September 5, 2011 8:13 pm

Q&A: MI6 in focus over rendition

Why are Britain’s intelligence services in the spotlight once again ?

The reason is the discovery of a letter which appears to have been written by MI6 – Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service – and was found in Tripoli in the offices of Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s former spy chief.

This letter was written in March 2004 and its author was almost certainly Sir Mark Allen, then head of counter-intelligence at MI6. The letter suggests that MI6 facilitated the transfer to Tripoli of Abdul Hakim Belhadj, who was then a suspected islamist terrorist.

Writing to Moussa Koussa, the head of Libyan intelligence, Sir Mark states that the transfer of Belhadj was “the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years.” He goes on to express gratitude to the Gaddafi regime for “helping the officer we sent out last week.” It adds that Belhadj’s information on the situation in the UK “is of urgent importance to us”.

Who is Mr Belhadj and why was he important?

Mr Belhadj was at the time a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a body then linked to al Qaeda. MI6 was interested in Belhadj in 2004 because of his links with LIFG supporters in London. At that time, MI5 and MI6 were swamped by the jihadist threat in Britain, which was intensifying one year after Britain invaded Iraq. Pressures on MI5 and MI6 to secure hard information on the jihadist threat in the UK were particularly acute.

Why are human rights bodies concerned about this document?

Their worry is that Mr Belhadj was tortured by the Gaddafi regime when he arrived in Tripoli in 2004 – as Belhadj himself, now a commander in the victorious rebel forces in Libya, is reportedly claiming. Human rights groups argue that if MI6 assisted in bringing Mr Belhadj to Libya, only for him to be tortured, it would have contravened UK law.

How does MI6 respond?

Whitehall officials say that the UK government stated publicly in 2004 that it was co-operating with Libya on counter-terrorism. Secondly, they are stressing that MI6 would have sought prior approval from ministers for any action it took in the Belhadj case. Thirdly, Whitehall officials insist that in a matter such as the Belhadj case, MI6 would have sought prior assurances from the Libyan authorities that he would be treated in a humane manner. To have done anything differently would have been to break the law.

Given Col Gaddafi’s record, could any assurances be taken remotely seriously?

Many would argue that they would be worthless. In any event, an inquiry led by Sir Peter Gibson, a retired judge, will now look into the whole issue and what assurances were given.

Sir Peter is already examining allegations that MI5 and MI6 were complicit in the torture of a number of other terrorist suspects by the US and other states. Both MI5 and MI6 insist they do not participate in or condone torture in any way. However, some MPs worry that Sir Peter’s inquiry will not be robust enough in a matter where critical evidence may be hard to come by.

Are there any political implications?

The Cameron government says all this happened on Labour’s watch. The intelligence agencies argue that any action they took needed prior authorisation from ministers. Jack Straw, foreign secretary in 2004, says he never endorsed any secret programme of rendition or torture by the intelligence services. But he says the Gibson inquiry should look into allegations that the security services may have been involved in operations without his knowledge or permission.

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