UK fails to secure deal on Algerian deportees

UK fails to secure deal on Algerian deportees

· Talks ended with only oral assurance on torture
· Return of prisoners may contravene human rights

Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, May 2, 2006

The government has admitted it has failed to get a written assurance that Algerians it wants to deport will not be jailed, mistreated or tortured if they return home.

The admission that a year of diplomatic talks has come to nothing was made by Edward Oakden, former head of the Foreign Office’s defence and strategic threats directorate and the government’s chief negotiator with Algiers, in hearings before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, Siac.

Ten Algerians, who cannot be named for legal reasons, are regarded as terrorist suspects and have been detained without trial, in some cases for years, or subjected to strict control orders. Only one has been convicted in Britain – on fraud charges.

Mr Oakden, who will be questioned at Siac again today, told a hearing of the commission last week that the Algerian government had given assurances that the men would be detained for just two or three days before being released and any further evidence about their likely fate would have to be heard in secret.

Questioned by Ben Emmerson, counsel for the Algerians, Mr Oakden admitted that the assurances were given only orally at recent talks with Algerian officials. Asked if the Algerians had really said they would be held for just two or three days, he replied: « I can’t put my hand on my heart if that was the exact phrase. »

He admitted that the Algerian government had not provided any written confirmation of its assurances and that the FO had not sought one. He also admitted that Algeria had not agreed to any independent monitoring of the fate of the men after they were deported.

The FO says the men will be protected by a new charter of peace and national reconciliation recently announced by the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Mr Oakden said the Algerian government had told him the men – including one convicted in his absence of participating in the killing of 42 members of the Algerian security services – would benefit from an amnesty under the new charter.

According to Mr Oakden, the Algerian government told him that it had agreed to a generous interpretation of the charter, namely that it referred only to what people had been officially charged with, not what they were convicted of.

But he later admitted that these assurances were covered by an « element of doubt that needs to be resolved ». The FO also had no written record of that discussion with Algerian officials, Siac heard.

The FO has been trying since 2003 to get assurances from Algeria to allow it to deport Algerians without abusing Britain’s human rights obligations under domestic and international law. Evidence submitted to Siac shows that Mr Oakden said successful negotiations with the Algerians would be concluded last October. That was two months after Tony Blair spoke to Mr Bouteflika and after Mr Blair told the Commons he was confident of an early deal on memorandums of understanding with Algeria and other countries whereby individuals sent back to their country would not be mistreated or tortured.

The Council of Europe’s committee for the prevention of torture stated in a report last year that the situation for many of the Algerians detained in Britain « could be considered as amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment ».