Tortured truth

Observations on Rendition

During my three years in Guantanamo Bay I came across lots of people who had been brought there from countries other than Afghanistan (which is where the US insists most of the detainees were captured). I met people who told me they were abducted from Indonesia, Zambia, Azerbaijan, Germany, Morocco, Gambia and Pakistan. They were victims of "rendition".

Since my release, I have looked the word up. It is a legal term that means a "surrender of person(s), particularly from one jurisdiction to another", and while it can have a legitimate character I also discovered that it has a sinister past. "Rendition" was a process infamously used to recapture fugitive slaves who, under the US constitution before abolition, had virtually no human rights.

Today's "extraordinary rendition" - which is the subject of a demonstration organised by Liberty for this Sunday (25 June) outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square - is a worthy successor to that dreadful practice. What the phrase covers is kidnap, abduction, arbitrary and false imprisonment and loss of rights. Rendered persons have no rights.

They are usually also tortured. When we think of torture it takes us back to a more distant history even than American slavery - the term itself comes from the Latin, a word meaning "torment", or "disorder by twisting". We know, however, that torture today is practised in much of the developing world and, especially sadly for me, in much of the Muslim world.

Britain has historically been a haven for people fleeing such persecution. So it is hard to understand how this country - and other European states - appears to have colluded in making possible rendition flights, and, perhaps, the outsourcing of torture.

We are told that, in the name of fighting terror, the practice of extraordinary rendition is necessary. But it is a tactic of terror, something my family and I know only too well. The world is a far more dangerous place now because both sides in this "war" have deserted the moral high ground.

Guantanamo Bay seems like a lifetime ago, but I remember chatting there once with a guard from the US Virgin Islands about our roots, about how British or American we both felt. I made a connection with his past: "I know of only one other time in history when darker people - mostly Muslim - made a transatlantic journey: en masse to the Americas in chains," I told him. That was when his own forefathers had been extraordinarily rendered to the Americas.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: Better off without us?