The case brought by a husband and wife subjected to a 2004 ‘rendition,’ jointly organised by MI6, the CIA and Libyan intelligence, is being heard today (21 July) by the Court of Appeal in London.
Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, an anti-Gaddafi dissident, and his wife Fatima Boudchar, who was five months pregnant at the time, were kidnapped and flown to Muammar Gaddafi’s prisons in 2004, where Mr Belhaj then suffered years of imprisonment and torture. En route to Libya, the couple were first tortured at a CIA ‘black site’ in Bangkok. These renditions to Libya are generally thought to have been the dark underside to the so-called 'deal in the desert' struck between Tony Blair and Gaddafi in 2004 - the infamous meeting in which Blair embraced Gaddafi in a tent took place the same month as this operation.
However, lawyers for the Government are continuing to argue that the case should not be heard as to do so could damage relations with the US. The legal charity Reprieve, which represents Mr Belhaj and Ms Boudchar with solicitors Leigh Day, has argued that such a position is undermined by indications that the UK is seeking to influence the content of a US Senate report on CIA renditions, which is expected to be made public later this year.
The UK’s role in the operation emerged in documents found following the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, which showed MI6's head of counterterrorism, Sir Mark Allen, congratulating the dictator’s spy chief on the arrival of the couple. The same documents also indicated that the CIA planned to fly them via the UK territory of Diego Garcia – however, ministers have refused to say whether the CIA made this request of British officials, and if so, what the answer was. Other documents in the cache reveal Sir Mark Allen arranging the meeting with Tony Blair for later in the month, indicating the UK's preference for a "tent".
It is believed that both the role of Diego Garcia in the wider renditions programme and the case of Mr Belhaj and Ms Boudchar are likely to appear in the so-far secret Senate report. Ministers have admitted to Parliament that “our embassy in Washington has met with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to discuss its work, including in relation to the detention and interrogation program.”
This admission has raised suspicions, given press reports from the US that the “CIA must hold delicate consultations with foreign intelligence services whose information or involvement in the detention and interrogation program…is covered in the report.”
Cori Crider, strategic director at Reprieve said: “The UK government is desperately trying to make sure its role in the Belhaj-Boudchar renditions never sees the light of day. Today they are trying to have the couple's case kicked out of court in London – and meanwhile in Washington, they have apparently been lobbying the United States behind the scenes to be sure this whole sordid story gets blacked out of the Senate’s forthcoming torture report. The Prime Minister was once fond of saying ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ – is this really what he had in mind?”