Government memos show Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered the Foreign Office to violate its legal obligation to assist British citizens abroad – bowing to pressure from President George W Bush

July 14, 2010

Documents released last night in the Binyam Mohamed civil court case reveal that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair personally overruled the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s demand for consular access to British ‘ghost’ prisoners.

Bowing to pressure from President George W. Bush, the Blair Government ordered the Foreign Office (FCO) to violate its legal obligations under the Vienna Convention, which requires the UK to provide consular assistance to British nationals swept up by the US around the world.

In a January 10, 2002, telegram from the FCO, officials made clear that the Blair Government wanted British nationals taken to lawless detention in Guantanamo Bay: “we accept that the transfer of UK nationals held by US forces in Afghanistan to the US base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet out counter-terrorism objective by ensuring that they are securely held.”

However, the FCO wanted to ensure the right of consular access to monitor the British nationals’ wellbeing.

An FCO official recognized in an August 22, 2002, email that “we are going to be open to charges of concealed extradition” and that as a result of direct interference by Number 10 “we broke our policy” on consular access by failing to help Martin Mubanga. Mubanga, who was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing after years in lawless detention without charge, was rendered first to Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo because Number 10 specifically refused to allow him to come home. 

Referring to the FCO’s obligations towards British citizens, the official noted in an undated 2002 FCO message that “the basic tenet that any British national, no matter what they are alleged to have done, has a right to consular assistance” but complained that “instructions from London were unequivocal. We should not accept responsibility for or take custody of [Mubanga]. This was subsequently reinforced by the message from No 10 that under no circumstances should Mubanga be allowed to return to the UK. *** And it became clear that if we requested consular access […REDACTED…] thereby de facto acknowledging him as a UK national, he would have been handed over to us. This would have gone against all other instructions from London.” Again, he notes, “our hands were tied by policy directed from London.”

Divisions between the Foreign Office and 10 Downing Street surface again on August 13, 2002, when an FCO note states “we were clearly instructed by […REDACTED…] London to take no responsibility for him, though Consular Division wanted us to seek consular access.” Indeed, at a February 26, 2002, interdepartmental meeting, it was “agreed that UK should be in no hurry to take back the detainees though FCO was quiet on the point.” While there were problems of “public presentation” in the face of the much-criticized military commissions, spinning these problems was deemed by the Blair Government to be “preferable to those associated with the detainees being released in the UK.”

The secret documents, which can be found below, were shown to the court in heavily redacted form as part of the civil proceedings in the Binyam Mohamed civil case: Al Rawi and Others v Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Others. They indicate that many British Government acts in the ‘War on Terror’, including the rendition of prisoners in Iraq, were unlawful.

Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith said:

“We now have documentary evidence that these decisions went deep into Number 10. Tony Blair expressly ordered Jack Straw to violate the law, and refuse to help British nationals who were being detained across the world by the United States. He expressly sanctioned the rendition of British citizens. These are people who, after years of abuse, were never charged with any wrongdoing. This was a betrayal, pure and simple, of both the men and of any moral principle.”

For more information please contact Katherine O’Shea at Reprieve’s Press Office 020 7427 1099/ 07931592674 or visit

Notes for Editors:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 33 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

Reprieve is a charitable company limited by guarantee; Registered Charity No. 1114900 Registered Company No. 5777831 (England) Registered Office 2-6 Cannon Street London EC4M 6YH; Chair: Lord Bingham; Patrons: Alan Bennett, Julie Christie, Martha Lane Fox, Gordon Roddick, Jon Snow, Marina Warner

Katherine O’Shea ReprieveTel: 020 7427 1099Mob: 07931592674

Reprieve delivers justice and saves lives, from death row to Guantánamo Bay.

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