with his family, not clandestinely, in Pakistan. He was unlawfully captured by Americans with British complicity, and with Pakistani complicity, and taken to Bagram in Afghanistan, where he was held for a year, as he said in the one letter that came out from there without having seen the sun or the moon or the stars for an entire year, and brutalized and degraded and humiliated, and then taken to Guantanamo, where he was the only person we know of- there may be others that we don’t know of — but the only person we know of who was in complete isolation for two years. That may be because he witnessed the murder of two detainees in Bagram Air Base. And, perhaps, to keep that deep, dark secret for as long as possible, he was not kept with the others. He was kept in Guantanamo, without any natural light, in a tiny cell area where even exercise was without access to any other detainees. It’s astounding to me that he has retained his intellect and his ability to articulate as extraordinarily as he has. He, one has to say, is a person with enormous reserves of strength and spiritual resources.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly did he see at Bagram? How were these two men killed?

GARETH PEIRCE: I have no idea of the details yet. He has written to me in two letters, which eventually came out. He has referred to it in passing. I haven’t been interrogating him. At some time in the future, when and if he has the wish to talk more, then that, I’m sure, will be of great importance to learn. But he has come back to a family which needs him, and which he needs to reacquaint with, and I respect him for getting his priorities straight, and saying, “At some point, I will do my duty to explain what has gone on. That point may come quickly, but I need to be with my family now.”

AMY GOODMAN: Have he and the other three men, who have just been released from Guantanamo to here in Britain, sued the U.S. Government?

GARETH PEIRCE: The American lawyers he had launched a simultaneous claim for habeas corpus, and an action brought under the Tort Act in America. As I understand it, the U.S. government is attempting, or has attempted to strike out that action on the basis that he is now no longer under American control, and I know nothing of the possible future of that action. What I do know is that if there is justice, these men ought to receive reparation. What has happened to them has been in breach of every basic international minimum norm and guarantee, and they have been tortured. There is no getting around it. They have been subjected to criminal behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Peirce, leading British human rights advocate, attorney for two of the four British men who returned from Guantanamo, were released to Britain last week. We’ll continue with our discussion in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our rare interview with the leading British human rights attorney, Gareth Peirce. She’s the lawyer for Moazzam Begg and Richard Belmar, two of the four British citizens released from Guantanamo Bay last week, after nearly three years in detention without charge.

GARETH PEIRCE: The other detainee I represent is Richard Belmar, who’s recently returned.

AMY GOODMAN: What about his case? What was he — Where was he picked up? How was he captured and who is his family?

GARETH PEIRCE: His family are living in London. He did not have lawyers until very recently, and in consequence we know far less about him. There’s been an enormous, sustained campaign in this country about Moazzam Begg and others, and the name Richard Belmar was not known in the same way, although his sister has been bravely trying to — to make his — the fact of his disappearance known. He’s a much younger man. He’s someone who upon re-entry, we see as perhaps being quite damaged, needing real help of a kind that is not made available here at all. One minute they’re in Paddington Green police station, the next minute they’re out on the street with a pack of press for better or for worse, wanting to talk to them. Nowhere to live, other than their families’ houses which are known about by the press and the immediate priority with each family was to get the detained person away from the police station into an anonymous location where they could at least talk to their families. That — The whole of the past few days have been devoted to that, and nothing else.

AMY GOODMAN: How was Moazzam Begg captured? How was he taken or arrested?

GARETH PEIRCE: Because he was living with his wife and children and was seized from the house they were living in, we’ve known about his capture from the first moment. He was taken by men who he describes as thugs — Pakistani and American — taken in a car. We had always thought that he had managed to ring his father from a mobile phone somewhere in the back of the car; but he — he explained to me two days ago, in fact, he was seized. He was placed in a cell, and he found in his pocket then his mobile phone, and his father received a telephone call from him within hours of his capture saying, 'I don't know who’s taken me. There are American voices. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ And no more was heard until the Red Cross telephoned his father from Bagram in Afghanistan saying, 'We have a Moazzam Begg here.' But we brought on his behalf legal action in Pakistan, habeas corpus to say, 'Where is he? Deliver him to the court,' and every relevant ministry put in an affidavit to say, 'We have not taken him. We do not have him.' And yet, there he is in American hands within ten days. It’s kidnapping. Utterly unlawful.

