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Libyan torture victim wins Britain rendition appeal

Former anti-Gaddafi rebel says he is now "closer to realising justice"
Belhaj was previously leader of the anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (AFP)

A British court on Thursday ruled that a Libyan politician can sue the government over his claim that Britain conspired with the CIA in his "rendition" to Libya for torture in a case that could pave the way for similar legal action.

The Court of Appeal ruling overturns a previous court decision in December that said that while Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his wife had a "well-founded claim" the case was beyond the jurisdiction of British courts.

But Thursday's judgement said that "unless the English courts are able to exercise jurisdiction in this case, these very grave allegations against the executive will never be subjected to judicial investigation".

"There is a compelling public interest in the investigation by the English courts of these very grave allegations," it said.

“I always had faith in the British justice system,” said Belhaj, talking to the Guardian.

“The right decision has been made. I feel I am getting closer to realising justice in my case.”

The government can still appeal the case, meaning that a final ruling on whether Belhaj and his wife can pursue their legal action is not expected until 2015.

"It's a very significant step forward to see these cases finally being heard in the British courts," Sapna Malik of the law firm Leigh Day, which has been representing Belhaj, told the BBC outside the court.

Belhaj, who became Tripoli's military commander after Libyan dictator Moammer Gaddafi was ousted in the 2011 revolution, claims British involvement in his illegal rendition.

He and his wife said they were detained by US intelligence officers at Bangkok airport in Thailand in 2004 when Belhaj was leader of the anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

His wife was several months pregnant at the time.

The couple were then taken to Tripoli, where Belhaj was jailed for six years. Files unearthed from Gaddafi's archives after his fall suggest he was captured due to a British tip-off after he initially made an attempt to seek asylum in Britain.

The legal action he launched was against the British government, including the MI5 and MI6 intelligence agencies.

The government argued that evidence should not be heard because the claims involved other countries.

The legal charity Reprieve, which supports Belhaj, said the government was concerned about rendition cases coming to court because they could damage relations with the United States.

Reprieve said in a statement that delivering Belhaj to Libya was "a long-secret part of (former British prime minister) Tony Blair's 2004 'deal in the desert'" that helped restore international relations with Gaddafi.

Cori Cryder, a director at Reprieve, told Channel 4 News that it wouldn’t be possible for the UK government to stall the trial any more.

“We are seeking to go to trial now. It’s the government that’s seeking to avoid the trial,” she said.

“I think what this is really about is they’re seeking to avoid an embarrassing dispute between the old guard of new Labour – Jack Straw – and the former senior people in MI6 – Sir Mark Allen and others – over who has to take the rap over putting pregnant ladies on rendition planes.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also welcomed the ruling.

“A lot more work needs to be done in the UK to account for abuses committed in the name of counter-terrorism, with the government still refusing to acknowledge its role in these programs,” said Izza Leghtas, HRW’s western Europe researcher on Friday.

“While the government may appeal yesterday’s ruling to the Supreme Court, it is an important step towards justice over a dark chapter of this country’s history.”

In 2013, Belhaj offered to drop his case for a symbolic sum of £3.

“My wife and I are willing to end our case against the UK Government and Messrs Straw and Allen in exchange for a token compensation of a British pound from each defendant, an apology and an admission of liability for what was done to us,” he said in a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron at the time.

The offer was not accepted.