I am reading an enthralling history book by Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms which gives an account of the trial of Menocchio in the sixteenth century. It may be a long way from today’s world, but it is instructive to read how the Catholic Church dealt with sacrilege. Some historic context first: during the Counter-Reformation, the Taliban of the day were the Protestants and heresy was considered an abomination, as terrorism is today. I was also interested to read how torture was conducted in the sixteenth century. I discovered, to my surprise, that the methods employed were, in many respects, less harsh than those employed by the U.S. and the U.K. in their pursuit of modern terrorists.
What struck me by Ginzburg’s account are the efforts made by Pope Clement VIII to ensure that the trial was fair. He was careful to be sure the local inquisition did not ask leading questions or otherwise prejudice the interrogation. He wanted to make certain the judgment would in “no way be doubted.” Such was the scrupulousness of the hearings that an independent notary transcribed every aspect of the trial. The transcription even included documenting what the victim “might utter during the torture, even his sighs, his cries, his laments and tears.”
In comparison, the excesses of modern torturers would have offended the sensibilities of sixteenth century Inquisitors.
Recently, evidence was produced that the British government was complicit in torture that would have made Menocchio’s Inquisitors blanch. Libyan national Sami al-Saadi, his wife and four young children were kidnapped with the aid of MI6 and rendered to Tripoli. Saadi was imprisoned and left to the tender mercies of Muammar Gaddafi’s torturers. To avoid embarrassment, the government agreed to pay £2.23 million hush money to Saadi. While the government agreeing the pay-out, it has refused to admit liability.
This was rare setback for the government, but their hand was forced because Saadi took them to court. Had the trial gone ahead, their complicity in his torture might have been revealed. This won’t happen again. In response to this case, the government has drafted the Justice and Security Bill, which allows ministers to establish secret trials, when alleged terrorists are involved. Another gem embedded in this legislation is that it will prevent the accusers or their lawyers from examining all the evidence. This is a new low for British justice, and compares unfavorably with the Italian Inquisition where lawyers were involved and could inspect all of the evidence against their client.
What is Saadi’s story? Saadi claims that British intelligence lured him and his family to Hong Kong. They were enticed on the pretense that the government would provide him with a safe haven in the UK. Instead, his family, including children aged 6, 9, 11 and 13, were abducted in a joint UK/US operation. Hooded, handcuffed and their legs tied with wire, they were rendered to Tripoli and turned over to Gaddafi’s security forces.
Saadi’s wife and children were released after two months but he was imprisoned for six years and brutally tortured. He alleges that contends a British intelligence officer interrogated him once but ignored his allegations of torture.
Despite his anger at the British government, Saadi agreed to take the hush money and explained his reasons in a statement released to the media:
[My children] will now have the chance to complete their education in the new, free Libya. I will be able to afford the medical care I need because of the injuries I suffered in prison. I started this process believing a trial would get to the truth. But today, with the Government trying to push through secret courts, I feel to proceed is not best for my family.
The irony of this case is that after Tony Blair’s rapprochement with Gaddafi in 2004, the British government handed over Saadi to Libyan torturers because he was involved in trying to overthrow the dictator’s brutal regime. Only a few years later, the British government was hailing such individuals as “freedom fighters” and supporting their revolution to depose Gaddafi.
This is not an isolated case. In 2010, the UK government agreed to pay, without admitting guilt, sixteen terror suspects around £1 million each to settle charges of British involvement in their abuse and torture. Such cases show how desperate the government is to avoid the producing of evidence of their complicity with the U.S. in torture, abduction, and extraordinary rendition in open court.
The trial of Menocchio reveals one more thing about torture. After being hung by his hands for half an hour (the “stress position” of his day), he was asked to reveal the names of his accomplices. First, he said, “Let me down, and I’ll think about it”. After a few minutes he admitted he had none, which is probably true. Disbelieving his testimony, he was jerked up again. In excruciating pain, he agreed to name his accomplices and fingered Count of Montereale, the lord of his village. His peasant shrewdness was rewarded. The inquisitors ceased the torture as they were reluctant to hear further evidence against the rich and powerful.