AMY GOODMAN: While the government hasn’t charged him, they said that he was training at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan? Is that what they have said?

GARETH PEIRCE: It’s what the Pentagon is pumping out as information, no doubt, to attempt to discredit Moazzam Begg. That is not true. He says unequivocally, it’s not true. I believe totally what he says. He is the most scrupulously honest, careful person. And at some stage, if anyone has the wit to want to understand what he will say, then there will be a chilling history of American brutality and mendacity, and there will be a complete exoneration of Moazzam Begg.

AMY GOODMAN: Is he explaining now why he visited Afghanistan?

GARETH PEIRCE: We’ve known. We’ve always known. He emigrated to Afghanistan with his wife and children, tragically for him, in the summer of 2001 in order to live in the only probable experiment that at that time was existing in the world, an experiment in an Islamic society. And he went in order to set up a school with his wife. And the plan was that they would both teach. And there they were in Kabul. They had bought a house. They were living there. They were establishing themselves, and then the invasion happened, and they had to get out. And they got out to Pakistan, re-established themselves, again started up life in a house in which they were living, and it was at that point he was seized.


GARETH PEIRCE: Everything that was ever said by President Bush or Prime Minister Blair about, 'These are bad men captured on the battlefield' was utterly untrue. Completely, utterly untrue.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the Pentagon saying he earlier had spent time in Afghanistan at another trip by himself?

GARETH PEIRCE: You will have to ask the Pentagon what they’re saying. I don’t know. I have no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Moazzam saying happened to him in Guantanamo? How was he tortured?

GARETH PEIRCE: Well, so far he’s spoken to an American lawyer who saw him there, who has signed a gagging order, and what Moazzam says at some point he will say properly. What we know from every other detainee who’s emerged from Guantanamo is that the methodology that was used was consistent and involved interrogation in extreme conditions with coercive methods that included sleep deprivation, bullying, threatening; but I have also heard from Moazzam Begg an extended statement in which he’s described how under threat of death he was forced to make a false confession, and that he witnessed the murder of two detainees in Bagram, and that he has consistently complained about the treatment he’s been accorded. That much we know. I am sure there is much more to come.

AMY GOODMAN: You say he was immediately released, pretty much, from British detention after being flown in from Guantanamo. But then what happened? Is he free?


AMY GOODMAN: Was there any move by the British government to do anything, to go after him and the other men who have been released?


AMY GOODMAN: Did you say that they said that they’re introducing a new law?

GARETH PEIRCE: For a year, Tony Blair has said, because the government here has been consistently criticized for its failure to do anything to achieve the return of the remaining four British detainees, Tony Blair has repeatedly said, 'It will be reasonable for the Americans to expect us to have structures in place that would insure the safety and security of our countries.' That’s what he said. Is it a coincidence that on the day they return, the Home Secretary announces new measures? The answer may be yes and no. No, because we had in a separate situation achieved an enormous victory when they had introduced internment in this country, attempted to, in a cheap imitation of the PATRIOT Act (both disgraceful legislative measures). We had achieved a victory after three years of struggle for the men detained here. The House of Lords said, 'This is utterly unlawful. You can't lock people up indefinitely without trial here.’ However, it is extremely suspicious that on the day that the government reacts to that House of Lords ruling happens to be the day when the Guantanamo detainees come back. Is this yet another pathetic attempt by the government of this country to please the Americans to ape the Americans in their unlawful legislative program? Maybe. Maybe it’s just bluff and bluster. Maybe it’s just saber rattling. Probably is. There is no legislation in place. The legislation that has been flagged up in relation to monitoring or detaining British citizens who it’s unable to charge — I don’t think that’ll pass muster in Parliament. It also is unlawful. The proposals are unlawful. The fact is the police delivered him to the address his family was waiting at. They left him and said, basically, ’You’re on your own now.’ He’s no threat to anyone. He’s a law-abiding, peaceful, thoughtful person who has a future doing a great deal of good in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Peirce is one of the leading human rights lawyers in Britain. I was speaking to her in her home in London this weekend. The lawyer for both Moazzam Begg and Richard Belmar, two of the four British detainees who were released to Britain from Guantanamo last week. They are now with their families. As we continue with our interview, I went on to ask her to compare the detentions at Guantanamo with anything else she has worked on in her life. This is Gareth Peirce.

