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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser