The UK was complicit in Guantanamo detainee Abu Zubaydah’s torture. His lawyer says reparations should follow.

Abu Zubaydah
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Warning: this article contains links to graphic images and descriptions of torture.

Earlier in May, the Canary reported on the publication of an academic paper regarding the art and diaries of Palestinian Abu Zubaydah. That paper included graphic descriptions of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) applied to Zubaydah.

Zubaydah was classified by the US as a “High Value Detainee”. He was the first detainee US authorities subjected to EITs, effectively making him a “human guinea pig” for torture techniques. Before his rendition to Guantánamo Bay, the CIA held Zubaydah for 1,619 days at a number of “black sites”. These were located in Pakistan, Thailand, Poland, Morocco, Lithuania, and Afghanistan.

Allegations raised against Zubaydah were ultimately shown to be false.

UK complicity in prisoner’s torture

On 19 May, Zubaydah’s lawyer Helen Duffy stated:

The UK has been found legally responsible for ‘complicity’ in our client’s torture and ongoing unlawful detention, and reparations should follow… This can include offers of relocation, recognition and apology, rehabilitation and compensation.

Earlier, in November 2022, the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WAGAD) had declared that the:

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Governments of the United States, Thailand, Poland, Morocco, Lithuania, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom… are jointly responsible for the torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of Mr. Zubaydah.

That followed a UK appeal court ruling. The Guardian summed this up as follows:

UK intelligence services who allegedly asked the CIA to put questions to a detainee who was being tortured in “black sites” were subject to the law of England and Wales and not that of the countries in which he was being held.

The ruling was significant, as it provided the opportunity for the detainee – Zubaydah – to accuse UK intelligence services of complicity in his torture.

UK intelligence accused

In 2018, the Canary published details about the UK personnel who had witnessed detainees’ mistreatment. Indeed, UK personnel supplied questions or intelligence for 232 cases.

Also that year, a UK Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report made it clear the Zubaydah case showed “direct awareness of extreme mistreatment – and probable torture”. Furthermore, UK intelligence was complicit in almost 600 cases of prisoner mistreatment following 9/11. And the UK also planned and financed 31 rendition ops.

The previous year saw a European Parliament report that expressed:

serious concern about the 170 stopovers made by CIA-operated aircraft at UK airports, which on many occasions came from or were bound for countries linked with extraordinary rendition circuits and the transfer of detainees

The Rendition Project, however, listed a different figure, namely 391 alleged rendition flights via the UK or its overseas territories or crown dependencies. The CIA used these flights for the transportation and illegal detention of prisoners.

The torture

The CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation programme led to the detainment and torture of over 130 individuals. A database produced jointly by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Rendition Project gave the number as 124.

Torture is contrary to international law, including the UN Convention against Torture and the Nuremberg Code.

Yet the Rendition Project noted that CIA records revealed how:

39 prisoners were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” whilst in CIA detention. EITs were a set of eleven specific techniques approved by the Department of Justice for use by the CIA: the attention grasp; walling; facial hold; facial slap; cramped confinement; wall standing; stress positions; sleep deprivation; waterboard; use of diapers; and use of insects.

An August 2002 memo to John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel of the CIA, described in detail the torture techniques, including waterboarding, used on Zubaydah.

Orwellian nightmare

Details of the CIA rendition programme, the torture, and the conditions prisoners were subjected to at Guantánamo Bay were first published by WikiLeaks.

In 2021, award-winning film maker Alex Gibney released a documentary about Zubaydah. On arbitrary detention, Gibney referencing George Orwell’s famous description of torture said:

It’s not the boot on the face forever, but it’s that sense of eternally not knowing what is going to happen to you or why. That is soul-crushing and has got to be psychologically destabilizing in some really potent way where you just don’t know.

As to the current situation at Guantánamo, the Guardian reported that:

There are 30 inmates left at the Guantánamo camp, of which only one has been convicted of a crime; 10 are involved in military tribunal proceedings, although in most cases, the trials have not even started; 16 have been recommended for a transfer to another country, pending security guarantees


Regarding possible legal action against the UK, there is at least one precedent. Guantánamo detainees Bisher al-Rawi, Richard Belmar, Jamil el-Banna, Martin Mubanga, Omar Deghayes, and Binyam Mohamed sued the UK government, including MI5 and MI6.

In November 2010 the UK agreed on a confidential settlement that included a payout of millions of pounds to those detainees. The settlement meant that UK authorities could avoid the release of confidential intelligence documents in court.

Following the WGAD declaration, the UK government should immediately arrange reparations or agree on a settlement for Zubaydah, too. It’s the very least they can do after being complicit in Zubaydah’s torture for years.

Featured image via HBO – YouTube

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