Alleged terrorist says he was taken to Uganda and interrogated by MI5
An alleged terrorist says he has been interrogated by British intelligence officers after being severely mistreated at a notorious prison in Uganda, in what appears to be the first major challenge to the coalition government’s renunciation of the use of torture.
Omar Awadh Omar, a Kenyan businessman, has been charged with involvement in the planning of suicide bomb attacks in Kampala last July in which 76 people died and more than 70 were injured.
Awadh was abducted in Nairobi two months after the attacks and illegally rendered to Uganda to be interrogated and charged. Since then, according to his lawyers and relatives, he has been repeatedly beaten, threatened with a firearm and with further rendition to Guantánamo by Ugandan officials, before being questioned by American officials. They say that on at least one occasion he was also questioned by men who identified themselves as MI5 officers.
Awadh’s case has been taken up by the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), a human rights body founded by the philanthropist George Soros, which says his mistreatment not only calls into question the UK government’s commitment to avoid involvement in torture, but points to a loophole in interrogation guidance for British intelligence officers, which was rewritten after the coalition was formed.
Clara Gutteridge, national security fellow at the OSJI, said: “The facts of this case suggest a worrying new trend in US-UK overseas detention policy, and raise urgent questions as to the legality of the new consolidated guidance for UK security and intelligence personnel operating overseas. UK government condemnations of torture are wearing increasingly thin.
“Omar Awadh’s case raises very serious concerns that the British are now involved in what is essentially a sort of decentralised, outsourced Guantánamo Bay.”
The Foreign Office declined to comment on Awadh’s allegation that he was interrogated by British intelligence officers after being mistreated. “It is an intelligence matter, so I can’t comment,” a spokesman said.
The Home Office refused to comment on MI5’s alleged involvement. “We don’t comment on operational security matters,” a spokeswoman said.
UK intelligence officers are expected to consult ministers in most circumstances in which a detainee they wish to question is at risk of torture. Asked whether Theresa May, the home secretary, or any of her ministers had been consulted about any questioning of Awadh in Uganda, the Home Office said: “The security service operates within legal guidelines, which include the consolidated guidelines. The guidelines would have been followed, if they needed to have been.”
Supporters of Awadh, 38, a used-car salesman, say he is a human rights activist. The Ugandan government has accused him of involvement with both al-Qaida and al-Shabab, the Islamist group fighting to overthrow the government of Somalia which claimed responsibility for the Kampala bomb attacks. On 17 September he was abducted by a group of men in suits, who dragged him from a shopping centre in Moi Avenue in central Nairobi and bundled him into a waiting car. He later told his lawyers that he was taken before a senior officer of Kenya’s anti-terrorism police unit before being driven, hooded and still cuffed, to the Ugandan border.
Ugandan officials then drove him to the headquarters of the rapid response unit (RRU), an organisation that has been condemned by human rights activists. According to a report published on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch, “RRU personnel beat detainees with batons, sticks, bats, metal pipes, padlocks, table legs, and other objects”, and committed six extra-judicial killings last year.
After the formation of the coalition, the government sought to distance itself from the counterterrorism practices that came to haunt the Labour administration, including within the coalition agreement the one-line pledge: “We will never condone the use of torture.”
The government also ordered the redrafting of the guidance given to British intelligence officers who question detainees held overseas, or who pass or receive information about prisoners. When making the rewritten guidance public, David Cameron told the Commons that it “makes clear that … our services must never take any action where they know or believe that torture will occur”.
The new guidance faced an immediate legal challenge from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which said its wording – echoing that of the prime minister – allows MI5 and MI6 officers to continue questioning people being tortured because they can claim not to “know or believe” what is happening as long as they are not present during the abuse. That case is yet to be heard by the court.
Awadh alleges he was beaten, slapped, threatened with incarceration in Guantánamo, and had a handgun pointed at him. He says that after being abused in this manner he was questioned repeatedly by Americans who identified themselves as from the FBI. According to Awadh, these officials accepted he was not involved in the Kampala bombings, but wanted him to divulge information about Somalia.
During meetings with his Ugandan lawyer, John Onyango, and in a series of smuggled letters to his wife, Awadh said he was also interrogated last January by MI5 officers, who showed him a series of photographs and asked questions about British nationals thought to have travelled to Somalia. It is unclear whether he has been subject to any subsequent interrogation by British intelligence.
Awadh was charged by the Ugandan authorities with being present at a number of meetings in Nairobi at which the suicide bombings were said to have been discussed. He is also accused of being in possession of incriminating material, including body armour, when detained by Ugandan police, although at the point of his arrest he had been in Kenyan custody for several hours.
He is one of 17 people charged over the attacks. Eight are Kenyan, seven of them rendered in operations condemned by the Kenyan ministry of justice and the British high commission in Nairobi.
The eighth is a prominent Kenyan human rights activist, Al-Amin Kimathi, who has campaigned against rendition, and whose arrest led Human Rights Watch to question whether the Ugandan authorities were attempting to silence “a well-known critic of government abuses in the fight against terrorism in east Africa”.
Awadh is being held at Luzira maximum security prison in Kampala. His wife, Raabia, who has three children, says she is deeply worried about her husband.
The threat said to be posed by British nationals travelling to Somalia for terrorism training has been of concern to western intelligence agencies for some time. In October 2009 Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, said in a public speech that the UK’s domestic security was as dependent on events in Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan as on those in British cities.
Soon after that an American diplomat at the US embassy in Nairobi warned in a cable later posted on the internet by WikiLeaks: “There is believed to be a certain amount of so-called ‘jihadi tourism’ to southern Somalia by UK citizens of Somali ethnicity. The threat from Somalia is compounded by the fact that within east Africa there is a lack of local government recognition of the terrorist threat.”
Since then, British officials have said they have concerns about some 40 British nationals who have travelled to Somalia.
On Tuesday the Foreign Office published guidance to staff, making clear that they have an obligation to report allegations of torture, even if the victim is not entitled to consular assistance.