Libya renditions should put UK spies firmly under the spotlight




Bv Cori Crider
Strategic Director of Reprieve’s Abuses in Counter Terrorism team

Why should the British public have to rely on the overthrow of a north African dictator to discover the gravest misdeeds of its intelligence agencies?

Recently, to the puzzlement of my American friends and forebears, I became British. In a Lambeth municipal building I pledged allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. I was proud to do it. There are many aspects of Britishness I have come to love and respect. A Briton cherishes irreverence. He cares about fairness. And, perhaps most prominently in my mind, he despises torture.

Unlike in the US, torture does not divide the British political spectrum. It is something about which a London cabbie, an Uber driver and I can all agree. But there is a catch. America has gone further towards coming clean about its torture programme than the UK government has about its role in the same.

Obama’s administration – despite his original pledge to “look forward, not backwards” on torture – has declassified hundreds of pages detailing what the CIA did to its captives, in response to freedom of information requests and after the Senate’s seminal torture report.

Last week, the CIA published further evidence about torture. It makes for grim reading: “Blindfolds are placed over their eyes and a hood is placed over their heads. Earplugs are also placed in their ears …Prisoners are dressed in sweatsuits and adult diapers. The diapers are used for sanitary reasons during transportations, and as a means to humiliate the prisoner … the prisoner’s hands are shackled together as are his feet. Then a short chain is used to shackle the hands to the feet. This keeps a prisoner’s hand shackled within several inches of his feet. The prisoner’s feet are then shackled to the wall.”

For each “he” in that account, now imagine a “she”. This CIA memo (though taken from a different facility) largely echoes how my client Fatima Bouchar was treated when, several months pregnant, she passed through a CIA blacksite in Bangkok, before her arrival in the dungeons of Muammar Gaddafi in 2004.

British spies were heavily involved in her rendition, colluding with the CIA to abduct two families – Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, his wife Fatima, and Sami al-Saadi, his wife, and their four children – and deliver them to Gaddafi’s Libya. Both Sami and Abdul-Hakim were cruelly tortured. After her abuse in the blacksite and on the flight to Libya, Fatima gave birth to a 4lb (1.8kg) baby.

Abdul-hakim Belhaj
Abdul-hakim Belhaj

We know about the UK’s involvement not through transparency at the mother of all parliaments, but because when Gaddafi’s regime was toppled his spy offices were forced open, and MI6 faxes fluttered like confetti around Tripoli. These documents would never have seen the light of day in Britain. Unlike in the US, where CIA files can be accessed under the Freedom of Information Act, UK law provides a blanket exemption for security service material. There is no public interest test, and there is no time limit. MI6 files remain secret.

The exception – and our best shot at a public reckoning – was a judge-led public inquiry into torture. David Cameron promised one during his 2010 election campaign, but has punted the inquiry into the secretive intelligence and security committee. This is the flawed parliamentary “oversight” body that dozed at the wheel on rendition, and which refuses to offer the slightest detail of its work. Cameron’s lawyers have also obstructed moves for a civil trial.

And just this month, the Crown Prosecution Service said that a 28,000-page dossier from the police is “insufficient evidence” to charge the British official most involved – MI6’s former director of counterterrorism, Sir Mark Allen.

Among the papers found in Libya was a fawning message from Allen to Gaddafi’s fearsome spy chief, Moussa Koussa, congratulating him on the “safe arrival” of the “air cargo” and boasting how the “intelligence on [Belhaj and his wife] … was British”. While my clients were being tortured in Libya, Allen moved from MI6 to oil firm BP, which went on to win lucrative contracts after Tony Blair’s deal in the desert with Gaddafi.

Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the renditions, accused citizens concerned about Britain’s involvement in rendition of indulging in “conspiracy theories”. When the Tripoli files broke, Straw shrugged, saying he could hardly know what his spies got up to all the time. Yet this month we learned that none other than Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, wrote to Tony Blair to protest these abductions and chucked several MI6 staff out of Thames House. The government will not release her letter. Responding to a question in parliament this week, Theresa May simply refused to comment.

Why should the British public have to rely on the overthrow of a north African dictator to discover the gravest misdeeds of its intelligence agencies? The powers we have bestowed on our spies are vast. In our names they cajole sources and threaten suspects. They track calls and online activity, which does not amount to omniscience but in our day is close enough. This is tolerable in a democracy only if those to whom we give these awesome powers are accountable to us. Where grievous errors are made, the agencies must answer to the law like anyone else. This is the line that separates a state with policemen from a police state, or MI6 officers from a dictator’s thugs.

This article was originally published by the Guardian. A full version is available here.