By Owen Bowcott
Document submitted to high court as part of case over secret justice reveals depth of relationship between British and Libyan spymasters.
The documents were revealed on the opening day of the case at the high court. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian.
Confidential phone calls made from a post office by MI6’s counter-terrorism chief, Sir Mark Allen, to London in 2003 were intercepted by Libyan spies, according documents submitted to the high court.
On another occasion claims by a well-placed informant that the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, would be assassinated on a visit to the north African state were discussed by both countries’ intelligence agencies, the court has been told.
Such extraordinarily, detailed knowledge of the relationship between British and Libyan spymasters – before Gaddafi was overthrown – make a nonsense of UK government claims that the rendition compensation case brought by Abdel Hakim Belhaj must be heard behind closed doors, his lawyers argued on Monday.
At the opening day of a courtroom battle over secret justice, a 33-page witness statement from Sapna Malik, a solicitor from the law firm Leigh Day representing Belhaj, revealed fresh information from official files discovered in Tripoli after the Gaddafi regime fell in 2011.
It was also alleged that the government is preventing both Sir Mark Allen and the former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, from mounting personal defences to the compensation claims by threatening them with prosecution.
Written arguments by Ben Jaffey QC, on behalf of Belhaj, state: “The suggestion that Mr Straw and Sir Mark Allen are unable to defend themselves outside of a closed material procedure [secret hearing] is not understood. There is a suggestion that … HM government has sought to prohibit [them] from producing meaningful defences by virtue of the Officials Secrets Act.”
Belhaj and his then pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, were abducted in 2004 from Malaysia in a joint MI6/CIA operation and forcibly removed to the torture cells of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.
MI6 involvement in the rendition was confirmed in 2011 when fax messages from Allen to Moussa Koussa, the Libyan intelligence chief, were discovered in Tripoli that suggested “joint penetration operations” be conducted against the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), of which the exiled Belhaj was a prominent member.
Previously unknown details of British involvement with Gaddafi emerge in Malik’s statement including reference to a visit by Allen to Libya in 2003. “Sir Mark made two phone calls to a [Foreign Office] telephone number from a Libyan mobile telephone and one call to the same number from a post office at Leptis Magna, the Roman archaeological site east of Tripoli,” it said. “The Libyan authorities appear to have intercepted the calls.”
The unnamed informant close to the LIFG, who passed on information to MI6 and Libya’s External Security Organisation (ESO) – facilitating the rendition continued in communication with them up until at least 2006, offering to pass on material about other Libyan dissidents.
The source reported that the removal of Belhaj and another LIFG leader, Sami Al-Saadi, who was also subject to an MI6/CIA rendition, had resulted in the rebel organisation moving towards radical Islam.
Malik’s witness statement continues: “The Libyan ESO were aware of the source’s prior relationship with the UK security and intelligence services: when the source claimed to have information about a planned assassination of the prime minister [Tony Blair], ESO shared the information with the UK and ESO officials noted that ‘we are still not revealing to him that he was dealing with you’.”
The Libyan spies also cautioned their British counterparts about the credibility of the threat. “ESO officials noted their scepticism about the intelligence the source was providing on the supposed attack plan [in Tripoli],” the statement said.
Rory Phillips QC, for the government, told the court on Monday that parts of the case needed to be heard behind closed doors due to national security concerns.
Such was the need for secrecy, he said, that even he did not know some of the arguments being advanced by other government lawyers to protect confidentiality. At one stage, the media, public and lawyers for Belhaj had to leave the courtroom for half an hour while part of the arguments in front of the judge, Mr Justice Popplewell, were conducted behind closed doors.
A statement signed by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and released to the court said: “I have concluded … that it would not be possible to have fair trial of these claims on the basis of the open material alone.”
He added: “Serious allegations have been made against [both Jack Straw and Sir Mark Allen], which they and the government firmly contest. They both wish to have a real opportunity to defend themselves but they know that as a matter of law and fact they cannot do so unless there is a [secret hearing].”
Belhaj and his wife have offered to settle the compensation for a token payment of £1 from each of the agencies and an unreserved apology. The court has also been told that the government has neither in open nor in closed materials, yet pleaded or offered a defence to the central allegations of forcible rendition.
Before the hearing, Malik said: “In a case of this importance, and where so much relevant evidence is already in our clients’ possession, it is vital that they are able to participate in the trial of their claims as fully as possible and not be shut out of the process.”
The hearing continues.
Owen Bowcott is legal affairs correspondent. He was formerly the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent and also worked on the foreign news desk.