THE BLOG
23/10/2013 12:47 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The UK Government Is Trying to Get Off the Hook for Libyan Torture

Some of you may remember how David Cameron's victory lap in a still-jubilant Tripoli was marred by the release of an embarrassing cache of faxes. The faxes revealed the true price of Blair's infamous 'deal in the desert' with Gaddafi in 2004: a joint US-UK-Libyan operation to kidnap my client and his pregnant wife.

It took us two years to get here, but even that is far from enough for her Majesty's Government. This week has seen the first hearing in what is perhaps the watershed torture trial of the 'war on terror': the complaint by Libyan dissident Abdul-Hakim Belhadj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, against the security services, ex-MI6 man Sir Mark Allen, and then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Had history gone differently, you and I might never have heard of this case. But the revolution in Libya kicked up great clouds of dust - some with stories the West would have preferred stayed buried in the rubble of Gaddafi's palace at Bab al-Aziziya.

Some of you may remember how David Cameron's victory lap in a still-jubilant Tripoli was marred by the release of an embarrassing cache of faxes. The faxes revealed the true price of Blair's infamous 'deal in the desert' with Gaddafi in 2004: a joint US-UK-Libyan operation to kidnap my client and his pregnant wife.

I was in Tripoli at the time of Cameron's visit, meeting Abdel-Hakim and Fatima. They told chilling tales of their abduction; of how they feared for the death of Fatima's baby in utero; of Belhadj's years of torture in Gaddafi's dungeons.

The clients knew the CIA had nabbed them all along. What they hadn't known before the faxes, they said, was that behind the whole dirty business was America's special ally - Britain. This surprised and dismayed them. They said they had believed that Britain was a nation of laws.

In the faxes Sir Mark describes my clients as "air cargo". He rushes to take credit for the operation with his "friend" Moussa Koussa - Gaddafi's spy chief - and says he "feels he has the right to deal direct" with my client's tormentor.

This was an inhuman message, and one Sir Mark has probably lived to regret. But private regret is not an open apology - and from my first conversation with Abdul-Hakim and his wife it has been plain that public redress was their main goal.

Unfortunately, public redress is precisely what the government hopes to avoid. It has spent millions of taxpayer pounds - and aims to spend millions more - to avoid a public accounting of this disaster. This is unnecessary. Abdel-Hakim and Fatima have publicly offered to drop their claim for a token payment of £3 - one from each defendant - and an unreserved apology.

But the UK government refuses this offer. It would far rather pay out. This is partly because it feels it must cover for its spies, especially Sir Mark, as well as Jack Straw - an apology, they fear, may land them in the dock. (Scotland Yard is investigating the kidnap.) But the principal and unstated objection is that a trial will reflect poorly on UK officials.

So desperate is the government to avoid a trial that they have thrown up a series of shadow puppets as arguments: flimsy and ephemeral, but designed to frighten the credulous. These shadow puppets are the subject of this week's court battle.

The worst is the tired old claim that to hear this case at all will damage the relationship with the United States. British judges judging British officials, they say, will spur America to cut off the flow of vital intelligence.

If this rubbish sounds familiar, it is. The government used this exact excuse to justify its controversial secret courts bill - the so-called 'Justice and Security Act'. And why not? It worked last time. After a mighty fight in Parliament and the papers - when the Guardian and the Daily Mail join hands to oppose a policy, you know something ugly is afoot - the spies got their way. Secret courts are now on the books when the government is sued in cases that involve what they call 'national security', and we at Reprieve call a national embarrassment.

But the government has not sought to invoke secret trials against Abdel-Hakim and Fatima - yet. They will when they must, but they understand that for this case to be one of the first heard in secret will expose the Act for what it is: a cover-up charter. It will disgust the public and turn the stomachs of senior judges.

And so, to keep Abdel-Hakim and Fatima from the front of the Secret Courts queue, they have reheated this risible argument that Mr Straw and Sir Mark must slip off the hook because they conspired with the US. The government knows full well its case is weak. It cares not. The claim is likely to achieve its sole objective: delay.

The government's strategy is plain. This week is the first salvo in a war of attrition it is waging against my clients. It hopes that if their torture trial lasts a decade Abdel-Hakim and Fatima will tire of the process, accept a payment, and try to forget their kidnap.

I believe this is a miscalculation. Mr Belhadj fought to rid his nation of a despot for over twenty years. He survived seven of those in Gaddafi's torture chambers, only to take up the fight again the moment he could - alongside the British - in 2011. This suggests the determination and patience to outlast even the most mendacious government strategy.

Mr Belhadj repeatedly states Britain and Libya should remain fast friends. He is equally steadfast, however, in saying that there must be a reckoning.

Of course Abdel-Hakim and Fatima sometimes ask when their day in court will finally arrive. Despite the parade of shadow-puppets thrown up to frighten British judges, I believe the courts will eventually see through the ruse. And so I tell them: the gears of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.