Friday, December 09, 2005

Nothing new under the sun

It seems that extraordinary rendition - the abhorrent practice of transferring prisoners to another jurisdiction for the purposes of torture - has a longer history than we thought. In his judgement on the admissability of evidence obtained by torture in British courts, Lord Hope of Craighead notes (at [107])

When the jurisdiction of the Star Chamber was abolished in England prisoners were transferred to Scotland so that they could be forced by the Scots Privy Council which still used torture to provide information to the authorities. This is illustrated by the case of Robert Baillie of Jerviswood whose trial took place in Edinburgh in December 1684... Robert Baillie had been named by William Spence, who was suspected of being involved in plotting a rebellion against the government of Charles II, as one of his co-conspirators. Spence gave this information having been arrested in London and taken to Edinburgh, where he was tortured. Baillie in his turn was arrested in England and taken to Scotland, where he was put on trial before a jury in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. All objections having been repelled by the trial judge, the statement which Spence had given under torture was read to the jury. Baillie was convicted the next day, and the sentence of death that was passed on him was executed that afternoon. There is a warning here for us. "Extraordinary rendition", as it is known today, is not new. It was being practised in England in the 17th century.

It seems that there's nothing new under the sun, and no atrocity which hasn't been done before. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised at all that a country practising 16th-century torture techniques should also use 17th-century legal ones to worm its way round its own laws...