Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, Nov. 16
Tony Blair repeatedly intervened in a bid to deport asylum seekers to Egypt despite being told that they might be tortured and sentenced to death, the Guardian can reveal.
Court documents show how he tried to get Egypt to give assurances that the men would be humanely treated. He persisted even though the home secretary and senior Foreign Office officials made it plain such assurances were unlikely to be given and even if they were, could not be guaranteed.
The case raises serious questions about political interference in deportation and how Britain’s human rights obligations can be undermined.
When Mr Blair was warned by the home secretary in a private letter that there was “ample evidence from a range of sources of serious human rights abuses in Egypt”, and that there was “little scope for pushing deportations any further”, he replied: “This is crazy. Why can’t we press on?”
The case concerns four Egyptians held under anti-terrorist laws, including Hany Youssef, an Egyptian defence lawyer who fled to Britain in 1994.
Though MI5 said he was involved in terrorism “at the highest level”, he was never classified as a high risk.
Mr Blair’s extraordinary intervention is revealed in a hitherto unreported high court judgment made in July.
It is referred to in the latest issue of Statewatch, the London-based bulletin which monitors threats to civil and human rights in Europe. A link to the judgment was placed on the bulletin’s website last night.
In the judgment, Mr Justice Field ruled that Mr Youssef had been unlawfully detained in late June and early July 1999 — after Mr Blair made his ultimately unsuccessful interventions in the case.
Court documents make it clear that judges were irritated by the delays in coming to what appears to have been a foregone conclusion.
The issue was whether the men would be subjected to torture or inhuman treatment — prohibited by the European human rights convention — if they were deported to Egypt.
As early as February 1999, the Home Office advised that “abuse and torture” in Egypt was “widespread despite the prohibition by the constitution of infliction of physical harm upon those arrested or detained”.
In March 1999, the British embassy in Cairo asked for assurances that if the men were deported they would get a fair trial, and that if found guilty of links to Egyptian Islamic Jihad they would not be executed.
The Egyptian interior minister immediately rejected the request. When he was told about the failure to get the assurances, Mr Blair wrote: “This is a bit much. Why do we need all these things?”
Mr Blair’s private office sent a letter to the then home secretary, Jack Straw. “The prime minister thinks we are in danger of being excessive in our demands of the Egyptians in return for agreeing to the deportation of the four Islamic Jihad members,” it said.
Mr Straw replied that there was “ample evidence” of human rights abuses in Egypt. “Realistically . . . there is probably very little scope of pursuing the deportation any further”, he warned Mr Blair.
A month later, in May, Sherard Cowper-Coles, principal private secretary of the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, told No 10 that nothing more could be done to make the Egyptians provide assurances.
Mr Blair wrote in the margin of the letter: “This isn’t good enough. I don’t believe we shld (sic) be doing this.” The prime minister’s private secretary told the Foreign Office that Mr Blair “remained very keen for the UK government to be able to deport the four Egyptians to Egypt”.
Mr Blair, the judgment shows, was even prepared to take up the case directly with President Hosni Mubarak.
With Mr Straw repeatedly saying it was impossible to get guarantees, Mr Blair adopted what the judge calls an “entirely new strategy” by seeking just one assurance — that there would be “no torture”.
A letter from his private office said Mr Blair “believes we should use whatever assurances the Egyptians are willing to offer, to build a case to initiate the deportation procedure and to take our chances in the courts”.
That, said the judge, “must have come as a considerable shock to both the Home Office and the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office]”. The judge’s ruling makes clear the UK courts would have quickly dismissed Mr Blair’s strategy.
Lawyers familiar with the case said yesterday it showed the value of full disclosure in deportation and asylum cases, especially where government invokes the “war on terror”.