Suspicions were first raised by an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair on December 28th 2002, in which Human Rights Watch suggested that US forces were holding and interrogating Al Qaeda suspects on Diego Garcia, violating international law and the legal obligations of the British government. In a subsequent series of questions and answers in Parliament between 2003 until 2008, the government consistently denied the allegations.
In October 2003 Time Magazine cited records from the interrogation of US prisoner Hambali, which had reportedly been conducted on the island. Respected international investigators at the Council of Europe and the United Nations expressed similar suspicions, and US officials went on to make seemingly careless public statements confirming the use of Diego Garcia for secret detentions.
In response, the British government consistently referred to US assurances to the contrary, suggesting limited British presence on, and responsibility for, the island. In fact, the UK has a significant military and administrative presence on Diego Garcia, which has its own independent administration run by the East Africa Desk of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. The 1966 Anglo-American Agreement specifies that British authorities retain 'exclusive jurisdiction over members of the United States forces with respect to offences, including offences relating to security, punishable by law in force in the territory but not by the law of the United States’.
On 21st February 2008, then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband conceded by statement to Parliament and by letter to Clive Stafford Smith that two rendition flights carrying US prisoners had stopped on Diego Garcia, in January and September 2002, stating that "an error in the earlier US records search meant that these cases did not come to light".
Through a process of elimination, Reprieve has now identified one of the prisoners rendered through Diego Garcia as the Egyptian national Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni. His case shows how the US secret prison system grew out of existing practices with partner states such as Egypt, aided by cooperating states like Britain.
It is therefore inconceivable that the UK was not aware of how the existing US rendition programme accelerated and broadened following 9/11. Excluding renditions from Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay, at least 150-200 renditions occurred between 2001 and 2004, and in the lead-up to Madni's apprehension at least five high-profile rendition cases were reported in the press. More significantly, by law the UK must be informed of all movements of US ships and aircraft on or through Diego Garcia, and the US requires British permission to bring “unlawful combatants” onto the island.
More than one independent source has suggested that logs of flights through Diego Garcia have been destroyed. However, an examination of records available for four other rendition flights conducted by the same plane (N379P) reveals that it routinely operated under various “special status designators” allowing them to fly wherever they liked, whenever they liked, which would indicate knowledge - and authorisation - at the highest echelons of both the US and the British governments.
Crucially, flights can only be granted this special status when they are ‘specifically authorised by the relevant national authority’, indicating a significant degree of British complicity. Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing that provided flight-planning and logisitcal support in the trasnfer of prisoners, may also have filed false flight logs for N379P. Such falsification involved not only Jeppesen, but also a state party, in this case the UK. The almost total absence of flight logs for suspicious flights through Diego Garcia suggests that similar falsification has occurred.
As Mr Madni’s case unfolds, many more questions are raised than answered about Britain’s role in US detentions, with claims to ignorance increasingly difficult to accept. It is time for the UK government to reveal precisely who else has been held on and rendered through Diego Garcia, what happened to them there, and where they are now.