“Torture is a universal crime to which there’s no defence"

Twenty years ago, on 14 March 1991, the Birmingham Six were released. Colin Murphy interviews the woman who helped free them, Gareth Peirce. This interview was originally published in the Law Society Gazette, and is re-published here in two parts.

In London some years ago, an Egyptian dissident found himself threatened with deportation to his home country. There, he had agitated against the now-discredited Mubarak regime, and been tortured for his troubles. He had sought asylum in the UK, but had been detained.

During a legal challenge to his detention, a memo from the Home Office to Tony Blair was disclosed. It noted that assurances given by Egypt that the man would not be tortured on his return were largely worthless; on the memo, Blair had handwritten, “This is a bit much. Why do we need all these things?” Across the memo, he had written, “Get them back.”

The man’s challenge was successful, but he has since been made the subject of an order freezing his assets, under which his family have to keep precise accounts for their household spending, and his wife requires a licence to cook for him. In the House of Lords, subsequently, Lord Hoffman attacked “the meanness and squalor” of a state “that monitored who had what for breakfast”.

If the first half of the story sounds like something from John le Carré, the second is more Monty Python. But it is not, clearly, funny for the man involved. For Gareth Peirce, solicitor on the case (and who tells the story in a recent book), cases such as these have a far-reaching legacy: there is the oppression of the family involved; there is the undermining of the rule of law (through the attempt to subvert prior binding commitments, or to make perverse laws); and there is the insidious impact on the Muslim population of Britain.

The chapter in which this story appears is titled, “Was it like this for the Irish?” Peirce, lawyer on many of the key Irish miscarriage-of-justice cases in the UK, clearly thinks it was. Amongst the Muslim community, she has noted “that same sort of bleak cynicism” (as arose amongst the Irish in the UK previously). Young Muslims think “this is how the state intends to treat us and this is how we’ve been demarked. Our voices, far from being heard, are being somehow pushed into no longer registering in the body politic of the state.”

In person, Peirce at first appears deceptively gentle. She speaks so quietly I strain to hear her, is polite to the point of timidity, and is so self-effacing as to clearly wish to disappear when the photographer arrives (perhaps more accurately, she wishes the photographer would disappear).

But there is no gentility in her rhetoric and nothing self-effacing about her arguments. She is scathing about the recent degeneration (as she sees it) of British justice, and believes the recent revolutions in Egypt and Libya have exposed the duplicity of British dealings with these regimes.

Under Tony Blair, the British government set out to “woo” Mubarak and Gadaffi, and was prepared to “deport or disable” those of the regimes’ dissidents that had sought asylum in the UK, she believes. She traces the “pas de deux” between the UK and Libya directly to Libyan oil, pointing to the coincidence of dates between moves to deport (and later to control) Libyan dissidents and attempts to secure Libyan oil contracts by British firms. “You can map the connections quite closely.”

It is now clear, she says, that the UK used information that had been obtained under torture in foreign states; cables from the US embassy in Cairo, revealed by Wikileaks, said “they were shipping out so-called intelligence from people tortured”. The fact that the UK has recently settled each of the cases against it by British residents released from Guantanamo suggests further that this was the case, she says.

But why descend to the level of the ridiculous when imposing such control orders, as in the case above, I wonder. “It’s a form of madness. There is such an obsession for micro-management that nobody notices that it’s all completely insane.”

Of Tony Blair, she believes that, “at best, if one were as forgiving as it were possible to be,” he could be accused of “total self delusion”. But, “at worst”, his actions demonstrate “the parallel assumptions of a dictator”.

“He’s a lawyer - he should know that you don’t mess with individual rights.”

But are we not in a new security era, when the stakes have been raised so high the rules of the game – including the rights of suspects – have changed?

“No, no, no, that’s nonsense. It doesn’t hold water for a minute. That idea is a construct to suit what people want to do.

“Torture is a universal crime to which there’s no defence. This is the concept of inalienable human rights – they attach to the inpidual for all time, against all-comers. They’re entrenched; they are treaty obligations we all entered into post World War II in order that that argument could never be entered into again. We have entered into universal pledges to guarantee them but there is a constant tension to break them.”

The most extreme case of that tension comes in the form of the “ticking time-bomb” hypothesis – popularised in the television series 24, where security agent Jack Bauer regularly tortures suspects in order to extract information that is crucial to stop the destruction of Los Angeles.

Peirce is dismissive. “The ticking time bomb argument has never worked. After hundreds of years of torture being permissible, by the 19th century it had been acknowledged that what it produced was worthless in any event: on the whole, it just produced what the interrogator wanted it to produce. And it destroyed the moral integrity of the nation that permitted it. Tell me one incident that anyone can cite of the ticking time bomb actually happening: nobody comes up with one; it’s such a useful hypothesis but it doesn’t actually exist.”

Gareth Peirce will give the annual Law Society Annual Human Rights Lecture on 10 May. Details here.