Government secrecy in renditions prosecution challenged
The UK government’s refusal to answer questions about political interference in a decision not to bring charges over British complicity in renditions has been challenged by international human rights group Reprieve.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced in June 2016 that it would not bring any charges in Operation Lydd, a police investigation into the UK government’s role in the 2004 kidnap and rendition to torture of two families, including a pregnant woman and children aged 6 to 12.
This was despite finding that a senior British intelligence official was involved in the operation and had – to a limited extent – sought political approval for it. The CPS took two years to consider the original police investigation which produced a 28,000 page file.
Now the Information Commissioner will review the government’s refusal of a freedom of information request about possible political interference in the CPS investigation. Reprieve asked if the Cabinet Office contacted the CPS about Operation Lydd. The Cabinet Office, which coordinates intelligence, refused to confirm or deny if it had discussed Operation Lydd with the CPS.
By contrast, the Foreign Office was able to deny having had any meetings with the CPS. The Cabinet Office’s defensive answer raised suspicions of possible political interference, according to Reprieve. It therefore wrote to the Information Commissioner asking her to review the Cabinet Office’s response.
The al-Saadi and Belhaj families were kidnapped, forced onto planes and flown to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya in a joint MI6-CIA operation in March 2004. Sami al Saadi and Abdul-Hakim Belhaj were both prominent Gaddafi opponents who had been living with their families in exile, and suffered years of torture after their forcible return.
Mr Belhaj’s wife, Fatima Boudchar, has told of how, despite being pregnant at the time of the rendition, she was chained to a wall in a secret CIA prison – or “black site” – in Bangkok, before being bodily taped to a stretcher for the entire flight to Libya. One of Mr al Saadi’s children, Khadija, who was 12 years old at the time, has described how she was so terrified during the kidnap that she passed out.
Evidence of the UK’s central role in the operation emerged after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, when documents discovered by Human Rights Watch in the office of his spy chief, Moussa Koussa, were found to include correspondence from MI6 in which senior officer Sir Mark Allen took credit for the intelligence behind the operation. In a fax to Mr Koussa, Sir Mark wrote “I congratulate you on the safe arrival of…the air cargo .”
The UK government has never denied its role in the operation, but has also refused to either acknowledge it or apologize to the families who were kidnapped. Both Tony Blair and then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was responsible for MI6 at the time, have denied knowledge of the operation. Mr Straw told MPs in 2005 that claims of UK involvement in CIA renditions – which saw detainees flown to countries where they would face torture – were “conspiracy theories”. However, it has emerged in 2016 that the head of MI5 at the time of the renditions, Baroness Manningham-Buller, wrote to Mr Blair to protest MI6’s involvement in CIA rendition and torture, and the Sunday Timeshas reported claims from intelligence sources that Mr Straw approved the rendition.
Cori Crider, an attorney at Reprieve who represents the families said: “The CPS sat on a 28,000 page police file for almost two years before they said there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to charge anyone at MI6 over the kidnap and torture of the Belhaj and al-Saadi families.
“Now, the Cabinet Office, which supports the Prime Minister and oversees intelligence, is refusing to say whether it met with the CPS about the case. The trouble is, the FCO denied meeting prosecutors. When one government agency says no, Neither Confirming Nor Denying looks like a ‘yes’.
“What was the nature of this potential contact between the Cabinet Office and the CPS? Was there subtle political pressure not to bring charges? This response undermines confidence in the whole process.”