UK government can be sued over rendition claims, judges rule

Abdel Hakim Belhaj Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Belhaj was an opponent of then-Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi at the time of his rendition

A Libyan man can sue the UK government over claims he was illegally sent back to Libya and tortured, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Abdul Hakim Belhaj alleges that former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and MI6 were complicit in arranging his and his wife's rendition from China in 2004.

The High Court had ruled the case could not be heard in the UK courts because it could damage foreign relationships.

But appeal judges said the claims were so "grave" a court should hear them.

Mr Belhaj, now a politician in Libya, said: "My wife and I are gratified by the judges' decision to give us our day in court," adding their alleged torture was "as fresh and as painful for us as if it happened yesterday".

His lawyer Sapna Malik said it was "very significant step forward" to the case being heard in England.

Mr Straw, who has previously denied being aware of the rendition, and the government, have been given leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Foreign Office said it was considering whether to make an application. The case would not be heard until after any appeal.


Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Belhaj spent six years in prison

Dominic Casciani, BBC home affairs correspondent

This judgement is a major blow for the government. The three judges have demanded that a light be shone into dark corners of the state's work - and not for the first time. Time and again the Court of Appeal has said allegations of wrongdoing, linked to security and intelligence, must be examined if the rule of law is to be upheld.

The key factors in this decision are clear: The judges say that international law and practice demands that alleged human rights abuses be examined. They say that it becomes even more important to do so given that claims are made against serving or former British officials.

Another reason they give is that unless an English court looks at the claims, the truth may never come out - and that is a denial of justice for both sides.

And most embarrassingly for ministers - they brush aside claims that allowing Mr Belhaj to sue would damage international relations.

Rendition involves sending a person from one country to another for imprisonment and interrogation, possibly by methods such as torture, that would be illegal in the country doing the rendering.

Mr Belhaj, former leader of an Islamist group which fought the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, claims British intelligence provided information that facilitated his rendition, along with his pregnant wife Fatima Boudchar.

Last year, Mr Justice Simon ruled at the High Court that the case against Mr Straw and Sir Mark Allen, ex-head of counter-terrorism at MI6, should be thrown out.

The government had argued an English court could not adjudicate on claims of rendition and torture in Libya, even though UK officials allegedly knew about them.

The judge said that because most of the claims related to officials in China, Malaysia, Thailand and Libya they were "non-justiciable" in the UK.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Jack Straw has previously denied being aware of the rendition

But on Thursday, appeal court judges said the proceedings were not barred by state immunity.

One of the judges, Lord Dyson, said: "There is a compelling public interest in the investigation by the English courts of these very grave allegations.

"The stark reality is that unless the English courts are able to exercise jurisdiction in this case, these very grave allegations against the executive will never be subjected to judicial investigation."

Mr Belhaj was jailed for six years after he returned to Libya. Mrs Boudchar was also imprisoned, but released shortly before giving birth.

The couple have refused so far failed to reach a settlement with the UK government, saying they want it to admit what they say happened.

In March last year, Mr Belhaj offered to settle the case with a token payment of £1 from Mr Straw and the government, an apology and an admission of liability - but this was rejected.

'Stalled for years'

Cori Crider, a director at human rights charity Reprieve, which also represents the family, said: "The government so fears this case going to trial that they have stalled for years by throwing up a parade of scarecrows - claiming, for example, that the United States would be angered if Mr and Mrs Belhaj had their day in court in Britain.

"The court was right: embarrassment is no reason to throw torture victims out of court."

A statement issued by human rights organisations Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, Justice and Redress said: "We welcome the decision of the Court of Appeal which now enables the very serious contention that UK authorities and officials were directly implicated in the 'extraordinary rendition' of the claimants to be properly assessed by courts in the UK."

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