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Belhaj ruling brings fresh scrutiny on Blair-Gaddafi 'deal in the desert'

British intelligence official said rendition of dissident was 'least we could do' days before Tony Blair met Muammar Gaddafi in tent outside Tripoli
Tony Blair [L] meets Muammar Gaddafi in March 2004 (AFP)

Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling allowing a Libyan dissident to sue the British government over his abduction and subsequent torture has once again put the circumstances surrounding the controversial "deal in the desert" between former prime minister Tony Blair and former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in the spotlight.

The ruling by the Supreme Court cleared the way for Abdel Hakim Belhaj, an exiled former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), to move forward with legal action against the former British foreign secretary Jack Straw and Mark Allen, the former head of MI6's counterterrorism unit.

READ: Tortured Libyan dissident wins right to sue UK government

Belhaj and his pregnant wife were seized in Malaysia in 2004 while travelling to the UK to claim asylum and flown by the CIA to Tripoli where he was subsequently imprisoned for six years and said he was tortured.

The rendition occurred just days before Blair met Gaddafi in a tent outside Tripoli as part of a British strategy to bring the long-time opponent of the West in from the cold and re-cast him as a key ally in the so-called “War on Terror”.

In a fax to Moussa Koussa, the Libyan intelligence chief, Allen wrote of Belhaj’s rendition: “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built in recent years.”

Allen added that he had been “amused” by an American request for questions for Belhaj to be channelled through them: “I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence about [Belhaj] was British.”

Belhaj subsequently said in an interview with Al Jazeera that he had been interrogated by British intelligence officers.

“I told them we were being tortured and beaten and hung up by our arms,” said Belhaj. “The woman in charge nodded her head to say she understood, as did the man next to her.”

In the fax to Koussa, Allen also commented on preparations for Blair’s visit to Tripoli, remarking that officials were keen to meet “the leader” in his tent.

“I don't know why the English are fascinated by tents. The plain fact is that the journalists would love it,” he wrote.

'There are clearly questions to be answered about the various relationships that developed... and whether the UK supped with a sufficiently long spoon'
- Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5

The fax was among documents found by journalists in the offices of the Libyan intelligence agency in 2011 following the revolution that removed Gaddafi from power.

The consequences of Blair’s deal with Gaddafi included Libya’s agreement to abandon its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Documents retrieved from the Libyan intelligence agency also appeared to suggest that British security services subsequently cracked down on Libyan dissidents in the UK with some placed under effective house arrest.

Ziad Hashem, an LIFG member granted asylum by Britain, claimed that he had been imprisoned for 18 months without charge and restricted to his home for a further three years based on information he believes was supplied by Libyan intelligence.

The lifting of sanctions benefitted British oil firms who scooped up lucrative contracts. It also enabled the Gaddafi family to move billions of dollars in assets to London and gain access to influential circles, with Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi’s son, promoted as a moderate and progressive voice in academic and diplomatic circles.

But another alleged consequence of the deal was apparent British involvement in CIA renditions to Libya.

'It's a small world now'

Sami al-Saadi, another LIFG leader who was abducted with his wife and children from Hong Kong, said that Koussa had boasted of his connections with Western intelligence services.

“He told me, 'It's a small world now. Before you were abroad and we couldn't reach you but now we can make a call to MI6 or the CIA,'” said al-Saadi.

The UK government in 2012 agreed to pay al-Saadi $3.5m in an out-of-court settlement but Belhaj has refused to settle and is demanding an apology and just £1 in damages.

Blair returned to Libya to meet Gaddafi again in 2007 only weeks before leaving office, as well as on several further occasions as a lobbyist for US bank JP Morgan, and the pair remained in touch even as the revolution gathered momentum.

Emails released by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton subsequently revealed that Blair had urged Gaddafi to step aside as the Libyan leader cracked down on the uprising against his rule in 2011.

“If you have a safe place to go, then you should go there,” Blair is quoted as telling Gaddafi.

'Help us suppress revolt'

Former foreign secretary William Hague also told a parliamentary inquiry examining Britain’s relations with Libya and its role in the NATO-led intervention in 2011 in support of opposition to Gaddafi how Saif al-Islam had called him to urge Britain to intervene in support of his father.

“He came on the line to say there was now an alarming situation in Libya, and on behalf of his government he was asking the United Kingdom and the West to help them to suppress the rebellion,” said Hague.

“He had clearly formed a view that this was a friendly country, and that a friendly country with which you have a personal relationship will intervene on your behalf when you are in trouble ... I think he was under a misapprehension about that, but he was not under it for many minutes,” Hague continued.

Former senior security officials have long suggested that the UK government’s relationship with Gaddafi and his circle merited scrutiny.

In 2011, Eliza Manningham-Buller, who headed MI5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, between 2002 and 2007, said the aim of engaging with Gaddafi to persuade him to abandon his weapons programmes had not been “wrong in principle”.

But she said: “There are clearly questions to be answered about the various relationships that developed afterwards and whether the UK supped with a sufficiently long spoon.”

Moazzam Begg, a Briton who was detained in Pakistan and later held at the US's Guantanamo Bay prison, told MEE Tuesday's ruling demonstrated that allegations of British involvement in kidnap and torture were "anything but a conspiracy theory" and called for criminal investigations.

"During the ‘Arab Spring’, I travelled to Libya with the legal teams of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi in order to encourage them to seek justice for what they’d endured. That initial meeting has finally resulted in today’s landmark decision by the Supreme Court to permit legal action against the government for being involved in kidnapping, false imprisonment and torture.”

“We note the failure of the CPS [the Crown Prosecution Service] to pursue prosecutions against the security services in horrific torture cases of people like Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed and other Guantanamo prisoners, and this ruling must renew the demands on why the government has seemingly tolerated criminal behaviour.”

"It is essential that individuals are held accountable for crimes such as torture, kidnapping and rendition."

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