Monday, July 23, 2012

Police interview Libyans over claims of UK-authorised rendition

Sami al-Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhaj says they were forcibly flown to Libya in 2004 with Jack Straw's authorisation

Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who was allegedly tortured for years after he and his pregnant wife were flown to Libya. Photograph: Francois Mori/AP
Two Libyan opponents of Muammar Gaddafi who claim they were the victims of rendition and torture because of the actions of a British minister and an MI6 officer have been interviewed for the first time by Scotland Yard detectives.

Sami al-Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhaj were forcibly flown back to Libya in 2004 with their young families in what they allege was a security service operation authorised by the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw. This weekend, they met British police officers in Tunisia for several hours accompanied by their representatives.

Speaking for the first time since the interview, Saadi said it was a cause for optimism for him and his family. "After years being abused by Gaddafi's secret police, it took me time to believe that other police would really take a close look at my torture. I was very glad to see that Scotland Yard were serious about this investigation," he said.

British police launched an inquiry in January after documents discovered during the Libyan revolution suggested that Sir Mark Allen, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, and other security service agents had conspired in the rendition.

In one such document Allen "congratulates" Moussa Koussa, then Libya's spy chief, on the "safe arrival" of the "air cargo" which campaigners claim was Belhaj.

Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the renditions, has been accused in court papers of authorising the operation. It is not known whether Straw has been interviewed by the Met.

Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, and Lynne Owens, the Met assistant commissioner, said at the time that the cases appeared "so serious that it is in the public interest for them to be investigated now."

Saadi, a leading opponent of the Gaddafi regime, says that when he was rendered, he was accompanied by his wife and his four children all aged under 15.

All were detained, and Saadi says he suffered years of torture and was sentenced to death before finally being freed in 2010.

Saadi, 46, believed the British government had a hand in what happened to him because he had been travelling to Hong Kong from China, where he and his family had been hiding, on the belief that they would be allowed to return to Britain, where he had lived in the 1990s.

Documents found in Libya allegedly show that their rendition was only possible because MI6 lured them to Hong Kong on the pretext of an interview at the British embassy.

Instead, they were seized by CIA agents at the airport and handed over to the Libyan security service.

Khadidja al-Saadi, Sami's eldest daughter, who was forced on to the plane with him aged 12, said: "I hope to have the chance to give my evidence to the police too, especially now that they have seen my dad. I hope the Libyan government will act soon to make this possible."

Belhaj was accompanied by his pregnant wife, who was bound neck-to-toe to a stretcher for the flight. He also claims he was tortured for years on his return.

Solicitors for both men hope that Straw and Allen will be questioned as part of the inquiry.

Metropolitan officers investigating the rendition claims have not been given permission by the Libyan government.

In May, William Hague raised the Metropolitan police inquiry into the abductions with the Libyan prime minister and said the country's embassy had been informed that the police required visas but they had not been granted.

The Reprieve legal director Cori Crider welcomed the interviews but urged further co-operation by the Libyan authorities. "This is a major step in an historic investigation, but there's much still to do – most of it in Libya itself," she said. Straw declined to comment.