Round up the usual Algerians

Observations on security

The government has missed a deadline. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission gave it until 24 February to produce a "memorandum of understanding" with Algeria about torture. But, despite feverish diplomacy in recent weeks, there is no sign of it.

No doubt the efforts continue, because ministers are desperate for a deal under which Algeria will promise not to torture deportees flown there from Britain.

The difficulties are obvious. As Amnesty International points out, any deal would be "an acknowledgement that a risk of torture and other ill-treatment exists in the receiving country". In other words, for the Algerians, it is like having to reply yes or no to the question: "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

In fact, everyone knows there is torture in Algeria. Even the Home Office admits there are "beatings with fists, batons, belts, iron bars, plastic pipes or rifle butts; whipping; cutting with sharp objects; hitting the soles of the feet; soldering irons or cigarette butts applied to bare skin".

The government wants a deal with the people who do this because, even though there has never been any evidence that Algerians were involved in either 9/11 or 7/7, Britain has a lot of Algerian "terror suspects" on its hands.

Of the 29 or so people who have been served notice of an intention to deport them, 15 are Algerian. Most fled their own country in fear for their lives; most have been detained in various ways in this country for years; and most have no idea what they are accused of.

What does the government have against them? Gareth Peirce, who acts for a number of them, says the answer lies in the days following 9/11, when ministers wanted to justify radical legislation like the Bush administration's Patriot Act. "They looked around for something that would justify something like that in this country and found a handful of refugees from Algeria who in some way or other had dissented from the regime there. It was an act of political expediency to round up a number of people and suggest a threat to this country." After last July's bombings, she says, ministers picked on the same people again, for the same reason.

What happens now? The commission can give ministers more time, or it can issue new control orders. Or it could free the Algerians. If it does, what are the chances they get arrested again?