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.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear