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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.