By Ian Cobain & Owen Bowcott
Previously secret documents discovered in Tripoli shed fresh light on MI6’s links with Tripoli and Tony Blair’s role.
The global extent of MI6’s cooperation with Gaddafi and Tony Blair’s personal role in negotiating the alliance have emerged in previously secret documents released in a high court case over rendition.
The Libyan files show that the then head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, flew to Tripoli in 2004 to discuss how to conduct a joint campaign against exiled Libyan jihadists, who were stigmatised as “heretics” by Gaddafi’s officials.
The papers, discovered in Tripoli in recent weeks – one described as “top secret” – also suggest for the first time that Gaddafi wrote to Blair in 2003, listing five demands that he was making in return for Libya giving up its nuclear weapons programme.
The material sheds fresh light on the clandestine collaboration between the UK intelligence services and Gaddafi’s regime in organising the kidnapping of members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and their forcible return to the regime’s jails in Tripoli.
The five demands are mentioned in a letter that Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, wrote to the MI6 counter-terrorism chief, Mark Allen, in October 2003. In that letter Koussa asked Allen to “confirm from your side that you are going to commit to these demands and actually execute them”. It is unclear what those demands were.
The following February, Dearlove and Allen headed an MI6 delegation to Tripoli, and the Libyan minutes of the meeting show they agreed that information on “dangerous elements” would be shared by Gaddafi’s intelligence agents.
The following week officials from Downing Street and the Foreign Office also visited Tripoli.
Three weeks later the LIFG leader, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and his pregnant wife were detained in Bangkok and “rendered” to Tripoli. Documents discovered during the Libyan revolution show that Allen claimed credit for the intelligence that allowed the couple to be located.
Belhaj was held in one of Gaddafi’s prisons for six years and says he was repeatedly tortured.
The newly discovered papers show that an MI6 officer flew to Tripoli within days of the kidnap and asked about the extent of Belhaj’s “cooperation with investigations”. She also told her Libyan counterpart that MI6 had a number of questions it wanted to be put to Belhaj.
This officer also told the Libyans about the location of a second LIFG leader, Sami al-Saadi, who was also kidnapped and “rendered” to Tripoli later that month, along with his wife and four children, aged six to 12.
Government lawyers have not yet disputed the authenticity of the new documents despite having been served them several weeks ago.
Saadi settled his claim against the British government in 2012 after receiving £2.2m in an out-of-court settlement.
Belhaj and his wife are now suing Allen, MI6 and Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary at the time. The high court heard on Monday that the case was unlikely to come to full trial before next year.
Belhaj’s lawyer, Cori Crider from the legal charity Reprieve, said: “Our new evidence raises questions about how much No 10 knew of the plan to kidnap my clients. Did Gaddafi ask Blair to help him target dissidents? Why did No 10 send an emissary to meet Libyan spies just weeks before the abduction? What really happened at Dearlove’s set-piece presentation to Gaddafi? Come trial, Teflon Tony, Jack Straw, and others at the heart of government may find themselves in a pretty sticky spot.”
Belhaj’s lawyers are also attempting to challenge a decision by prosecutors not to bring criminal charges against Allen.
In a separate hearing last week as part of that challenge, it emerged that secret legal advice given to the FCO about the legality of rendition is being withheld from Belhaj and his lawyers even though the documents have already been shared with police, prosecutors, MPs and a judge-led inquiry.
A witness statement from Chanaka Wickremasinghe, a legal counsellor at the FCO, was released at an interim hearing in a case challenging the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to prosecute anyone for the 2004 kidnap of Belhaj and his family in the Far East and their forcible removal to Libya.
Wickremasinghe’s statement said that “most of the documents were sensitive in nature” and confirmed that they had also been shown to Straw. The purpose, Wickremasinghe said, was to assist in the police and CPS investigation but some of the material has also gone to the Gibson inquiry into the UK’s involvement in rendition and torture and to the House of Commons intelligence and security committee.
Ian Cobain is a senior reporter for the Guardian and author of Cruel Britannia and The History Thieves
Owen Bowcott is legal affairs correspondent. He was formerly the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent and also worked on the foreign newsdesk
Abdel Hakim Belhaj rendition: ex-minister calls for inquiry
By Nadia Khomami
The former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the rendition of the Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj.
Malcolm Rifkind says intelligence and security committee should investigate role of Labour ministers in 2004 rendition of Libyan
Rifkind said the intelligence and security committee (ISC), the panel of MPs and peers that provides oversight of the UK’s intelligence agencies, was best placed to investigate the roles of the then prime minister, Tony Blair, his foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and other government ministers in the 2004 rendition.
Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar were flown from Bangkok to Tripoli in an operation involving MI6, the CIA and Muammar Gaddafi’s intelligence services.
The British government this week announced that it had reached a “full and final” settlement with the couple over the incident. The attorney general, Jeremy Wright, told the House of Commons that the prime minister Theresa May had written to Belhaj and Boudchar to apologise for the “appalling” treatment they had received.
After the statement, Straw conceded publicly for the first time that he had authorised some of MI6’s actions, despite previously telling MPs that allegations of his involvement in rendition were conspiracy theories.
Rifkind, a former chairman of the ISC who served in various cabinet roles under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, told the BBC: “I think it’s absolutely vital and in the public interest that the role of the prime minister and ministers at the time in this affair should become better understood.
“Tony Blair was prime minister. He has been uncharacteristically silent, so far as I am aware not a word has he said. Jack Straw said he would love to give evidence to the ISC on those matters relevant to national security where he can’t speak openly.
“What is not known is the extent to which the then prime minister and other ministers were party to what MI6 was doing. And we know that Mr Blair took a very strong personal interest in Libya.”
Belhaj and Boudchar fought a protracted legal battle over their claim that they were kidnapped and returned to Gaddafi’s regime in a move linked to Blair’s infamous “deal in the desert” with the Libyan leader.
They said that, following three years of evading Gaddafi’s agents after fleeing Libya, they were seized in Malaysia and sent to Thailand for rendition as a result of a tip-off from UK intelligence.
Rifkind said the ISC would be able to make 95% of its findings public. “That’s exactly why the intelligence and security committee [is] there. They are senior parliamentarians.
They are the only people outside the government who have the right, absolute right, to see all the highly classified information and therefore would be able to come to a judgment,” he said.
“They could quite easily come to the judgment either that ministers, in their view, did not know, or were not involved, or that ministers were … right up to their necks, as it were.
“There will be no reason of national security why either the involvement of the prime minister, or ministers, or their non-involvement, should not be, not only investigated, but the results announced to parliament and to the wider public.”
He added that the committee had the right to decide on its own authority whether to carry out such an investigation.
During the 2011 Libyan revolution, documents also came to light revealing MI6’s role in the rendition of a second Libyan opposition figure, Sami al-Saadi, who was kidnapped along with his wife and four young children.
Straw has said he would be happy to give evidence to the ISC, stating that he sought to act at all times in a manner consistent with his legal duties while foreign secretary. But that would be done behind closed doors, and MPs have called for Straw to give evidence before parliament about his role in the kidnap and mistreatment of the two families.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, say there needs to be a broader inquiry, independent of government.
Nadia Khomami is a news reporter at the Guardian. She also writes features on music, politics and popular culture.