Spy chiefs to give public evidence at rendition inquiry

Jonathan Evans
Image caption Jonathan Evans: MI5 chief will be expected to give evidence in public

The heads of MI5 and MI6 will be asked to give evidence in public at an inquiry into the alleged torture of British terrorist suspects.

Publishing the plans for the Detainee Inquiry, the government said spy chiefs should appear in public where possible.

Sir Peter Gibson, the inquiry chairman, will look at claims that security agencies colluded in the mistreatment.

Civil liberties groups say the inquiry will fail to uncover the truth about allegations of rendition and torture.

The Detainee Inquiry was announced by the Prime Minister in July 2010 but cannot begin until a police investigation has concluded into two allegations of wrongdoing by the intelligence agencies.

Successive Labour Governments denied officials had known about alleged abuses in detention at Guantanamo Bay and in Pakistan.

On Wednesday, the Government published the terms of reference and protocols for the inquiry.

It confirmed the inquiry will examine whether British authorities "were involved in improper treatment, or rendition, of detainees held by other countries in counter terrorism operations overseas" in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The inquiry's main focus will be cases of British residents and citizens who were held in US custody at Guantanamo Bay.

According to the inquiry's protocols, decisions to publish sensitive intelligence material, such as internal papers from MI5 or MI6, would ultimately be decided by the Cabinet Office, rather than Sir Peter Gibson himself.

That move prompted criticism from human rights groups and solicitors for the detainees.

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said: "Today's disappointing announcement suggests ministers, not independent judges, will decide what the public is entitled to know. It is very hard to see the point of wasting public money on such a sham."

And Louise Christian, solicitor for four Guantanamo detainees, said "It is shameful that the basis on which this inquiry has been set up casts such doubt on the commitment of the government to investigate the security services properly."

Other campaigners say the inquiry will have no power to compel witnesses to appear and has no plans to take evidence from overseas.

The Government also confirmed today that officials from the intelligence agencies below director level will give evidence in closed sessions.

But Nicola Duckworth of Amnesty International said: "Unfortunately, the UK appears to have let slip this crucial opportunity to ensure genuine accountability.

"The UK government could have set an example by establishing an impartial, independent, thorough and effective inquiry, but instead has set the stage for an inquiry shrouded in secrecy that cannot possibly promise true accountability."

Lawyers for the detainees will not be allowed to directly cross-examine witnesses at the inquiry - although they would be allowed to submit questions to the inquiry panel.

Last November, the Government agreed a multi-million pound compensation deal with 16 former and one current detainee at the US facility in Cuba. The pay-out is thought to have saved millions in a costly and lengthy legal battle for damages.

The detainees had made a series of allegations which included being threatened, beaten and subjected to rendition.

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