Indian Ocean atoll Diego Garcia was used to hold US suspects, human rights investigator claims
Britain’s denials that its territories have been used for ‘extraordinary rendition’ were dramatically undermined last night after the United Nations claimed that Diego Garcia has been used as a detention centre to hold US suspects.
Manfred Novak, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, who is charged with investigating human rights abuses, said he had received credible evidence from well-placed sources familiar with the situation on the island that detainees were held on Diego Garcia between 2002 and 2003.
Novak pledged he would consider a request by the UK government to share his information. ‘I spoke to my sources on condition of anonymity and it would take time to trace them; I couldn’t do it [brief the UK government] without the explicit authorisation of these people,’ Novak said. ‘But under this caveat, I could share more information.’
Novak said he had spoken to people who had been held on the atoll, situated in the Indian Ocean and home to a large US naval base. They had been treated well in comparison with the regime some endured at places such as GuantÃ¡namo Bay. ‘There were only a few of them and they were not held for a long time,’ he said.
In 2004, the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, confirmed to parliament that there was a detention centre on Diego Garcia. Planning documents show it was ‘upgraded’ in December 2001. Ships operating offshore have also been used as floating ‘black sites’ to hold detainees, according to human rights groups.
The revelations raise fresh questions about the island’s role in the process of extraordinary rendition – moving suspects to interrogation centres in third-party countries where they are held outside the law – and why the UK government was apparently unaware that its ally was operating a prison on Diego Garcia to house so-called ‘high-value detainees’.
Last month the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was forced to admit that two US planes carrying rendered suspects had landed in Diego Garcia in 2002, a major humiliation for Gordon Brown’s administration, which had until then repeatedly denied the claims.
The British government continues to deny allegations that the island has been used to hold terrorist suspects, saying it has been given reassurances by the US authorities that this was not the case. ‘As the Foreign Secretary set out in his statement to parliament on 21 February, the US have told us that no US detainees have ever been held on Diego Garcia,’ a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said.
But a former US military general, Barry McCaffrey, said in 2006 that Diego Garcia has been used to hold detainees, though he has subsequently retracted the claims. McCaffrey declined repeated requests for an interview.
Evidence has also emerged that the US has held prisoners on ships operating outside the three-mile zone around the island that defines Britain’s territorial waters. It is believed that the ships are serviced by craft from the atoll. Novak said he was told that some detainees had in the past been held for up to four months. ‘There is an obligation on member states to carry out extensive investigations into what happened,’ he said.
Human rights groups have long suspected that the seas around the island have been used to facilitate rendition. ‘If it turns out any [rendition] boat is being supported by Diego Garcia, Britain would have a duty to investigate what is going on on those boats,’ said Clara Gutteridge, an investigator with human rights group Reprieve.
Evidence supplied to Reprieve confirms that prisoners have been held on US-operated vessels serviced by Diego Garcia. The US authorities have admitted holding eight detainees, including John Walker Lindh, the American who was captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban, on board the USS Bataan.
Another US naval vessel that has operated in the waters off Diego Garcia, the USNS Stockham, is also suspected of housing prisoners. ‘We have heard from very reliable sources that this boat was used as a floating prison for high-profile prisoners while it was in the vicinity of Diego Garcia,’ Gutteridge said.
A prisoner released from GuantÃ¡namo described to Reprieve a fellow prisoner’s account of his detention on board a US ship. ‘There were about 50 other people on the ship,’ the detainee said the prisoner had told him. ‘They were beaten even more severely than in GuantÃ¡namo.’
A spokesman for the US naval base in Diego Garcia, based in Japan, was not immediately available for comment.