Gareth Peirce: Why I still fight for human rights
‘Justice dies when the law is co-opted for political purposes.’ Gareth Peirce, one of our key human rights lawyers, talks to Stuart Jeffries
‘I don’t have any memories of my childhood now,” says Gerry Conlon, as he rolls a cigarette in the sun-dappled garden of a cafe in Camden Town, north London. “But everything that happened from Saturday 30 November 1974 is absolutely vivid.” That was the day the 20-year-old was arrested in Belfast for his supposed part in the Guildford pub bombings, in which five people died and 65 were injured. It was 15 years before Conlon was finally released from prison – thanks mostly to the human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.
Conlon became known as one of the Guildford Four, whose convictions, along with those of the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven, remain among the most grievous miscarriages of justice in British history. Here’s a typical vignette from Conlon’s 15 years in British jail: “When they put me in a cell in the police station, there was no mattress or anywhere to sit. There was no glass in the windows, so flurries of snow were coming in. I was shivering. To make myself small I rolled into the foetal position. A policeman came into the cell with an alsatian as I was lying on the floor naked. He loosened the lead and the dog leaped at me. Its teeth were not even an inch away from my face. He said, ‘Don’t lie down again or I’ll come back with the dog and take it off the leash.'”
In her new book, Dispatches from the Dark Side: On Torture and the Death of Justice, Peirce argues that these miscarriages catalysed conflict in Northern Ireland. “Central to the anger and despair that fuelled the conflict was the realisation that the British courts would offer neither protection nor justice,” she writes. “This should be always in our minds as we analyse the experiences of our new suspect community.” Certainly, this thought has been in her mind a long time. Moazzam Begg, the one-time terror suspect whom Peirce represented before and during his imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay, says, “She said soon after I met her in 1998: ‘It was the Irish first and I can see now it’s the turn of the Muslims.'”
Peirce, who represented many wrongfully jailed Irish men and women in the 1980s and has spent much of the last decade working for Muslim terror suspects, adds: “Muslim men and women here and across the world are registering the ill-treatment of their community, and recognising the analogies with the experiences of the Irish.”
Conlon says that, after losing his 1977 appeal and learning of the death of his father Giuseppe Conlon (also wrongly convicted for terrorist crimes) in a British jail in 1980, he gave up all faith in British justice and British lawyers. Only in 1987 did a Catholic nun change his mind. Sister Sarah Clarke told him that she had a friend she’d like him to meet. That was Gareth Peirce.
It must have been some meeting in Long Lartin prison. Peirce looked and sounded like the a pillar of the British establishment; Conlon did not. She had been educated at one of Britain’s most exclusive schools for girls, Cheltenham Ladies, before studying at Oxford and the London School of Economics. And yet: “Within 20 minutes, I felt this is the person who’s going to get me out of prison,” Conlon now says. “She was so convincing in her belief that the system had the ability to own up to huge errors and mistakes. She spoke in a calm, intelligent way that gave me hope for the first time. She was so believable when she said: ‘My job is to get you out and I’m going to get you out.'”
Peirce found a suppressed police statement from Charles Burke, who had been living in the same Kilburn hostel as Conlon, which gave Conlon an alibi. In 1989, mostly as a result of the overwhelming doubt Peirce’s work cast on his conviction, Conlon was freed.
His ordeal isn’t over. In 2005, he had a month’s worth of state-funded therapy: “Until then, I’d never thought about my father’s death and what happened to his body, but it haunts me now.” The story of the treatment of Giuseppe Conlon’s corpse, when staff at Belfast Airport refused to handle the coffin, is told on the final page of Peirce’s book: “His body was flown back to England three times. A British army officer, after Conlon’s body was flown to Belfast a fourth time, informed the undertaker, ‘It is on that plane but it is not coming off. The problem is the press have been notified and we can’t be seen to be handling the body of an IRA man.'”
Peirce relates this incident not just to show how a lie can pursue an innocent man after his death, but to draw a parallel between the treatment of Giuseppe Conlon and Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan jailed for the Lockerbie plane bomb in 1988 in which 243 passengers and 16 crew were killed. Giuseppe, she writes, was wrongly convicted on disputed forensic scientific evidence, as later was al-Megrahi.
Peirce has no doubts that the Libyan, like the Conlons, was fitted up for a crime he did not commit by a British state prioritising its own supposed interests over justice. She writes: “Only a simpleton could believe that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi . . . was not recently returned to his home in Libya because it suited Britain considerably to have him do so. The political furore has been very obviously contrived, since both the British and American governments know perfectly well the history of how and for what reasons he came to be prosecuted.”
There is, Peirce argues, “clear and compelling evidence” linking the bombing to a Palestinian splinter group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, which at the time hired itself out to regimes known to sponsor terrorism, notably Syria and Iran. On this account, Lockerbie was a tit-for-tat response to the US shooting down an Iranian plane and killing 290 passengers, including pilgrims flying to Mecca, in July that year. For two years, the Lockerbie investigation focused on that link. Then something changed, and the Palestinian splinter group was no longer in the frame for Lockerbie.
