IssueNovember 2008
Comment by Maya Evans

More journalists crammed into Court 3 of the Courts of Justice, further pushing up the temperature. The court, an elaborate Gothic room steeped in grandeur had law books from the 19th century stacked on shelves all the way around, way beyond arms’ reach. The windows were at least 20 feet high and stretched all the way up to the ceiling. Despite such dimensions it was stuffy and, moreover, it was tense.

The Canadians were sat at the front, hoping to pick up crumbs of information to prove that their government had been dishonest about the point when it become aware of the allegations of prisoner abuse. Richard Norton-Taylor from the Guardian sat opposite; men in grey suits from the MoD were conspicuously sat at the back with some NGOs and journalists.

It felt exciting to bring such a monumental case. There were around 20 lever arch files of evidence and working on my side of the case alone there were seven lawyers.

The court rose for the opening of a judicial review into allegations of mistreatment and torture of Afghan prisoners who had been captured by British troops and handed over to the Afghan authorities. As we all took our seats again in the courtroom, it felt very removed from what the case was about: the role our government has played in allegations made by Afghans.

These allegations include whipping with cables, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, beatings and stress positions carried out by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), who have a proven track record of abuse and were responsible for torturing the prisoners Canada had handed over.

By day two I was convinced my QC was a genius, as he seamlessly traversed files of evidence ranging from NGO human rights reports to MoD emails and prisoners’ statements.

If it wasn’t for the depressing nature of the case it would have been a joy to observe his methodical yet stylish pinpoint accuracy as he nailed arguments and counteracted the government’s defence. As the case drew on it became more and more apparent how little the British and other Western governments had looked into the welfare of prisoners they had handed over.

There was a gasp in the room as my QC described a “smoking gun” incident: a prisoner in the Canada case had complained to visiting officials of being tortured and pointed to a box in the room, that contained the very implements of torture he had described.

The government defence first tried to argue for the importance and justification of combating terrorism, which the British were doing in Afghanistan.

I found it hard to believe anyone with intelligence was still arguing such a point and indeed it seemed the judges had little time for such a line as they considered the information irrelevant.

I felt sorry for the government lawyer who looked like a crab in hot water. It appeared that even he didn’t really believe in what he was saying. And how could he? The evidence was clear: Britain hadn’t put proper monitoring and visiting checks in place to ensure the safety of prisoners and, more damningly, they had allowed the NDS to self-investigate their own practices of prisoner mistreatment.

Had the government deliberately selected a Tory fox-hunting defence lawyer to be the sacrificial lamb to the slaughter?

The case wrapped up during week two and we are still waiting for the judgement at the time of writing. Despite flagrant wrongdoing by the government, I have an inkling Britain will follow the path of Canada in suggesting improvements be made to the handling of prisoners.

At the very most some structural changes may take place and an inch may be gained for individuals at the raw end of justice.

See more of: Maya Evans diary