Jack Straw, MI6, and Extraordinary Rendition

Thursday, 14 March 2013

There was a very interesting interview aired this evening on Channel 4 News with former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, which touched on the British government's role in the Iraq War and alleged complicity in kidnappings and torture.

First, some important context.

In 2004, a Libyan Islamist militant anti-Gaddafi fighter Abdel Hakim Belhadj and his pregnant wife were abducted at a Bangkok airport and "rendered" to Libya by American agents. Belhadj was taken to one of Gaddafi's prisons and says he was subjected to torture.

At the time, British government officials were publicly denying any role in so-called "extraordinary rendition" — the practice used frequently by the United States under the George W. Bush administration involving kidnapping terror suspects and taking them to secret locations in third countries where they were sometimes brutally interrogated. But amid the revolution in Libya in 2011, a trove of classifed documents were found during the raid of a government office revealing British spy agency MI6 had in fact played a role in rendition — providing crucial intelligence that resulted in Belhadj being handed over to Gaddafi.

MI6 did not deny involvement when the documents were discovered: instead, UK government sources insisted the agency's actions were part of "ministerially authorised government policy." Then, in April last year, the Sunday Times reported that Jack Straw — foreign secretary between 2001 and 2006 — had been forced by MI6 to admit he had signed off on the secret rendition of Belhadj.

A few days after the Sunday Times report, Belhadj, who is now a military commander in the new Libya, launched legal action against Straw for alleged complicity in illegal rendition and torture.

Now, to the interview.

Tonight, on Channel 4 News, Straw made some eyebrow-raising statements to reporter Alex Thomson in light of the above. Previously he has declined to comment on the Belhadj case, and he told Channel 4 that he wouldn't discuss specifics. But he did make several short remarks that seem significant:

Thomson: It seems extraordinary to have to ask this question... but is the kidnapping and torturing of people by nation states wrong?

Straw: Of course it's wrong and we had no part in that.

Thomson: Are you sure we had no part in it?

Straw: Absolutely. It is wrong. It is absolutely wrong for any of that to have happened.

Thomson: And you are sure that the UK government had no part in it, that's what you just said?

Straw: Well, I'm absolutely sure that I had no part in this, let's just be clear about this OK, and there is going to be a full-scale judicial-led inquiry on the wider issues.

So Straw was clear. "I'm absolutely sure that I had no part in this," he said. Here is what the Sunday Times reported last year:

JACK STRAW, the former Labour foreign secretary, admitted that he had approved the secret rendition of a terrorist suspect to Libya after MI6 showed him evidence proving he had signed off the operation, well placed sources say.

Straw, who faces questioning by police over claims by Abdel Hakim Belhadj that he was tortured in a Libyan prison after being seized in 2004, was confronted by Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officers after publicly appearing to deny he had authorised rendition.

Asked about Britain’s rendition policy during an interview on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, 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."

According to well-placed sources, within days of those comments MI6 officers met Straw. “They reminded him [Straw] that he had signed off on it. He was shown evidence and [then] he did accept that he had signed off on the rendition," said one insider.

Straw has repeatedly declined to comment publicly on the Belhadj case. This weekend a spokesman for him said: “I think that you will readily understand that while an investigation is pending, it is not appropriate for Mr Straw to respond to queries like yours."

And here is a timeline of the key events:

6-8 March 2004: Abdel Hakim Belhadj and his wife Fatima Bouchar are abducted at a Bangkok airport and flown to one of Gaddafi's prisons in Libya.

13 December 2005: Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, tells MPs in response to concerns about rendition: "Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been."

4 September 2011: Documents are found by Human Rights Watch inside the abandoned office Gaddafi's former intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa. One file contained hundreds of secret letters and faxes that UK spy agency MI6 and US spy agency the CIA had sent to Koussa, some revealing "evidence that British intelligence agencies mounted their own 'rendition' operation in collaboration with Muammar Gaddafi's security services." One document showed MI6 counter-terror chief Mark Allen boasting to Koussa about helping render Belhadj in 2004. “The intelligence was British," Allen wrote, adding that assisting in rendering Belhaj by providing information about his movements was “the least we could do for you and for Libya."

