In the northern Dhaka suburb of Uttara, across the road from a women's medical college, is a compound controlled by a Bangladeshi paramilitary police unit called the Rapid Action Battalion. Just inside the gate, on the left hand side, is an unremarkable office block: white-painted, five storeys tall, with a green awning over its front door.
Were you to enter, climb to the first floor, and make your way through the heavy steel door at the head of the stairs, you would find yourself facing a desk and a uniformed receptionist-cum-guard. Corridors stretch to his right and his left. According to a number of those who have found themselves standing at this spot, to venture down either corridor is to find yourself descending into a form of hell.
This is the Taskforce for Interrogation Cell, or TFI, a place where officers from all Bangladesh's intelligence agencies and main police units work together, extracting information and confessions from enemies of the state.
The methods they employ suggest a great deal of thought has been given to suffering. Men are reported to be beaten, subjected to electric shocks and strapped to a chair that spins at high speed. In one room, fingernails are said to litter the floor. The taking of life during interrogation is not unknown here.
Hundreds of people have been consigned to the TFI in recent years. Among them, the Guardian has established, were a number of British citizens who were detained after Jacqui Smith, then home secretary, flew to Dhaka to press the government for greater co-operation in counter-terrorism operations.
Among the officials she met were representatives of a particularly notorious agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, or DGFI. According to a senior DGFI counter-terrorism officer, Smith asked the agency to investigate a number of individuals about whom the UK had suspicions.
What happened next, human rights groups would say, was all-too-foreseeable. In report after report, those groups have documented the Bangladeshi authorities' routine use of torture for several years. Less than eight weeks before Smith's visit, the New York-based Human Rights Watch had warned in a special report: "Domestic and international prohibitions on torture and other ill-treatment are simply disregarded in Bangladesh." HRW published the report after its researcher in the country, Tasneem Khalil, was detained and tortured by the DGFI.
Smith and her department did not need to be warned by human rights activists, however. A report compiled by her own department seven months before her visit said there was widespread international concern about the use of torture in Bangladesh. The report detailed the number of people dying under torture, described methods of mistreatment used by different agencies, and stated that the torturers acted with complete impunity.
Bangladesh is not the only country where mounting evidence shows the UK operated a policy that resulted in British citizens and others being tortured in security operations.
Since 9/11, much of the UK's counter-terrorism efforts have been focused on Pakistan. But in the Bangladeshi cities of Dhaka and Sylhet, as well as in London, significant numbers of intelligence officials, policemen, civil servants, jihadists and torture victims have shed light on the way that policy operates.
Threat to UK
By the time Smith arrived in Bangladesh in April 2008, MI5 and MI6 had been concerned for several years that British people, and the UK's interests, could be at risk from a plot fomented in the country.
According to Smith's predecessor, John Reid, al-Qaida's first attempt against Britain involved terrorists of Bangladeshi origin plotting a bomb attack in Birmingham in November 2000. Reid was keen to point out that it was a plot that preceded the war in Iraq. One of the men, whom MI5 had given the codename Pivoting Dancer, was jailed for 20 years. His co-defendant, codenamed Molten Lava, was acquitted.
MI5 believed there were others in the UK with links with to the banned Bangladeshi Islamist militant organisations Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HuJI) and Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). HuJI was said to have been behind a grenade attack in 2004 on Anwar Choudhury, then British high commissioner to Bangladesh, as he emerged from Friday prayers at a mosque in Sylhet, the northern city from which he and most other British Bangladeshis originate. Three people died and 50, including Choudhury, were injured.
By mid 2007 the Bangladesh connection was of such concern to the British that counter-terror officials visited Dhaka, and a decision appears to have been taken that the UK would forge closer links with a number of Bangladeshi intelligence and law enforcement organisations.
There were a number of competing intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh whom Britain and the US could call upon for assistance: the Detective Branch, the National Security Intelligence and the DGFI all play a role in counter-terrorism operations. Human rights groups say all of these Bangladeshi agencies are known to use torture.
There was also the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB. Formed in 2004, it admitted it had been responsible for the extra-judicial killing of hundreds of terrorism suspects, petty criminals and leftwing activists. The units' officers and its political masters refer euphemistically to these murders as "crossfire" incidents. In 2006 Human Rights Watch branded RAB a "government death squad".
The British government faced no such restraints, however, and an arrangement was made with RAB in late 2007 that it would receive training in such matters as "investigative interviewing techniques" and "rules of engagement". Plans were made to send serving UK police officers from provincial forces such as West Mercia and Humberside to Dhaka under the auspices of the National Policing Improvement Agency, a body established to promote best policing practice in the UK. After the cables were leaked, the Foreign Office sought to suggest RAB was being given "human rights training". This was news to RAB's head of training, Mejbah Uddin, who told the Guardian he was unaware of any such assistance.
With the UK's training programme in place, the way appears to have been clear for Britain's intelligence and security agencies to forge closer links with RAB. They could make inquiries about people the unit had detained for interrogation, share information about them and ask whether a particular detainee had anything to say on a particular subject.
Throughout Smith's time as home secretary, MI5 would ask her permission before questioning an individual detained by an overseas intelligence agency known to use torture, or before exchanging information with that agency.The procedure is thought to be part of a system of ministerial oversight introduced in 2004, shortly after the disclosure in the US of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs.
Smith's responsibility was to weigh the competing dangers, between the risks to national security if she said no, and the risks to the detainee if she said yesHer Home Office successors were expected to make similar decisions, while at the Foreign Office, David Miliband would consider similar requests from MI6. In 2008, however, a decision appears to have been made to go one step further: it was decided Smith should fly to Dhaka to lead counter-terrorism talks with Bangladeshi government and intelligence officials.
At the time of her visit, civilian government in Bangladesh had been replaced with an army-backed "caretaker" government backed by the army. It was acknowledged to be an ill-disguised military regime, one that human rights groups said was even readier to resort to torture and extra-judicial killing.
On arrival, one of the first people to whom Smith paid what was described as "a courtesy call" was the head of the army, General Moeen U Ahmed. She then took part in meetings at which counter-terrorism and security was firmly at the head of the agenda. A senior counter-terrorism official with the DGFI, who met Smith, told the Guardian she disclosed the existence of intelligence showing links between a number of individuals in the UK and Bangladesh. Smith is said to have explained there were suspicions about the people in the UK, and asked that their associates be investigated by the Bangladeshis.
The Bangladeshis were prepared to comply, but had a simple, if slightly surprising, request. Smith's department had unveiled what it termed "an Australian-style points system" to tighten immigration. Dhaka was anxious that chefs and waiters wishing to work in the UK's many curry houses – whose remittances home are important to the country's economy – should be excused the new restrictions. Smith agreed to consider the matter.
At a press conference at the end of her three-day visit, Smith told journalists: "There are linkages between terrorism in Britain and Bangladesh. Linkages are highly likely because of the nature of international terrorism. Terrorists travel widely, use dual nationalities." The solution, she added, lay in training assistance and the sharing of information. In addition, a joint working group of British and Bangladeshi officials was established to consider counter-terrorism strategy.
A senior Bangladeshi counter-terrorism official told the Guardian that about a dozen British-Bangladeshi dual nationals were investigated around this time, in a manner that would have been unlawful in the UK "because of the question of human rights". He declined to elaborate.
A number of British nationals had already been detained by the time Smith flew to Dhaka. One of them was Jamil Rahman, 33, a former civil servant from Swansea, picked up by RAB in a village near Sylhet in December 2005 before being handed over to the DGFI.
Rahman says he suffered repeated beatings over more than two years, and that two men who introduced themselves as MI5 officers were clearly involved in his ordeal. He says the men, who called themselves Andrew and Liam, would leave the room whenever he refused to answer their questions. He would then be beaten by Bangladeshis, he says, before the British returned to resume questioning. On one occasion, he says, "Andrew" and "Liam" returned too soon and witnessed the beating. According to Rahman, they simply laughed and walked out.
Rahman says the DGFI would set him free at times, but according to his UK lawyer, Imran Khan, he was unable to leave the country for more than two years because his British passport was retained by the British high commission in Dhaka. Rahman would be summoned on a mobile phone he says the British gave him, and would undergo more interrogation. Sometimes, he says, he was instructed to bring his wife, and his torturers would threaten to rape her if he did not cooperate.
Another Briton who had been detained before Smith arrived in the UK was Gulam Mustafa, 48, a restaurateur from Birmingham, who travelled to Bangladesh in 2007, shortly before the Bank of England employed counter-terrorism measures to freeze his assets. A few months later, shortly after Mustafa rang his family in Birmingham and told them he was about to come home, he was arrested and taken to the TFI interrogation centre. He says he was made to pose for a photograph while holding a pistol, charged with its illegal possession, and taken to court. Then it was back to the TFI.
Mustafa attempts to play down what happened next. "I was blindfolded and I was tortured, but not too much," he says. "They sat me in a chair with my hands handcuffed behind my back. They gave me electric shocks to my hands and toes. They wanted to do it on my private parts too. I said don't do that. And they said: 'OK.' So they put me on the floor, cross-legged, and stood on my knees in their boots, crushing my knees into the ground."
The TFI is not the only torture centre in the country, but it is the most notorious. Its existence is known to all in Bangladeshi society, and has been acknowledged by successive governments. Only its precise location has remained secret, until now.
The ministry of home affairs says the TFI's operations are such a sensitive issue that suspects can be consigned there only on the instructions of the home minister or his senior civil servant, the home ministry secretary. "TFI is a delicate issue," said the ministry spokesman, Shahenur Miah Shahid. "So it's the minister, or the secretary, who takes the decision to send someone to TFI. TFI deals with very important issues: there are certain urgent subjects that go to the TFI for interrogation."
The Guardian has asked the ministry four times whether UK officials are consulted before a British national is sent there. Each time it has refused to answer.
A number of people who have survived spells inside the TFI have given accounts of what they saw when they were led further inside. To the left is a corridor with barred windows on its right hand side. Former inmates say dozens of blindfolded prisoners are shackled to the windows, with their hands above their heads. They are said to be kept in this position for up to two weeks. Sometimes they are beaten while suspended this way. One former inmate – too terrified to be identified – says: "Being beaten around the small of the back is standard procedure. They're obsessed with damaging kidneys."
More prisoners must kneel on the floor of the corridor, blindfolded and with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
Running off this corridor, on the left, is a row of nine small cells, each 3ft x 7ft, with a prisoner in each. At the end of the corridor are two offices, a computer room, and a restroom for the torturers. At the other end of the TFI, past the guard, is a corridor with a barred window on its right side and two rooms on the left. Inside the first room is a series of implements – pulleys, blocks of wood, small generators and voltmeters – that are used during interrogation. There is a small window allowing people to stand outside the room and watch what is happening inside.
A man who has suffered electric shock torture in this room recalls: "You're blind-folded, but you can hear them shuffling around you and moving equipment and tools about. Then they start to move you into position and strap you down. You don't know what's happening. And then you feel the most intense pain. It's such a shock because you don't know it's coming."
A former TFI inmate told the Guardian that this is also the room where fingernails are removed. Asked how he could be sure this happened, the man became slightly agitated, raised his voice and replied: "Because I saw the nails on the ground."
Former inmates say the next room houses a small library of photographs of people being tortured, which are shown to people before they too are made to suffer. In the centre of the room, according to several former TFI inmates, is a motorised rotating chair into which victims can be strapped and spun at high speed.
Several former inmates say they were aware of prisoners dying at the TFI. A man who was held in one of the cells said he watched as a prisoner in his 50s, chained up in the corridor, was beaten to death. Several said that when a prisoner died his body was put on a stretcher and an oxygen mask placed over his face, giving the impression he was alive and receiving medical treatment.
Early in 2009, a decision was taken that the man with the MI5 codename Molten Lava should be arrested and sent to the TFI.
In 2002, Faisal Mostafa, the man given that codename, had wept when the jury at Birmingham crown court acquitted him of conspiring to cause explosions. The court had heard that he and co-defendant Moinul Abedin had been followed to a rented house in the Sparkbrook area of the city, from which MI5 later retrieved five detonators, wiring, latex gloves, kitchen scales and a quantity of the explosive hexamethylene triperoxide diamine. In Mostafa's defence his lawyers pointed out he was a chemist, with a PhD in the study of metal corrosion, and that he had good reason to have traces of chemicals on his clothes.
Mostafa no doubt felt doubly fortunate: in 1996 a jury in Manchester had cleared him of bomb-making, but he was sentenced to four years jail for illegal possession of a pistol with intent to endanger life. On that occasion chemicals, timers and detonators had been found at his house, but he was cleared of conspiring to cause explosions after telling the court he had been writing a book on explosives.
Mostafa will not dispute having had an interest in things go bang. He cannot: the tips of both his middle fingers are missing, the result of an experiment with explosives which he conducted 20-odd years ago in his bedroom at his parents home.
After being acquitted a second time, Mostafa concentrated on the management of a charity called Green Crescent Bangladesh UK, which he ran from his home in a suburb of Manchester. The charity funded an orphanage, madrasa and health clinic on Bhola, an island off Bangladesh, and Mostafa began to spend much of his time there.
In March 2009 Mostafa was arrested while trying to buy an airline ticket for the UK, and accused of running a JMB terrorism training centre at the orphanage. RAB officers say he was taken straight to the TFI. His hands were cuffed to bars above his head. He spent six days in this position, before being unshackled, beaten on his feet, subjected to electric shocks, suspended upside down and beaten again.
While this was going on, Britain and Bangladesh exchanged information about Mostafa. Matiur Rahman, RAB's deputy chief of operations, says: "The British were interested in him for some time, on the assumption he was part of an international network. We had bilateral cooperation. There was talk and information sharing between intelligence. They gave information to us, and we gave information to them."
For Mostafa, worse was to come, apparently as a result of this information exchange. He was led down the corridor and taken into the first torture room. He was strapped to a chair and blindfolded. He was then interrogated about his co-defendants from both trials, about the Muslim parliament in London, about a mosque in London's East End, and about the British Islamist group al-Muhajiroun. All the while, a drill was slowly driven into his right shoulder and hip. The Guardian has seen evidence that supports the allegation that he was tortured in this way.
Mostafa's experience will be no surprise to anyone who had read the report on human rights abuses in Bangladesh that was published by Smith's department before her visit to Dhaka. It states: "Torture methods attributed to RAB include beatings on the soles of the feet and other parts of the body, boring holes with electric drills on the legs and feet, and applying electric shock to open wounds."
Mostafa spent several months in hospital after his spell at TFI. He was released on bail last February to receive treatment for renal failure.
He was flown to the UK in June, with the assistance of the British high commission, a few days after the British authorities learned that the Guardian was planning to report on his case.
Gulam Mustafa was jailed for 15 years for possession of the gun that he was photographed holding. He was released on bail, pending his appeal, but was rearrested last April after phoning his family and telling them he planned to return to the UK. He was taken to the headquarters of the Detective Branch and questioned about his alleged links to HuJI.
When Detective Branch asked RAB to pass on the file from Mustafa's first arrest, they found it had been given the name MI6 File. "My understanding is that the first arrest had been at the request of MI6," a senior Detective Branch officer said. "When we rearrested him it was not at the request of the British, but the high commission got in touch with us. They wanted to know what he was up to, who he was speaking to abroad, about any contacts in Britain.
"They wanted maximum information. Informally, that's what they said they wanted. Formally, they said they wanted consular access."
Mustafa says that this time his right knee was crushed again, he was blindfolded and forced to stand in stress positions for long periods. He says he was shown torture photographs and the spinning chair. Twice, he says, he was waterboarded with a mixture of water and a chemical that caused a burning sensation.
When he was brought before court more than two weeks after his arrest, he appeared to be in great discomfort in sunlight, and could not stand in the dock, spending most of the hearing on his knees. The lawyer Gareth Peirce, representing Mustafa's family in Birmingham, wrote to David Miliband, informing him the Guardian had a reporter in court when Mustafa was produced, that it was "well known" MI5 had been exchanging information about him with the Bangladeshis, and that there was "serious reason to believe that the security services have therefore been mixed up in the ill-treatment carried out by the Bangladeshi authorities". Four days later, Mustafa was taken from the TFI to Dhaka central jail, where he was sent to the hospital wing for treatment of the injuries he suffered during interrogation. Eventually he was again released on bail.
When the Guardian asked Smith what permission she gave MI5 to exchange information about Jamil Rahman, Gulam Mustafa or Faisal Mostafa with the Bangladeshi authorities, she replied, through a spokeswoman, that she would not answer questions "about the timings of any specific authorisations she may or may not have given the security service".
Asked whether she accepted that when she asked the Bangladeshi authorities to investigate individuals resident in Bangladesh who were of concern to the UK, that those individuals would be placed at risk of suffering severe human rights abuses, Smith had no comment to make. She would not say whether she knew of the existence of the TFI, or the methods employed there. Nor would she comment on the dilemmas she faced during counter-terrorism operations when she was expected to weigh the safety of British citizens against the risk to detainees held overseas. Alan Johnson, who succeeded Smith as home secretary, and held that office when Gulam Mustafa was detained and tortured the second time, refused to answer a series of similar questions. A spokesman said he had "no comment or observation to make" about the matter.
Miliband, who was foreign secretary through the period in which the UK sought closer counter-terrorism co-operation with Bangladesh, also failed to answer a series of questions about Faisal Mostafa and Gulam Mustafa, and about any role he played in granting permission for MI6 to be involved in their cases. A spokeswoman issued a statement on his behalf which said there were no Foreign Office papers showing that ministers were asked to sanction the arrest of Faisal Mostafa or Gulam Mustafa. She added: "David would never ever sanction torture and it is completely wrong to suggest, imply, or leave a shadow of a doubt otherwise. The UK has detailed procedures that uphold the moral and legal conduct of the intelligence agencies and those responsible for them. When David was foreign secretary he followed them scrupulously."
What those "detailed procedures" entailed has never been made public. The last government was determined they should remain secret, with Miliband indicating to MPs that their publication would "give succour to our enemies".
Meanwhile, the work of the TFI grinds on. And those who have survived it continue to suffer. Jamil Rahman was terrified of the British government for years after his return to the UK.
Golam Mustafa appears confident and relaxed, but also remains slightly dazed, and admits to an inability to concentrate. Faisal Mostafa is said to be frightened deeply depressed, possibly suicidal, and is receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress and renal failure. Bangladesh, meanwhile, never got the immigration exemption it requested for those chefs and waiters.