The UK government’s compensation to a Libyan dissident over its complicity in his torture and rendition provides some relief but does not absolve it of the duty to investigate. A criminal investigation into his claims and a wider public inquiry are both essential, Human Rights Watch said.
“The UK’s payment to Sami Mostefa al-Saadi and his family doesn’t absolve it of the duty to hold those responsible to account,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “It’s vital for the British police to continue their criminal investigation into his rendition and torture and for the government to convene an independent inquiry to look at wider UK complicity in overseas torture.”
Documents discovered by Human Rights Watch in Tripoli, Libya in September 2011 indicated that the UK Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, was involved in al-Saadi’s detention, along with his wife and children, in Hong Kong in March 2004. The documents also revealed the role of MI6 in the rendition to torture of another Libyan dissident Abdul Hakim Belhadj, whose civil suit against the UK government is ongoing. The Metropolitan Police in London is carrying out criminal investigations in relation to both cases to determine whether UK officials were involved in wrongdoing. As a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and several other treaties, which enshrine the absolute prohibition of torture, the UK government cannot escape from its legal obligations to investigate and remedy violations of that prohibition merely by paying compensation.
Research by Human Rights Watch indicates that after almost two weeks in detention, al-Saadi and his terrified family were forced onto a plane to Egypt and later taken to Libya, where they were handed over to the Gadaffi government. His wife and children were detained for two months in Libya before being released. Al-Saadi was detained for six years. During the first 18 months of his detention he was repeatedly tortured, including beatings and electric shocks. He told Human Rights Watch that he was questioned by interrogators he believed were from the UK and the US.
Faced with mounting allegations of UK complicity in overseas torture and rendition, including in Pakistan, the UK government announced an inquiry in July 2011. But in July 2011, the government imposed conditions on the Gibson Inquiry, named after the retired judge who chaired it, including limits on questioning witnesses and government control over disclosure. The conditions made an effective and independent process impossible. As a result, leading nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and victims’ lawyers withdrew their cooperation in August 2011.
In January 2012, the government announced it was shelving the inquiry, citing delays arising from the need to complete the criminal investigations into the two Libyan cases. It promised to open a fresh inquiry at a later date. But statements by the government since then suggest that it has not yet accepted the criticisms and concerns over the structure of the inquiry that led to its boycott.
“Al-Saadi’s appalling treatment shows why an independent inquiry into UK complicity in torture and rendition is so important,” Ward said. “But the government needs to recognize that an inquiry that repeats the mistakes of the Gibson Inquiry won’t be able to get to the truth.”
The government should also publicly repudiate the practice of rendition, Human Rights Watch said.
The al-Saadi case also has implications for the UK government’s plans to widen the use of secret hearings in the civil courts. A key justification for the Justice and Security Bill being considered by Parliament is that the government is forced to settle expensive claims in relation to national security issues because it cannot contest them without disclosing classified material in open court.
But this assertion ignores the fact that the government already has the option before deciding to settle of asking the court to summarize the classified material or to strike out claims that it believes cannot be fairly determined without the disclosure of classified material that would compromise national security.
The government did not seek to strike out proceedings in this case, reinforcing concerns that the real motivation for widening the use of secret hearings is not its inability to defend itself in court, but its desire to prevent evidence of UK abuses from coming to light, Human Rights Watch said.