The torturous history of some 2000 Chagossian people was finally recognised this week by the United Nations, who issued a statement insisting that the UK return the island territory to its residents, to enable them to go back home and administer the island as is their right.
But what has been missed by mainstream media outlets, is how closely the shameful history of Chagos Island – renamed ‘Diego Garcia’ by the UK after early Spanish explorers, and as an echo of a Catholic invocation – mirrors its current function as a US military base, administered by the UK, and leased to the US, to run operations as part of the ‘War on Terror’.
The symbol of a ‘special relationship’
In fact, the island is a symbolic apex where these two disastrous projects of empire collide. This is perhaps best captured in a short sentence that formed part of a superficial parliamentary enquiry in 2014 into the island’s more recent function as a site for rendition and torture, and Britain’s likely complicity in this.
The authors of the report refer to 1973 as the year in which the UK “completed the clearance of the indigenous population”. This referred to an expulsion by starvation, that was completed after the UK bought the Chagos Islands from Mauritius in 1965 for £3 million as part of the latter’s independence deal.
This brutal phrase was written without shame just five years ago. Such arrogance and inhumanity can no longer mask Chagos’ dark and terrible past, nor can it be allowed to cover its violent and dangerous present.
Read more: What About Diego? What the Torture Report Missed
‘Diego Garcia’ was always meant to be used for the administration of empire. By 1986, after the island had been “cleared” of its inhabitants and carved up into coconut plantations which were subsequently mowed down after being deemed unprofitable, the facilities on the island had mushroomed into one of the US’s chief military command centres.
The base, deceptively named Camp Justice, now facilitates “Allied [UK and US] operations” across the Middle East and South Asia. In 1990 and 1991, the island was used as the main base from which to launch Operation Desert Storm.
It is important to note that though the US fronts the base and has by far the most contractors on the island, Britain still owns it and all its local affairs are administered from London. The Chief Commissioner is Ben Merrick, who has “the power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the territory”.
The evil of ‘Diego Garcia’ is revealed
The island is more than just a launchpad for murderous pursuits. The first hints of foul play on the island itself, in the name of the ‘War on Terror’, began emerging in 2005, through a series of embarrassing public statements by retired US military officials. In response, then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said:
“Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States”.
But in 2008, CIA director Michael Hayden admitted that the agency’s previous denials about U.S. activities on the island were incorrect. Hayden acknowledged then that the U.S. had inadvertently misled the British government and that two suspects had been on flights that stopped to refuel on Diego Garcia en route to Guantánamo Bay and Morocco in 2002, but they were not tortured there.
“Neither of those individuals was ever part of CIA’s high-value terrorist-interrogation program,” Hayden told TIME magazine in 2008. “These were rendition operations, nothing more.”
Read more: Torture and Rendition report confirms claims made by survivors for decades, but now there must be accountability: CAGE
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband as a result was forced to admit and apologise that two such flights had refuelled on the British territory in 2002.
However, full details were still not disclosed of the UK’s facilitation of CIA flights and ‘black sites’ on ‘Diego Garcia’, and what had happened to the men on the island, or on the ships docked off the island, because the document had been “water-damaged”.
In April 2014, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found initially as part of its Senate Report on Torture — before it was heavily redacted and now more or less disappeared – that the CIA had not just stopped over and refueled, but had in fact detained more than just two “high-value suspects” on ‘Diego Garcia’. There had been many.
It also stated initially that the ‘black site’ arrangement on the island was made with the “full cooperation” of the British Government. These references, however, were later removed and all the flight logs to the island were subsequently destroyed.
When the lies can simply no longer hold
Successive British governments have lied about and done their level best to cover up Britain’s role in rendition and torture – as seen through the cases of Guantanamo prisoners and the renditions of Libyan Abdel Hakim Belhadj and his pregnant wife.
Documents uncovered after the fall of Tripoli in 2011 suggest the US, with the complicity of the UK, used ‘Diego Garcia’ as a stopover during the 2004 rendition of Belhadj and his wife, who were also tortured after they were kidnapped in Thailand.
Theresa May apologised in the face of glaring evidence last year to both of them for British complicity in their torture.
Read more: May’s apology to the Belhaj family is long deserved, but likely perpetrators must be prosecuted
Despite this small victory, there are still a number of cases where the role of Britain needs to be more closely examined and accounted for, especially in its possible links to and knowledge of the activities on the dark island of ‘Diego Garcia’.
Abu Musab al-Suri is believed to have been held at the island. He was rendered back to the brutal Syrian regime, proving high level intelligence and governmental cooperation between the US and Syria, and very likely the British as well. Abu Zubaydah, who has received apologies and compensation from Poland, Romania and Lithuania for hosting and facilitating CIA ‘black sites’ in which he was repeatedly tortured, is also thought to have been held there.
Recognising our unity of experience is key to achieve justice
Testimonies from ex-Guantanamo detainees collected and published by CAGE, show clearly that some of other detainees’ memories of kidnap, detention and torture include distinct recollections of being held in cages, blindfolded, shackled and without food and water, on board ships docked at what seemed to be an island location.
Their memories have stark echoes with those of expelled Chagossians who were forced to board similar ill-fated ships, or face starvation, so many years ago.
Indeed, the words of one Chagossian survivor repeat almost exactly what these men have told us, that they were treated “like animals and slaves” on the ships: “People were dying of sadness,” said Marie Liseby Elysé this week.
With the lease on ‘Diego Garcia’ only expiring in 2036, it seems too long to wait for accountability and healing.
Marie’s experience is of a particular pain and should be recognised in its own right. But for those concerned with the current injustices on the island, her words should unite us in a call for the the right to return home of all those unduly captured, and moved against their will through the waters surrounding Chagos.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)