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UK Involvement in Rendition

Volume 612: debated on Wednesday 29 June 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julian Smith.)

I want to say how pleased I am to have secured this Adjournment debate on the subject of the UK’s involvement in rendition. I wish we could find a better word than “rendition” for what this involves. It is a very dry, technical and legalistic term, suggestive perhaps of involvement in a performance of a piece of poetry or a song. It is, in fact, one of those terms that obscures rather than reveals its true meaning.

Rather than find another term for it, let me quote the words of Khadija al-Saadi who at the age of 12 was rendered from Hong Kong to Libya in a joint CIA/MI6 operation in 2004. She describes the 16-hour flight in which her father, an opponent of the now deposed Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, was chained to a seat with a needle stuck in his arm. She wrote:

“I was 12 years old and was trying to keep my younger brothers and my six year old sister calm. The guards took us to see our mother once on the flight. She was crying and told us that we were being taken to Gaddafi’s Libya. Shortly before the plane landed, a guard told me to say goodbye to my father, at the front of the plane. I forced myself ahead and saw him with a needle in his arm. I remember guards laughing at me. Then I fainted. We were taken off the plane and bundled into cars. Hoods were pulled over my parents’ heads. Libyans forced my mother, sister and I into one car, my brothers and father another. The convoy drove to a secret prison outside Tripoli, where I was certain that we were all going to be executed. All I knew about Libya at that time was that Colonel Gaddafi wanted to hurt my father, and that our family had always been moving from country to country to avoid being taken to him. Now we had been kidnapped, flown to Libya, and his people had us at their mercy.”

Khadija’s father, Sami, was subsequently held for six years and severely tortured.

That, Mr Deputy Speaker, is why it is important for this House to debate rendition this evening. That act and all that followed from it was done as a result of the efforts of British intelligence officers. These illegal acts were done in our name, and it is right that Parliament and the public should be told what was done by whom and on whose authority.

The circumstances surrounding the al-Saadi case were one of two sets of circumstances that came to light following the fall of the Gaddafi regime, when documents were found by the organisation Human Rights Watch in the Tripoli office of Gaddafi’s spy chief Moussa Koussa. The content and tone of some of that correspondence is shocking, but it provides an insight into the minds of those responsible. The rendition, it is boasted, was

“the very least we could do for you and for Libya.”

If rendition was the least that he could have done, I hate to think what might have been possible at the upper end of the scale.

May I clarify a point? Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that our secret services were used to move a person to Libya, under Gaddafi, at the express wish of Gaddafi?

That is what I understand the position to be, although obviously our knowledge is incomplete.

The correspondence continues:

“I know that I did not pay for the air cargo but the intelligence on him was British.”

To refer to another human being as “air cargo” is just about as degrading and dehumanising as it is possible to imagine.

When I raised the issue with the Prime Minister today, during Prime Minister’s questions, he told me that

“very few countries in the world would have had such an independent and thorough investigation into an issue like this.”

He was right—up to a point. The investigation of the role of senior British officers in the rendition of the al-Saadi family and another one was carried out by the Metropolitan Police Service. It was a thorough investigation, which does the police credit. At the end of it, a report running to 28,000 pages was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, which announced on 9 June that no proceedings would be taken against the suspect in the inquiry.

I shall turn to the question of the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service in a moment, but first I want to address the Prime Minister’s assertion about the rigour of the investigation. As I have said, the Metropolitan Police Service appears to have done a thorough piece of work; the fact remains, however, that the whole investigation only ever happened because, in the chaos following the fall of Gaddafi, someone from Human Rights Watch happened to come across those documents. But for that, we would almost certainly never have known of our country’s involvement in this affair.

A number of issues arise from the statement made by the CPS on 9 June, and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed them in his reply. The first relates to the review of the decision. The decision itself has been greeted with some scepticism and incredulity. I understand that there is to be a review of it, but that the review will be carried out by other CPS officials, subordinate to those who made the decision. Surely a case of such political sensitivity deserves better than that. There is a precedent for the review of a politically sensitive decision being conducted by lawyers who are independent of the CPS: that was done in the case of the decision not to prosecute the late Lord Janner. I suggest that this is another case in which an independent review is appropriate. Will the Minister tell me whether or not there will be such an independent review?