GARETH PEIRCE: Of course, we have not seen anything like this before. It’s absolutely breathtaking, audacious, unlawful kidnapping of vast numbers of people, simply not caring that it is tantamount to shredding up every international treaty obligation which all of our countries have subscribed to. What I see it as, is an experiment, an experiment by America to see what interrogative methodology it could use and obtain results in disregard completely of the fact that this — Well, consciously, in fact, knowing that it was using prohibited methods. An experiment to see what you could get (disregarding the fact that experience tells us it must be nonsense what you get from coercive interrogation), but also an experiment in testing reaction internationally and nationally. Will there be protest? Have we gone too far? And tragically, the answer probably is the experiment’s successful. There has not been world revulsion expressed that has compelled the United States to back down, to apologize, to release everyone, to pay reparation, to achieve a mea culpa, an acknowledgement, this should never be done again. No. Rumsfeld has said the recent results of the American election endorse our methods. There is a shameless intention to continue. Maybe falter for a moment. Maybe there’s been criticism, but not enough to stop it. And the result of the experiment is that worldwide there is now been a message: You can abandon every treaty obligation, abandon Geneva conventions, abandon human rights law, abandon guarantees of prohibition on torture. You can do the lot, and if you’re strong enough and powerful enough, and saber rattle war on terror terminology, nobody’s going to stop you. That’s the tragic outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that — that the British citizens were released because of pressure from Tony Blair as a partner of George Bush, and do you see this as a model for what will happen to the other prisoners? There are still hundreds being held. What distinguishes these men who have been released?

GARETH PEIRCE: It wasn’t Tony Blair who did a single thing to help. I think it was the reverse, that it wasn’t accidental that two British citizens were amongst the first six nominees for military commissions. In my view, that was a miscalculation by both our governments, and it was intended as a present to our government by the American administration. 'Okay, you want to say you've got a threat in your country. Here’s proof positive.’ However, unexpectedly, for the government, the British public across the board, every — every aspect of political thinking, the thought — British nationals were detained in horrific cages, and humiliated and tortured and facing as was said at that time, the death sentence, caused a revulsion. It was not to be, and our government was forced to start doing something. It did too little too late. It did it in effectively. It traded bodies and who knows what else as being given or taken as gifts politically because of this. But these four came back because of public pressure, not because of any political morality whatsoever on the part of our government; and there are still many long-term British residents in Guantanamo for whom our government has surrogate responsibility, including refugees about whom they’re doing nothing. They do nothing, and they have to be compelled to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of the latest British torture scandal, similar to the soldiers who are now being charged and on trial who tortured people at Abu Ghraib, can you comment on that? I don’t think a lot of people in the United States have even heard about pictures showing British soldiers torturing prisoners in Iraq, and where that happened?

GARETH PEIRCE: Right. Well, there’s nothing like the power of the photograph, and one imagines if there’s one military reaction for the future to this, it is: Prohibit cameras rather than prohibit tactics. That’s a tragic reality, but our hypocrisy is considerable. Our Home Office has acknowledged in the appalling internment procedures we introduced here which have now been declared illegal, our Home Office acknowledged that we use for the purposes of intelligence here information obtained from torture, and we are prepared to use it. Our only caveat is what weight we give it. And our courts have endorsed that up to date. There’s still an appeal to the House of Lords on this point. At the moment, the shameful state of law in this country is that it’s okay to use torture. It’s simply not okay if it was British agents carrying it out. Now, that again is Guantanamo writ large. Okay if someone else does it. We needn’t be too choosey, but we will use it. Again, that is the recipe for the destruction of all guaranteed international minimum norms.

AMY GOODMAN: Leading British human rights advocate, Gareth Peirce. The attorney for two of the four British men released from Guantanamo, having been held there for almost three years, released without charge. They are now in Britain with their families. We broadcast this program today on the day the full Senate begins the debate on the confirmation of White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, as Attorney General of the United States. Many say it was Alberto Gonzales who laid the legal groundwork for the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, by saying that the Geneva conventions do not apply.

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