UK government faces new call for inquiry into rendition and torture

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Former justice secretary Ken Clarke says 'ministerial involvement' in abductions must be investigated after apology to Abdel Hakim Belhaj

The British government last month apologised 'unreservedly and unequivocally' to Belhaj (AFP)
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Monday 11 June 2018 15:29 UTC
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The British government is facing renewed pressure from members of parliament to commission an independent judicial inquiry into its past involvement in rendition and torture after its apology last month to Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar.

In comments on Monday, Ken Clarke, the former justice secretary who now chairs the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, called for a judge-led inquiry to “investigate ministerial involvement in, or authorisation of the rendition” of Belhaj and Boudchar in 2004.

Clarke said he also regretted taking the decision in 2012 to halt a previous inquiry led by retired judge Peter Gibson into detainee rendition and mistreatment because of an ongoing police investigation into a complaint brought by Belhaj against former foreign secretary Jack Straw and Mark Allen, an ex-MI6 officer.

The Crown Prosecution Service subsequently said that neither Straw nor Allen would face charges, though it said there was evidence to support the contention that Allen had “sought political authority for some of his actions”.

“I have for some time regretted bringing to a close the Gibson inquiry, particularly since over four years later, we seem to be no closer to getting to the truth of these matters,” said Clarke, a veteran Conservative MP.

“It is now many years since the allegations of UK complicity in rendition and detainee mistreatment first surfaced – there is no reason why these matters, including any ministerial involvement, should not be fully investigated, and the outcome of the investigation announced publicly.”

Belhaj and Boudchar were detained in 2004 in a secret operation carried out by the CIA based on information provided by the British foreign intelligence agency, MI6, and flown to Tripoli where they were handed over to then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s security service and subsequently tortured.

The operation came amid a warming of relations between then-British prime minister Tony Blair and Gaddafi in the aftermath of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, and the UK's subsequent support for the US's so-called "war on terror".

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British government apologises to Libyan dissident Belhaj over rendition

After a years-long legal battle, the British government last month apologised “unreservedly and unequivocally” to the couple and agreed to pay £500,000 ($675,000) in compensation to Boudchar.

In a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May, sent on Friday, Clarke and other MPs said the apology was “very welcome” but said further investigation was needed into “the involvement of ministers, civil servants and other government officials in the renditions”.

“A judge-led inquiry is now the only way to establish the truth, ensure that lessons are learned, and to restore public confidence in our intelligence and security services,” the letter said.

Belhaj, an exiled military commander in the anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and Boudchar, who is Moroccan, were detained in China in March 2004 as they were about to take a flight to the UK to claim asylum.

Instead they were deported to Malaysia, from where they were flown to Bangkok in Thailand and handed over to the CIA, which flew them to Tripoli.

Belhaj was hooded and shackled to the floor in a stress position and the then-pregnant Boudchar was bound tightly by tape during the 17-hour flight to Libya, where they were subsequently tortured by Gaddafi’s security forces.



Fatima Boudchar holds a copy of the British government's apology signed by Theresa May (AFP)

Allen subsequently wrote to Gaddafi's intelligence chief to claim credit for the operation, documents found in Tripoli after the country's 2011 revolution revealed.

A fellow member of the LIFG, Sami Al-Saadi, was also rendered from Hong Kong to the Libyan capital in an MI6-CIA operation. He, too, was tortured, later accepting compensation of £2.2m ($3m) from the British government.

Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has conducted its own inquiries into detainee mistreatment and rendition.

It said last month it had sent two reports, one related to the period from 2001 to 2010, and the other relating to current issues, to May’s office and expected to be in a position to publish them some time in June.