Most remarkably of all, the CPS statement of 9 June concludes that the CPS has sufficient evidence to conclude that

“the suspect had...sought political authority for some of his actions albeit not within a formal written process nor in detail which covered all his communications and conduct.”

Let us pause for a second to consider the significance of that. Officials of the Crown Prosecution Service have evidence that politicians—presumably that means Ministers of the day—were told of an illegal act by British intelligence officers. It cannot be right that officials of the CPS can know that, but we as parliamentarians cannot. It is ironic to think that if the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) had remained in his post as Director of Public Prosecutions, he would know more about this than he can today, having faced the voters and been elected to the House. So how are we to get to the truth here? The Prime Minister when he was the Leader of the Opposition said of rendition:

“As a moral purpose always must be accompanied by moral means, surely we must recognise that, in the last six years, issues like Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition have done huge damage to our moral authority.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 267.]

It was unsurprising, therefore, that in July 2010, in the first couple of months of his time as Prime Minister, he set up an independent judge-led inquiry into torture under Sir Peter Gibson. At that time, the Prime Minister took the view, and told this House,

“For public confidence, and for independence from Parliament, party and Government, it is right to have a judge-led inquiry.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 185.]

He expressly excluded the use of the Intelligence and Security Committee for the task. The Gibson inquiry was suspended in 2012 when the documents discovered by Human Rights Watch were published. At that time, the then Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), said:

“The Government fully intend to hold an independent, judge-led inquiry, once all police investigations have concluded, to establish the full facts and draw a line under these issues.”—[Official Report, 18 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 752.]

The view expressed by the Prime Minister today about the investigation of this by the Intelligence and Security Committee is the direct opposite of the view he expressed in 2010. When the Minister replies, will he tell the House when Government policy changed on this and why? Surely public confidence demands that a full, independent and judge-led inquiry be reinstated.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. While we may have every respect for the commitment by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the Chair of the ISC, that he will carry out an inquiry into rendition, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that reform and much greater transparency are needed on the way in which this House scrutinises MI6 activities in future so that this cannot happen again?

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady and I think she will find that the Chairman of the ISC himself has said that he sees the need for a measure of reform there.

I am a member of the ISC and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would accept the fact that we are in the midst of a major investigation into rendition. There is nothing that we cannot see. There is no one within the Government or the agencies, past or present, whom we cannot question. The only restriction, of which the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) will be aware, is that, by the very nature of our Committee, the questioning of the agencies themselves has to be done by us; otherwise they would not appear. However, I can assure him that our Committee is following every line that he and others are raising.

Of course, I take the right hon. Gentleman’s assurance—indeed, I have to because there is not an awful lot else that we can know about this. However, given the nature of the information that is now in the public domain about authorisation or the request for authorisation from the suspect who has just been told by the CPS that he will not be the subject of prosecution, that is not something that it is appropriate for a Committee of this House to be doing. It is something that requires to be done by a body that is seen to be independent of Parliament and of party, as the Prime Minister himself said in 2010.

Beyond the matters about which I have spoken this evening, there are outstanding questions about the use of Diego Garcia for rendition flights. The same batch of documents discovered by Human Rights Watch included CIA flight plans that indicated that the US intended to use Diego Garcia as a stop-over. Will the Minister tell the House why the Government continue to block the release of flight records that could settle once and for all the extent of the use of that territory for rendition? Then there is the reported letter from the then head of MI5 to the Prime Minister complaining about what had gone on in Libya. Clearly, there is no shortage of material for an inquiry to be considering.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he share my concern that as late as 2013 research from the universities of Kingston and Kent identified 13 instances where Scottish airports had been used for CIA renditions? Will he echo my hope that, when the Minister responds, he will confirm that the Government were aware or have become aware of that? Will he confirm whether they sanctioned that and whether they will fully investigate with a Police Scotland inquiry?

I would hope that that would be the case. I suspect it might be a forlorn hope, but we shall see when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box. Certainly I think there would need to be some very good reason if the Government were not to co-operate with a police inquiry, and at the moment I do not see what that would be.

If ever there was a case where sunlight was needed for the purpose of disinfectant, this is it. Only by thorough investigation and disclosure of what has been done in our name, by whom and on whose authority, can we ever have confidence that this sort of thing will never be allowed to happen again.