5 September 2011: Straw tells BBC Radio 4 in response to the discovery of the documents: “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."

8 April 2012: Extensive details on the rendition of Belhadj and his wife emerge in a special report published by the Guardian. It opens: "Just when Fatima Bouchar thought it couldn't get any worse, the Americans forced her to lie on a stretcher and began wrapping tape around her feet. They moved upwards, she says, along her legs, winding the tape around and around, binding her to the stretcher. They taped her stomach, her arms and then her chest. She was bound tight, unable to move."

15 April 2012: The Sunday Times reports that following Straw's Radio 4 appearance in September 2011, officers from MI6 met with him. A source told the newspaper: "They reminded him [Straw] that he had signed off on it [the rendition of Belhadj]. He was shown evidence and [then] he did accept that he had signed off on the rendition."

18 April 2012: Belhadj launches legal action against Straw over alleged complicity in illegal rendition and torture.

14 March 2013: Straw claims in an interview aired by Channel 4 News that he is "absolutely sure that I had no part in this [extraordinary rendition and torture]."

*****

It doesn't take a genius to see that something does not add up here. There are clear inconsistencies between statements made publicly by Straw and the secret documents, and Straw's Channel 4 interview today contradicted both the secret documents and the claims published by the Sunday Times. The long-delayed judge-led inquiry into the UK's involvement in rendition cannot begin soon enough.

*****

UPDATE, 4 April 2013: It is reported that Straw and former MI6 spy chief Mark Allen say "they cannot respond to allegations of conspiracy in the torture of a prominent Libyan dissident [Hakim Belhadj], pleading the need to protect official secrets." Court documents seen by the Guardian show the former foreign secretary is arguing that the law means he "can neither confirm or deny [MI6] operations," claiming he cannot plead in the case without "causing real harm to the public interest."

However, Straw does explicitly deny misleading parliament in 2005 with his statement that Britain had not "been involved in rendition full stop." Straw claims, according to the Guardian's report, that:

it was 'readily apparent' ... that the committee at the time was discussing 'extraordinary rendition' — that is, rendition specifically carried out for the purposes of torture.

This denial strikes me as tenuous in the extreme, because when you read Straw's full 2005 statement to the parliamentary committee it is not at all clear that when he is talking about rendition he is only talking about rendition in the context of torture. Indeed, he even says at one point that "rendition is a term of art which covers a variety of activities," before going on to add: "there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been." Of course, we now know that the UK was involved in rendition, at the time when Straw was the foreign secretary and thus the responsible minister.

*****

UPDATE II, 22 December 2013: A long-delayed UK government report on British spy agencies' complicity in rendition and torture is finally released on 19 December. The report finds that MI6 turned a "blind eye" to the torture of detainees and was not under any obligation to report breaches of the Geneva Convention. In response to the publication of the report, Jack Straw issues yet another denial, saying in a statement to parliament:

as Foreign Secretary, I acted at all times in a manner that was fully consistent with my legal duties and with national and international law, and that I was never in any way complicit in the unlawful rendition or detention of individuals by the United States or any other state.

The following day, on 20 December, the UK High Court rejects Abdel Hakim Belhadj's rendition and torture case against the government, which Straw was reported to have signed off on. Astonishingly, the judge says that while Belhadj appears to have a "potentially well-founded claim that the UK authorities were directly implicated in the extraordinary rendition," the case cannot proceed because pursuing it would "jeopardise national security." Belhadj is now trying to appeal against the decision.

*****

UPDATE III, 12 November 2015: Citing ongoing Supreme Court proceedings, The Guardian reports that Straw and former MI6 spy Sir Mark Allen "could avoid prosecution over complicity in the rendition and torture" of Belhadj and his wife by claiming immunity in the case.

3 comments:

  1. Shame on WCIA who invited Jack Straw to give their anniversary lecture in the Temple of Peace Cardiff supported by UNA Wales tonight. http://www.wcia.org.uk/event.html?id=51783549

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