“Our relationship with the new Libyan regime must deal with the significant issues in the past,” said David Cameron in his statement to the Commons this afternoon. Given today’s allegations about Britain’s complicity in the extraordinary rendition and torture of Libyans, these issues look very significant indeed.
The controversy centres on Abdul Hakim Belhaj, now the National Transitional Council’s military commander. Documents found in Libya appear to indicate that the UK and the US provided intelligence to Libyan authorities about Belhaj, then a terror suspect, which led to his capture in Bangkok in 2004.
In Cameron’s speech to the Commons, he reiterated that the Gibson Inquiry, set up to consider the improper treatment of detainees at Guantanmo Bay, would look at these new allegations. He said:
My concern throughout has been not only to remove any stain on Britain’s reputation, but also to deal with any allegations of malpractice to enable the secret services to do the enormously important work they do.
But is this move enough to fulfil these aims? It seems unlikely. When the terms and protocols of the Gibson Inquiry were announced last month, ten campaign groups, including Reprieve, Liberty, and Amnesty International, said that they would boycott proceedings, because it lacked credibility and transparency.
The solicitors of some detainees also said they would not co-operate with the inquiry because it failed to ensure any meaningful participation by detainees, and provided no opportunity to question evidence from intelligence officials.
Given this resounding lack of faith in the inquiry, it is highly unlikely that including the latest allegations will do anything to quash them.
Belhaj has demanded an apology from the UK and US governments over the allegation that they were involved in the plot which led to his capture in 2004, and has threatened to sue. Indeed, the courts may be the best place to thoroughly investigate this issue. During the Binyam Mohamed case, a court order was issued forcing the British government to publish secret memos it received from US intelligence officials as it was ruled that the public interest outweighed the potential risk to national security. This was hugely embarrassing for the government, and sets a precedent for future cases.
In the Commons, the Prime Minister appeared more concerned with emphasising his support for the secret services than with these serious allegations, and repeatedly urged people not to “rush to judgement” given the context of heightened security concerns in 2003. But regardless of whether Belhaj’s alleged links to Al-Qaeda were genuine, participating in rendition and complicity in torture is illegal. It is urgent that these allegations are explored in a credible, open investigation.