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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage