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Belhaj to get his day in British court over torture allegations

"Torture is wrong and can never be justified." So said Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of Britain's internal security service.

I was writing a dissertation at the same time on the ethics and effectiveness of torture in modern warfare and seized on her comments as she conveyed in less than a sentence what academia required me to thrash out in over 40,000 words. The director-general of MI5 between 2002 and 2007 always made it very clear where she stands on the issue; she even hinted in her 2012 book Securing Freedom that Britain's spies had been up to no good over Libyan dissidents and had possibly crossed the Rubicon over the issue.

She was right. Some months before her book was published I had already interviewed the leader of the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Tripoli, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, about his own horrific experiences and those of his wife, after they were subjected to rendition, kidnapped and tortured in an operation involving British intelligence officers. While in Libya during that tumultuous time following the demise of Gaddafi, I interviewed at length a number of other rebel leaders and commanders, mainly from the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who all had tales to tell which involved dirty tricks by British and American intelligence agencies.

It was quite clear back then that Belhaj wanted justice, and while one of his fellow rebels who'd endured similar treatment settled for a cash payout in the belief that his story would never be heard in an open courtroom, Belhaj continued to pursue those who had "dishonoured" him and his wife. She was pregnant at the time of her ordeal.

The response from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London was to throw what can only be called "hush money" at the problem. Handing over £2.2m to Sami al-Saadi and his family, who were also forcibly renditioned to Gaddafi's Libya in 2004, the British government tried to persuade others to take the money and go away quietly.

It was a tactic that had already been used when the government tried to sweep torture allegations and British intelligence complicity under the carpet by paying compensation to all of the UK residents and citizens taken forcibly to Guantanamo. No sooner had millions of pounds of taxpayers' money been handed over in that secret deal when documents began to surface revealing that MI6 officers had been at it again, this time in Libya.

In official statements, the ubiquitous spokesman for the FCO confirmed on both occasions that settlements were reached. "There has been no admission of liability," he stressed, "and no finding by any court of [government] liability."

Undeterred at the generosity of Whitehall, Belhaj wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron and offered to drop his case in 2013 for a mere £3 plus an apology from HM Government and an admission of liability. In anyone's view this seemed like a great bargain for the taxpayer; it was rejected.

Now, thanks to a landmark legal decision this week, it looks as though Belhaj will get his day in court when questions about the behaviour of MI6, which was then accountable to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, will have to be answered before a judge. It will be interesting to see if Manningham-Buller is called as a key witness. Without doubt the proceedings with Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar will be watched closely across the Middle East by all intelligence agencies and those who have been wronged.

Allegations and suspicions about illegal behaviour by western intelligence agencies were being investigated by the Outreach Director of human rights group Cage, Moazzam Begg, when he was arrested at the beginning of this year following a trip to Syria. Begg knew that British intelligence had a close relationship with the Assad regime before the eruption of the civil war and he was gathering information following more allegations of complicity in illegal activities. This may now explain his curious arrest, detention and release without trial after the British authorities admitted that they had no case. Begg was declared to be "an innocent man." Quite how much compensation his 7 months inside a high security prison awaiting a trial that never happened will cost the British taxpayer remains to be seen, but it is understood that the former Guantanamo detainee will seek legal redress for what he regards as false imprisonment.

Now that Belhaj and his wife have been given the green light to sue the government over their rendition, abduction and torture in the joint intelligence operation involving both British and American intelligence agencies, other lawsuits from Libyan dissidents may follow. This is a serious blow to both the British government and the security services, given that they wriggled like worms on a hook for two years to avoid prosecution over complicity in the Belhaj kidnapping affair in 2004. In a landmark judgment that could open the floodgates to scores of other wronged Libyans to take legal action, the Court of Appeal in London ruled that neither Jack Straw nor former senior MI6 officer Sir Mark Allen can be protected by state immunity.

It seems, therefore, that we will finally discover the murky side of British intelligence operations and the identity of those in government who signed-off on dirty dealings which may yet prove to have been unlawful. Cori Cryder, a director at the human rights law firm Reprieve, declared that she and her colleagues are seeking to go to trial now. "It's the government that's seeking to avoid the trial," she added.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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