Britain's ‘big tent/secret justice’ politics

“I went through a secret trial once before, in Gaddafi’s Libya. In many ways, it was as bad as the torture. It is not an experience I care to repeat.”

So said Sami al-Saadi yesterday, explaining why he and his family have accepted the government’s out-of-court settlement over his claim in the civil courts that UK officials were involved in his rendition to Libya in 2004.

In some quarters the Al-Saadi settlement is being seen as the direct consequence of Tony Blair’s famous “Deal in the Desert” with Colonel Gaddafi in 2004. At the time it was trumpeted as a clever bit of UK diplomacy, bringing Libya “in from the cold” as it renounced its nuclear weapons ambitions (and also, of course, signed a series of energy deals with European countries).

One day the prime minister shakes hand with Muammar in his Bedouin tent near Tripoli. Three days later, six thousand miles away in Hong Kong, one of Gaddafi’s sworn enemies - Sami al-Saadi - is put on a plane with his wife and four young children and flown to Libya where he is immediately imprisoned along with his family. Al-Saadi says that during the six years he was imprisoned without charge or trial he was tortured several times, including with electric shocks - a not unlikely fate for political opponents of Gaddafi's government at the time.

Why does this matter?

Well - aside from the fact that it just matters - the chance discovery of documents after the fall of Gaddafi last year raised the political temperature on this considerably. The documents appear to show that individuals from British intelligence had at least some awareness of Al-Saadi’s rendition - just as it's apparent that they were at the very least aware of the similar rendition of fellow Libyan Abdul Hakim Belhaj (in fact the Belhaj case was reportedly one where the British intelligence services actively "tipped off" their Libyan counterparts).

Cosy relationships between intelligence services? Possibly. People chewed up by the intersecting of high politics and under-the-radar intelligence operations? Well ... we simply don't know. Not in any real detail. It’s what the Detainee Inquiry under Sir Peter Gibson was supposed to help find out - but didn't.

The now-shelved Gibson inquiry was always a lightweight and overly-secretive entity anyway. Its successor, if it ever sees the light of day, needs to be bigger and better. Meanwhile, one of the many worrying things about the Sami al-Saadi case is the fact that he felt he’d never find out the truth via the British courts, not least because of moves to introduce greater secrecy.

I don’t think Al-Saadi was necessarily being unduly pessimistic. With some of the more sensitive issues of recent years, neither public inquiries nor civil legal cases have been resounding successes. As we’ve seen with a whole host of topics - with Finucane, Hillsborough, Orgreave, Bloody Sunday, Al-Yamamah (the list goes on ...) - our political culture habitually talks about openness while practising secrecy. With the Blair-Gaddafi meeting we appear to have a strangely literal version of “big tent” politics played out in front of the world’s cameras while the “secret state” was apparently intent on changing the world in quite a different way.

Next week the House of Commons is set to debate the Justice and Security bill. As I’ve pointed out before, this Kafka-esque piece of legislation is set to push the truth even further from reach for the likes of Sami al-Saadi. Take action here.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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