Let us remember the words of Khadija al-Saadi with which I opened this debate tonight. The al-Saadi family were compensated by our Government to the tune of £2.2 million of taxpayers’ money. A further compensation claim by another family is currently before the courts. It was reported at the weekend that the Government so far have spent £600,000 in legal fees defending that case, although the plaintiffs are prepared to settle for £3 and an apology for what was done to them.

Khadija al-Saadi is now in her mid-twenties. She describes herself and her siblings as

“the future of our country, and the future of this region.”

She goes on to say:

“That future, though, needs to be based on a full admission of what has taken place in the past. No one has ever explained to me who was to blame for what happened to my family.”

She is right.

That explanation is needed and not just for the al-Saadi family, but for others and all in this country who care about the rule of law and the standing of our nation in the world. I believe the Minister cares about these things, and that is why he should act.

I welcome this important debate and congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing it. He raises a number of serious issues about a matter in which I have a personal interest. As he is aware, I lost my brother in the Bali bombing and I understood that some of those involved in its planning were moved across the world in different formations, so I took an interest in this as a Back Bencher and continue to do so as a Minister.

Before going into the details of the subject, I will step back and look at what has caused a lot of questions to be raised about the style in which we deal with terrorism post-9/11. I am on record as saying that I believe the international community lost its way somewhat after 9/11. We were dealing with a new form of terrorism and extremism that we did not fully comprehend. I think that, in the desire to be seen to be doing something, the international community right across the piece ended up creating a new forum of justice that was not at all just by placing terrorists into parts of the world such as Guantanamo Bay where they could not receive the law of the land because it was not clear what the law of the land was, given the very land they were taken to. It is important that we learn the lessons of the past and ask why it was not correct that we should use procedures that had been in place over many years. Why did we feel the need to create something new about which we now look back on and say, “Actually, we did lose our way somewhat”?

I am therefore pleased that this debate has come forward. There are still questions being put. I will do my best to answer them, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that because a case is ongoing, I am limited in what I can say.

I rise briefly to caution Members. This is the subject of a major ongoing investigation by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is determined to find out who knew what and when. We have to be very careful about talking about “we” or any allegations that are made. Our Committee is following this through, with no fear or favour to anybody. The report will be published and then it will be very properly debated and questioned by the House.

I have not gone into any detail, but my right hon. Friend makes a point that I shall develop later. The Committee has yet to produce its report and, until that happens, it would be wrong of the Government to comment. We will, of course, respond in full once the report has been published.

I want to outline Her Majesty’s Government’s position on rendition. The Government support the rule of law, and as the Prime Minister said today in response to a question from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, we oppose any form of deprivation of liberty that amounts to placing a detained person outside the protection of the law, including so-called extraordinary rendition. We also recognise that we face a serious, complex and diffuse threat from terrorism, and we should not forget that. The Government have a duty to protect British citizens from that threat, both at home and abroad. Our policy remains that individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism should be brought to justice whenever possible.

We should not make the mistake of thinking that all rendition is necessarily unlawful. The right hon. Gentleman described the word, but it has perhaps been taken out of context on occasion. Rendition may, in certain circumstances, be acceptable. For example, we would support the transfer of an individual to safety, from a place where there was no apparent legal framework, or if there was some other legal basis for the transfer, such as a United Nations Security Council resolution.

The Government remain committed to ensuring that allegations of UK complicity in alleged unlawful rendition and mistreatment overseas are examined fully. In July 2010, the Prime Minister announced an inquiry, led by Sir Peter Gibson, to consider whether the UK was implicated in the improper treatment or rendition of detainees held by other countries. The inquiry undertook extensive preparatory work. However, following the launch of a new police investigation, the Government closed down the inquiry in January 2012 as there was no prospect of it being able to start in the foreseeable future.

Rather than wait for the police to complete their investigations, the Government agreed with the Intelligence and Security Committee of this Parliament in December 2013 that that Committee would carry out its own inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) has referred to that inquiry. It was decided that the Committee would consider the themes and issues that Sir Peter had raised in his preparatory work, take further evidence and report to the Government and to Parliament on the outcome. I hope my right hon. Friend will agree that the Government are co-operating fully with the Committee’s inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave evidence to the Committee on 9 June. The Home Secretary and the agency heads have also given evidence.

I do not want to pre-judge the findings of the Intelligence and Security Committee—my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) has already pointed out the importance of avoiding that. Once the Committee has published its report and the outcome of the police investigations is known, the Government will be able to take a final view on whether it is in the interests of the country or of future policy making to hold another judge-led inquiry. I hope that answers the call of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland.