Peirce argues that Saddam Hussein‘s invasion of Kuwait, threatening 10% of US oil supplies, drove the US and Britain to change geopolitical tack. She writes: “A sudden shift of alliances was essential: if Iraq were to be confronted, then Iran had to be treated differently and the Syrian regime needed to be brought on board.” And one way of cosying up to Iran and Syria was to change the Lockerbie investigation’s focus, so that these countries were no longer suspected of harbouring the terrorists or commissioning them. By this stage, the CIA rather than Scottish police led the Lockerbie investigation, and the finger of suspicion moved from the Iranian state’s hired terrorists to Libya. The result? The wrong man wound up in a British jail, Peirce claims.
This is the great theme of her book and, arguably, her professional life too: that justice dies when the law is co-opted for political purposes. “Justice has been subverted many times in this country for political ends that seem hard to credit,” Peirce tells me when we meet at Birnberg Peirce & Partners, the law firm in Camden where she trained and is now a partner.
“She thinks this is a good country and that justice will eventually be done,” Conlon tells me, adding that in the 1960s, before Peirce became a lawyer, she spent time as a journalist in the US. “She followed Martin Luther King around on his campaign and embraced his struggle for human rights for black people. She saw there that the system had the capacity for change and she sees that here too.” But when I put this to Peirce, she is sceptical. “We’re very apathetic politically and morally in this country. We take it on trust that if the government suspects people of terrorism and locks them up, or puts them on control orders without charge, they must be terrorists.”
After 9/11, the Bush administration introduced the Patriot Act, which, Peirce says, legitimised the detention of so-called “enemy combatants” by presidential order, the abolition of habeas corpus, and the subjection of detainees to torture in Afghanistan or Guantánamo, or their outsourcing via rendition flights to countries specialising in what she calls “even more grotesque interrogative practices”.
“In Britain, Blair bulldozed through parliament a new brand of internment claiming that Britain faced a similar emergency,” Peirce says. “This resulted in the arrest on 17 December 2001 of 12 foreign nationals living in Britain who were all sent to Belmarsh prison. These men have been locked up indefinitely without trial, never told the accusations against them, never questioned, never spoken to by the police, the detainee’s lawyer not permitted to see the evidence against him. Nothing this bad happened during the Irish conflict.”
But wasn’t Blair right to say that the rules have changed – that Britain has to respond to an unprecedented terrorist threat by any means necessary? “No. What has to be done is that the cases against these men have to be made in public, evidence needs to presented in court, the accused should be questioned by the police, and they must know why they are in jail. None of this has happened in the cases of the men I represent.”
The men she means are the 12 so-called Belmarsh detainees. Peirce fought against their detention for three years until the 2005 House of Lords ruling that holding the men without trial was illegal. Soon after that ruling, these men and others were subjected to control orders involving curfews, tagging, communication bans and restrictions on internet access. Some tags, she says, have voice-recognition systems that don’t work for Arabic accents.
After the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, says Peirce, diplomatic agreements were established so that some detainees could be deported to their countries of origin, although the government knew the use of torture was still routine in several of these states. “Many of the detainees came here precisely because they sought asylum here thinking this is a home of justice,” she says. “That’s proved to be a sick joke.” She cites the case of an Algerian asylum seeker who decided his control order made life so miserable that he would risk torture by returning to his native Algeria. Benaissa Taleb was tortured, and charged on the basis of a false confession obtained from torture. Worse yet, says Peirce, his interrogation in Algeria was based on information supplied from the UK.
Peirce looks what she isn’t – a timid figure. She is in her early 60s, married and with grown-up children, but has a fringe that dangles over her eyes like a gauche schoolgirl’s response to the intolerableness of being looked at. She will not talk about herself, not even to tell me why she decided to be known not by her birth name Jean, but as Gareth. Yet this is the woman who has represented some of the highest-profile human rights cases in recent British legal history. “For over 30 years, she has worked in an area where the most vulnerable are often facing the full might of the state,” says her colleague, Dame Helena Kennedy QC. Among her clients have been the Tipton Three, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, former spy David Shayler, and Jean Charles de Menezes‘s family. “She specialises in representing pariahs of society,” says Moazzam Begg. “I know because I’m one of them.”
Begg tells me that some of the Arabic-speaking detainees she has represented in the last nine years call her al-Umm. “In Arabic, ‘al-Umm’, which means mother, can signify the greatest. She’s organised rotas with people in her office for babysitting so men on control orders can go to hospital. Sympathy is the word that comes to mind. She genuinely cares.”
Why does Peirce represent people whom Begg calls pariahs? “It’s because the minority has to be protected from what the majority thinks – otherwise the Benthamite thing, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, prevails. Most think secret trials, torture, rendition flights and all the rest – that these things are the right thing to do. But secrecy kills justice: it has the effect of burying understanding.”
But didn’t some of her clients train at al-Qaida camps? “Those men were thinking of fighting for the Chechens or for the Taliban before the allies invaded Afghanistan. I’ve represented these men for a very long time, men who are stigmatised as a threat to national security when they’re not. I know that they are intelligent, thoughtful men.”
How long these men will suffer from their treatment by British authorities is depressing to contemplate. Conlon, now 56, says: “It’s 20 years since I got out. In those years I’ve been addicted to drugs and alcohol, I’ve had breakdowns, I’ve tried to kill myself twice. I wake up crying. It’s better sometimes not to go to sleep, because the memories are waiting for me.”