Last Thursday, British judges ruled that victims of a joint MI6-CIA 'rendition' operation should have their day in court. When I reflect on that judgment, the first things I see in my mind's eye are two rooms.
One is white, stark, temporary, windowless. Fluorescent lights hang from its ceiling. The room is empty save for a woman, crying. She is chained to the wall and obviously pregnant. The woman in the white room comes from Morocco but has married a opponent of Col. Gaddafi, and for that reason is about to be plunged into terrors of which she knows nothing.
CIA agents will come to take her from this room - their room. They will tape her to a stretcher and fly her to Libya. They will manhandle and degrade her to an extent that she will wonder, at one point, whether she has lost her child. She won't, quite: but her baby, born shortly afterwards, will weigh just four pounds.
The second room I see is also spare but warmer, perhaps wood-panelled, and divided by a screen. On either side of the screen sit a man and a priest. The penitent confesses to the priest about the woman in the white room. He is a powerful man and a wealthy one, and the woman in the white room was the secret part of a grand bargain that secured his reputation and the gratitude of the British Crown.
I often think of this man, and I wonder: how would he have explained himself? Would he have argued that this woman's pain and the pain of her baby saved lives? If he expressed remorse, was he sorry before people discovered his link to the woman in the white room, or only afterwards? When the head of his church condemned deeds like his, what were his feelings then?
I should be clear here. I know the events in the white room happened because the woman, Fatima Boudchar, told me so. The second story--in which the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, Sir Mark Allen, admits delivering Fatima and her husband like so much 'air cargo' to CIA henchmen and Col. Gaddafi--I have thus far only imagined.
But after the recent ruling we may not have to wonder about Sir Mark and his motivations much longer.
Fatima and her husband, Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, have been pursuing the truth in their case against the British government, Sir Mark, and former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw for over two years now. Last Thursday, the Court of Appeal in London found that, even if the US might be upset for a British Court to comment on what happened in that white room and in Libya, if British officials were said to be involved in "particularly grave violations of human rights," British courts ought to hear the case.
This is a devastating result for the UK government, which has been waging a war of attrition with the family in the hopes that if enough years pass before a trial starts, Fatima and her husband will give up on British justice. They have spun legal arguments they know full well were unlikely to be accepted by senior judges, and did so for the sole purpose of delay. I expect we are shortly going to find out British spies have also had their ear to the phone when Fatima and I have spoken about her case, so keen are they to find any way to stop this story being told, in full, in open Court.
Fatima and her husband have always been plain that truth and justice are their main aims. They have offered to drop the case for a pittance - just a token payment of £1 ($1.60) from each defendant and an apology - an offer they have said is even now on the table. But whatever has happened in the conscience of those involved, a public apology is the one thing British officials still refuse to give.
Why? Would it not be simpler (to say nothing of cheaper) for the British government to concede what has already been found, in black and white, in the dusty binders of Gaddafi's old spy chief Moussa Koussa? Why this obstinate refusal to come clean, admit error, and move on?
If British officials will not say what they did, Fatima will force them to confront her ordeal in the white room. Three British judges have now told her she may. The truth will out; it is just a matter of time.