In 2004, Pakistani man Yunus Rahmatullah was arrested by British force sin Iraq on suspicion of travelling there to fight for Al Qaeda. But rather than complying with their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the British rendered him to Afghanistan and gave him to the Americans at Bagram. Now, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that that rendition and the subsequent eight years of imprisonment is unlawful and a violation of the Geneva Conventions:
a panel of seven supreme court judges ruled that the UK did not need to have actual custody to exercise control over his release. The UK's most senior judges also declared that there was clear evidence that Rahmatullah's rendition and detention was a breach of international human rights law, despite "memorandums of understanding" Britain had agreed with the US over treatment of detainees.
Lord Kerr said: "The, presumably forcible, transfer of Mr Rahmatullah from Iraq to Afghanistan is, at least prima facie, a breach of article 49 [of the fourth Geneva Convention]. On that account alone, his continued detention post-transfer is unlawful."
Kerr also said that he would have "little hesitation in dismissing" arguments from former US assistant attorney general Jack Goldsmith asserting that al-Qaida operatives found in occupied Iraq were excluded from protection under the Geneva Conventions during armed conflict.
The UK government, following an earlier Court of Appeal ruling, has asked for Rahmatullah's release. In denial of its commitment to the UK when taking custody, the US has refused to do so. The bad news is that the court has decided to accept the British government's claim that that is all it can do. Still, it is a landmark ruling, and one which opens all those involved - the soldiers who handled the transfer, and the spies and Foreign Office officials who approved and negotiated it (and who are potentially colluding with the US right now to thwart the court's ruling) to criminal charges. The British establishment will of course endeavour to protect them - probably by holding a whitewash "inquiry" and declaring that there is nothing to see here, move along - but it has at least put them on notice, and should stop such renditions in the future.