By Richard Norton-Taylor
Supreme Court to rule in March whether details of MI6’s role in renditions of Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his wife must remain secret.
Britain’s highest court has agreed as a matter of urgency to rule on an attempt to conceal the role of a top MI6 intelligence officer in the abduction of a prominent opponent of the former Libyan dictator.
Lawyers for Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his Moroccan-born wife Fatima Boudchar are fighting claims that the part played by Sir Mark Allen, MI6’s former counter terrorism chief, in their capture and abduction in 2004 to Tripoli where they were tortured must remain secret.
Key to the case is the relationship between Allen and his political masters, in particular Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time. Boris Johnson, the present foreign secretary, has said the case must be heard in secret. That claim will now be challenged in Britain’s Supreme Court on 22 March.
At issue is a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service, Britain’s official prosecutor, that neither Allen nor Straw should face criminal charges.
Belhaj’s lawyers say that the reasons the CPS took the decision – after a four-year British police investigation – must be made public. The foreign secretary, who is responsible for MI6, insists that the case must be heard in secret.
A high court judge has ruled that the courts have the right to make such a decision under the 2013 Justice and Security Act.
But Belhaj’s lawyers point out that that statute only covers civil lawsuits and not criminal cases. It was passed as a result of the decision by Britain’s security and intelligence agencies to pay millions of pounds of compensation to British nationals and residents who were rendered to Guantanamo Bay.
MI6 and Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, preferred to pay the money rather than be summoned to give evidence in public in a civil case.
The latest move follows repeated attempts by the British government to cover up Britain’s role in the joint MI6-CIA Libyan abduction in 2004.
The Supreme Court has already dismissed the government’s attempt to prevent any hearing into Belhaj’s claims for compensation for his ordeal and his demand that Britain should apologise for its actions.
However, the British government has insisted that if this compensation claim is to be heard in court, it, too, must be in secret.
Cori Crider of the human rights charity, Reprieve, said on Wednesday: “Abdul-Hakim and Fatima have already had to beat the government once in the Supreme Court, and they’ll go back as many times as it takes for open justice.
“Ministers hope to whisper in the judge’s ear about the real reason one of their top MI6 officers was let off the hook for his role in the rendition of a pregnant woman. But criminal matters were explicitly carved out of the Justice and Security Act, and rightly so. With something this serious we, the British public, have a right to know what was done in our name.”
Explaining its decision not to prosecute Allen or Straw, the CPS said in a carefully-worded statement in 2016 that Allen had “sought political authority for some of his actions”.
It added: “In what has been a thorough and painstaking investigation, evidence and information was obtained from a large number of records, individuals and organisations including the Secret Intelligence Service [MI6], the Security Service [MI5], other government departments and authorities in other countries.”
It added: “Officials from the UK did not physically detain, transfer or ill-treat the alleged victims directly, nor did the suspect have any connection to the initial physical detention of either man or their families”.
It said Allen had “sought political authority for some of his actions albeit not within a formal written process nor in detail which covered all his communications and conduct.”
Top Image: Abdul-Hakim Belhaj was abducted and flown to Tripoli in 2004 in a joint CIA-MI6 operation (AFP)
Richard Norton-Taylor is a former security and defence editor at the Guardian. He is on the board of Liberty, the National Council for Civil Liberties. He has twice won Freedom of Information Campaign awards.