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Belhaj lawyer: UK government has 'allergy' to the truth

Reprieve says British government has acted with 'bloody minded' force to prevent family of Abdul Hakim Belhaj suing for its role in his abduction
The Supreme Court will rule on the case of Abdel Hakim Belhaj on Tuesday (Reuters)

The British government must apologise and end its "allergy" to the truth about MI6's role in the abduction of a Libyan couple and their delivery into the hands of Muammar Gaddafi, a lawyer close to the case has told Middle East Eye.

Abdel Hakim Belhaj was tortured for six years after he and and his then-pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, and their four children were taken and transferred to Libya in a joint MI6-CIA operation in 2004.

The Supreme Court will on Tuesday rule whether the Belhaj family can launch a civil case against British officials, including a former senior MI6 officer, Sir Mark Allen, and former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, for their role in the abduction. It came at a time when Britain’s government under prime minister Tony Blair was wooing the Libyan dictator.

READ: UK spy agency faces ruling on abduction, torture of Libyan dissident

Belhaj, 50, who is now the leader of al-Watan party in Libya, is seeking an apology and a symbolic £1 payment from each of the defendants.

But it has taken five years to get to the Supreme Court in the face of a stonewall campaign by the British establishment - a tactic Cori Crider, a lawyer for the family from human rights group Reprieve, said had proved only that the state could not admit wrongdoing.

Incriminating documents

The case came to light after the fall of Tripoli in 2011, when faxes from Allen, MI6’s then counter-terrorism director, describing the rendition flights were found in the office of Moussa Koussa, Libya’s head of intelligence. 

Crider told Middle East Eye: "The documents show - pretty much in black and white - a joint CIA/MI6/Libyan effort to abduct him and his wife and send them back to Libya. Because of the Tripoli files we don't just know from our client's testimony what happened, we know from [the government's] own contemporaneous documentation.

It is just sheer bloody mindedness at this point and an allergy to admitting wrongdoing on the part of the security services

- Cori Crider, lawyer

"We have a specificity of evidence that you wouldn't usually get after years and years of litigation - which is why, quite frankly, the UK has been so desperate to avoid it going to trial."

The British government has argued that it cannot allow the case to come to open court because it could reveal details that could damage relations with the US under the so-called "foreign act of state doctrine", whereby foreign states and their agents are granted immunity from actions by British courts.

"But there is no good reason, no sensible reason - it is just sheer bloody mindedness at this point and an allergy to admitting wrongdoing on the part of the security services," said Crider.

"I have always believed ours was not just the right argument, but far and away, and the government's argument could charitably be described as legally efficacious - and I think they know it. There has been no downside to them in waging a war of attrition.

Tony Blair meets Muammar Gaddafi in 2004 (AFP)

"And by several measures it has [so far] been overwhelmingly successful: delay was very useful for them. The world has moved on, it has been five years and there has been quite a lot of intervening news."

But Crider said it could be argued that the defence itself had been overtaken by events - the US government released a report in 2014 that detailed the "enhanced interrogation" techniques approved by the administration of George W Bush.

"There is a real irony in the British government's defence [due to] factual developments in the United States in the last couple of years: the Senate select committee on intelligence released an incredibly detailed and gruesome report on what the CIA itself did.

READ: Libya rendition case has put Britain in the dock over torture

"The US has published lurid detail of its torture programme. This has to take the wind out of the sails of the British defence, although they have stuck to it.

"Would there really be harm to US-UK relations for something like this to be discussed when way worse was already published by the United States government? That is just not credible."

Lawyer: In the public interest

Crider said there was a public interest element to any future civil case as the British public would learn more about what a government had been doing in its name.

The Metropolitan Police launched its own criminal investigation into Allen's involvement and passed more than 28,000 documents to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS, however, decided there was no case - a decision which is being challenged.

Crider said she hoped a civil case would "tease out" who was ultimately responsible.

You can expect MI6 and the Blair government to fire at each other and say they're not going to take the rap for it

- Cori Crider, lawyer

"I do not have a view about whether this is a policy driven by New Labour, or whether it was Sir Mark freelancing to a considerable extent," she said.

"That is the thing that will be fascinating - the extent to which you can expect, as it were, MI6 and the Blair government to fire at each other and say they're not going to take the rap for it.

"The MI6 defence will be 'This was government policy' and New Labour will say 'He [Allen] pulled the wool over our eyes.' For instance, did Sir Mark say there would be kids involved? That will be the nub of the dispute - who knew what and when.

"That remains a key factual dispute at the core of the case and we don't honestly know which one it was. That is what we hope we can tease out should it go to trial.

"And I think not only would I like to know but the British people would like to know."

"If we win on Tuesday, as I believe we will, we would refresh the offer and remind them [the government] that instead of wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money, they might just want to look at apologising."

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