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Torture, the London Police and the Middle East

The Metropolitan Police in London will in a few hours’ time find themselves involved in the Gulf crisis when UK lawyers for three prominent Qataris submit their evidence of alleged torture and illegal imprisonment for which they blame up to 10 senior officials of the United Arab Emirates – including a cabinet minister and a high-ranking security adviser.

Human Rights lawyer Rodney Dixon QC will hand the Met details of alleged beatings, torture and illegal imprisonment of the three Qataris, one of them close to the head of Qatar’s own State Security Service, under the terms of the 1988 Criminal Justice Act – which allows British police to investigate and arrest foreign nationals entering the UK if they are suspected of war crimes, torture or hostage-taking anywhere in the world.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who only a few weeks ago decided to keep secret a British police report on “terrorist funding” for fear it would upset Saudi Arabia, will no doubt be infuriated to discover that the Metropolitan Police are now being asked to investigate the alleged “crimes” of senior officials in the Emirates – one of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies in the dispute with Qatar.

One of the three Qataris was repeatedly accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the very Islamist group that the Saudis have accused Qatar of supporting. According to the same man – the one associated with the Qatar secret police – he was beaten and electrocuted and held in solitary confinement for almost a year.

Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act – which cannot be May’s favourite piece of legislation – effectively allows the police or UK border agencies to question anyone, including wealthy Arab dignitaries visiting Britain on holiday, about torture and war crimes committed abroad. Cynics might suggest that the Qataris wish to embarrass their Emirati brothers during the expensive political crisis which principally involves Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And such cynics may be right. The Saudis have demanded that Qatar end its “funding” of “terrorism”, close down the international Al Jazeera television station and break off relations with Iran. As almost all Arabs will tell you, this crisis – which is somewhat contrived since Donald Trump, in his wisdom, is selling billions of dollars of weapons to both Saudi Arabia and Qatar – is about Iran and about the Sunni Arab world’s desire to crush Iranian Shiite power in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The US President has – during moments of both clarity and insanity – supported the Saudi policy against Iran, one which is also enthusiastically endorsed by Israel. This week’s attempt to bring the Met into the politics of the Middle East may thus be seen in this highly toxic context. But stripped of its legal, and supposedly criminal aspects, however, the whole affair also says as much about the brazen relationships between Arab Gulf states as it does about the humane standards of secret police interrogation boasted by those who protect the emirs and potentates of the region.

I understand, for example, that after the original arrest of the three Qataris – one of them at Dubai airport, two others while crossing the Saudi land border into the Emirates – their imprisonment and alleged torture between 2013 and 2015 was well known to the Qatari authorities who preferred to try and resolve the matter without publicity. The senior Qatari security agent, I gather, was accused of bringing espionage equipment into the Emirates. Two of the three men made “confessions” on police videotape long before their release in May 2015 after being told they would be freed if they did so. These “confessions” were made after the men say they were subjected to prolonged torture, including the use of electricity and being hung upside down by their interrogators.

And there the matter might have ended – if the inter-Arab squabble between Saudi Arabia and Qatar had not broken out this summer and if the Emirati authorities had not then broadcast the police “confessions” of two of the three Qataris. If they now seek to clear their names and expose the ordeal of their alleged imprisonment and torture – as, I gather, they will in London this week – it would be interesting to know why they did not take this step when they were released more than two years ago. They claim that the “confessions” were tortured out of them.

As for the poor old Met, no one would dispute that when constabulary duty’s to be done – even under Section 134 – a policeman’s lot is not a happy one. And there are indeed times when inter-Arab politics – even without Trump’s appearance – might be better illustrated in the form of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And this would be true if torture and solitary confinement was not the bedrock of every Arab state in the entire Middle East.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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