By Omran Belhadi, Reprieve Bertha Fellow, Abuses in Counter-Terrorism Team

In 2004, UK forces captured two Pakistani men—Amanatullah Ali and Yunus Rahmatullah—in Baghdad, Iraq. They were severely beaten and taken to a US-UK detention facility near Baghdad International Airport. There, they were tortured which included being held in a coffin like cell, being deprived of food and sleep, exposure to extreme temperatures and endless interrogations.

Both were then transferred to US custody. For a time, Mr Rahmatullah was held in Abu Ghraib. After several months of horrific detention in Iraq, Mr Ali and Mr Rahmatullah were rendered to Bagram, Afghanistan. They spent the next ten years in detention, without charge, trial or access to a lawyer.

I have met both these men. They are mentally and physically scarred from years of abuse and humiliation. Both of them asked me one question I have so far been unable to answer: “Britain is supposed to stand for human rights and justice, how could all this have happened to us?”

With the help of the Human Rights Act, their question may yet be answered.

The Ministry of Defence is investigating their allegations of mistreatment by UK forces. But it has refused to investigate the circumstances of their transfer to US troops and their subsequent rendition. Using the Human Rights Act and with the help of Reprieve, Mr Ali and Mr Rahmatullah are judicially reviewing the government’s refusal, which the government are fiercely contesting.

If their judicial review is successful, Mr Ali, Mr Rahmatullah and the British public may one day know how and why Britain became so deeply complicit in US torture and rendition. This is why the Human Rights Act is absolutely essential.

It protects against government abuse. It allows those wronged by the government to seek justice. The government is not above the law. It has the moral and legal obligation to take action within the confines of the law. The Human Rights Act allows the public to hold the government accountable to these high standards.

Were it not for the Human Rights Act (and helpful revelations by Edward Snowden), the British public would never have learned the UK government has been unlawfully snooping on legally privileged communications for the past five years.

On 29 April 2015, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal—a secret court tasked with ensuring the activities of the intelligence agencies are lawful—found that GCHQ had unlawfully intercepted the legally privileged communications of Sami al-Saadi, a Reprieve client.

Sami al-Saadi and Abdulhakim Belhaj were prominent anti-Qaddafi dissidents. In 2004, the CIA—using intelligence provided by MI6—rendered the al-Saadi and Belhaj families from East Asia to Qaddafi’s torture chambers in Libya. Mr Belhaj was rendered alongside his four-month pregnant wife. Mr al-Saadi’s children, the youngest aged six, accompanied him on the rendition flight to Libya. In 2013, supported by Reprieve, they brought a case before the IPT to find out whether their privileged communications were being unlawfully intercepted.

The case was groundbreaking. Not only was it the first and only time the IPT found the intelligence agencies acted unlawfully against a claimant, but the government—belatedly—conceded that their surveillance procedures in relation to legal professional privilege were not HRA compliant.

During proceedings, Reprieve forced the government to disclose the policies of the various intelligence agencies governing the interception of legally privileged material. They were inconsistent with each other and demonstrated little to no understanding of legal professional privilege.

These were policies drafted in secret and supposedly scrutinised by senior retired judges. But as the government’s own independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation eloquently put it in relation to these policies: “Procedures which have never seen the light of day sometimes turn out to need improvement when they are exposed to it.”

The government fears being challenged. It wants to take away the public’s ability to contest its decisions and policies, offering little in return but: “trust us, we’ll get it right”. Yet to truly have faith in their government, Britons need to be able to question and challenge it when things go wrong. The Human Rights Act gives them that power—both practically and symbolically. Without it, the government would be allowed to act in near total impunity.