I turn now to the specific cases of Mr al-Saadi and Mr Belhaj. The Government have co-operated fully with the police investigation into the cases of those two individuals, and we acknowledge the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to bring charges. The CPS has stated clearly the reasons for the conclusions that it has reached. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further, as separate civil proceedings are now under way, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. He looks poised to intervene, and I am happy to give way to him.

The civil proceedings relate to only one of the families. The al-Saadi family has already settled, as I indicated in my speech. I appreciate that this matter falls more within the ambit of the Attorney General’s Department than the Minister’s, but does he accept that any review of the CPS’s decision needs to be undertaken by lawyers who are independent of the CPS? If he cannot answer that question, will he get me an answer from the Attorney General?

As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, I think it would be better for the Attorney General to make that comment. However, I underline the point that the Crown Prosecution Service has stated clearly the reasons for the conclusions that have been reached, but I will invite the Attorney General to write to the right hon. Gentleman with clarity on the second case.

I now turn to some of the right hon. Gentleman’s specific points. On US rendition flights, we have received from the US assurances, which are renewed annually, that apart from two declared incidents in 2002, the US has not held or moved any detainees through the territorial land, air or seas of the UK or our overseas territories. On Diego Garcia, the British Indian Ocean Territory continues to be a vital strategic defence asset to the UK and its allies, including the US, contributing significantly towards global security and efforts at countering regional threats such as terrorism and piracy. The Government welcome the US presence on Diego Garcia and have made it clear that we want that to continue. The Prime Minister discussed Diego Garcia’s future with President Obama on 22 April and discussions are continuing. The issue of rendition is dealt with separately through the yearly assurances that we now receive from the US Government.

On the transit through UK or overseas territories of foreign rendition flights, such requests are considered on a case-by-case basis and are granted only when the purpose of the transit complies fully with international law. Under no circumstances would we approve a rendition that was not in compliance with international law. In the unlikely event that a foreign rendition flight were to land or to pass through UK airspace unexpectedly, we would again consider the case on its merits. There is no point in speculating on hypothetical scenarios, but our actions would always be consistent with our legal obligations.

It is worth mentioning the US Senate report. We welcomed the thorough US Senate Committee investigation into the CIA’s involvement in detention and rendition. We further welcomed President Obama’s acknowledgement that such actions were contrary to US values and did not serve the country’s counter-terrorism or national security interests.

The Government are certainly co-operating fully with the Intelligence and Security Committee’s inquiry. The ISC has confirmed to the Government that it has received all but one of the relevant documents to date, but if it requires any further documents, it only needs to let the Government know.[Official Report, 11 July 2016, Vol. 613, c. 1MC.]

The UK Government do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purpose. We have made that position absolutely clear, both publicly and bilaterally with our overseas partners. It is vital that our security and intelligence services are able to work with liaison partners overseas. The reality is that they will need to work with partners who do not always share our values, but we seek to ensure that acceptable standards are adhered to by those partners when they choose to work with us and to help them to raise their own standards across the board.

In July 2010, the Government published consolidated guidance for the first time setting out the standards that our intelligence officers and service personnel must apply during the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas and in the sharing of intelligence with liaison partners. It makes it clear that we act in compliance with our domestic and international legal obligations, and our values as a nation. Ministers must be consulted in circumstances where personnel judge that there is a serious risk of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment taking place, and Ministers will consider all relevant factors when deciding whether an operation should proceed. The independent Intelligence Services Commissioner, a former senior judge, oversees compliance with the guidance. He reports annually to the Intelligence and Security Committee, and his role in that regard was put on a statutory footing by a direction from the Prime Minister in November 2014.

I have already touched on Guantanamo Bay. The Government support President Obama’s continued commitment to close down that detention facility, which I visited a number of years ago. When that might happen remains a matter for the US Government. The UK Government have made a significant contribution to reducing the number of detainees by taking back nine UK nationals and, exceptionally, six former UK legal residents.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position today, and I am certainly grateful to other hon. Members for their contributions. In conclusion, I wish to emphasise again that the actions of Ministers and Government officials are bound by their duty to comply with the law. It therefore follows that the Government oppose any means of depriving any individual of their liberty that amounts to putting them outside the protection of that law.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.