Jack Straw faces legal action over his role in rendition

The accusations, background, and implications explained.

Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a military commander in Libya and former dissident, is taking legal action against Jack Straw. Belhaj, a former dissident, was flown to one of Muammar Gaddafi’s prisons in a rendition operation in 2004, alleges that Straw, who was foreign secretary at the time, was complicit in the torture he suffered in Libya. Here is your full guide to the case.

What are the accusations?

In 2004, Belhaj was the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which opposed Gaddafi’s regime. MI5 believed that the group had links to al-Qaeda.

Belhaj claims that he and his pregnant wife, Fatima Bouchar, were detained by CIA agents in Bangkok as they attempted to travel to Britain to claim political asylum. He says that they were taken from Thailand back to Libya, via UK-controlled Diego Garcia, and alleges that they were tortured both during the rendition process and in Libya, where he was imprisoned.

Crucial to this case is the complicity of Britain in providing the intelligence necessary for the rendition process.

Belhaj and his wife accuse Straw of being complicit in the "torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, batteries and assaults" they suffered at the hands of Thai and US agents, and the Libyan authorities.

What is the background?

This issue first surfaced last September, when documents found in an abandoned Libyan government office indicated that MI6, particularly the head of counter-terrorism, Mark Allen, had provided the intelligence that allowed the CIA to detain Belhaj and his wife in March 2004.

At the time, MI6 did not deny involvement. The Guardian quotes Whitehall sources as saying that the agency’s actions were part of "ministerially-authorised government policy".

Why is Jack Straw liable?

Belhaj’s lawyers say that Straw was foreign secretary with responsibility for MI6 at the time of the rendition. They also allege that a 2004 letter from Allen to Libya’s former intelligence chief congratulated Libya on Belhaj’s safe arrival.

Straw is not the only person to face legal action. Papers have already been served in the High Court to sue the UK government, its security forces, and Allen, for damages.

The papers served against Straw allege his complicity in the torture that Belhaj and his wife suffered, as well as misfeasance in public office. They are seeking damages for the trauma.

Why now?

Belhaj’s lawyers decided to serve papers on Straw after a report in the Sunday Times on 15 April which claimed that Straw allowed the incident to happen. The newspaper claimed that Straw admitted that he had approved Belhaj’s secret rendition after MI6 agents presented him with evidence proving that he had signed it off.

What has Straw said on the matter?

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme last autumn, when these allegations first surfaced, Straw said:

The position of successive foreign secretaries, including me, is that we were opposed to unlawful rendition, opposed to torture or similar methods and not only did we not agree with it, we were not complicit in it, nor did we turn a blind eye to it.

While UK ministers have denied any complicity in rendition or torture, Straw has not commented further, because of the ongoing police investigation into the UK’s alleged role in illegal rendition. The Crown Prosecution Service launched this criminal investigation earlier this year, and Straw already faces questioning.

What next?

Leigh Day and Co, the law firm representing Belhaj, said that they expected Straw’s response to the letter of claim would echo previous responses from government solicitors, which “neither confirm nor deny”.

Due to this, they are seeking a response by close of business on 17 May, as opposed to the six months normally allowed to respond to allegations. They said that after this date, proceedings could be issued without further notice. This would place Straw in the uncomfortable position of defending his actions in court.

If Straw does not admit liability in this time, the law firm said that they expected him to provide the documents detailed in the Sunday Times article, and copies of government communications relating to Belhaj’s case.
 

Jack Straw arrives to give evidence to the Iraq Inquiry, January 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.