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Belhaj and Boudchar: Litigation Update

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 10 May 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Attorney-General:

“Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement. In 2012, Mr Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Mrs Fatima Boudchar, brought a claim against the United Kingdom Government and two individuals, the former Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Jack Straw, and Sir Mark Allen, the former director at the Foreign Office. The claimants alleged that the United Kingdom Government were complicit in their abduction, detention and rendition to Libya in 2004 and for the treatment that they suffered at the hands of others. Mrs Boudchar was pregnant at the time.

The claimants’ case, in outline, is that in early 2004 they were detained and forcibly conveyed through a number of jurisdictions by others, ultimately to be handed over to the Libyan regime of which Mr Belhaj was an opponent. During this period, they were subjected to a harrowing ordeal which caused them significant distress. Mrs Boudchar was released from detention in Libya in June 2004, and gave birth shortly afterwards. Mr Belhaj was not released until March 2010.

On 3 May, the claims against Jack Straw and Sir Mark Allen were withdrawn. Today I can announce to this House that, following mediation, the United Kingdom Government have reached a full and final settlement of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar’s claims. I would like to pay tribute to the constructive way in which Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar have approached the mediation. This has been a long-running and hugely complex piece of litigation which has been difficult for all the individuals involved as parties.

As we have seen in recent years, there remains a considerable international threat to the United Kingdom and our allies and it is important that the Government and the security and intelligence services are able to respond properly to that to keep our country safe, but it is also important that we should act in line with our values and in accordance with the rule of law. That means that, when we get things wrong, it is right and just that we should acknowledge it, compensate those affected and learn lessons. I believe this is such a case.

The settlement of this claim has been agreed out of court. The main elements of the agreement I can report to the House are as follows: first, no admissions of liability have been made by any of the defendants in settling these claims. Secondly, the claimants have now withdrawn their claims against all the defendants. Thirdly, the Government have agreed to pay Mrs Boudchar £500,000; Mr Belhaj did not seek, and has not been given, any compensation. Finally, I have met Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. Indeed, Mrs Boudchar was present in the Gallery to hear the Statement and the Prime Minister has now written to them both to apologise. I thought it right that I should set out to the House the terms of that apology in full. It reads as follows:

‘The Attorney-General and senior United Kingdom Government officials have heard directly from you both about your detention, rendition and the harrowing experiences you suffered. Your accounts were moving and what happened to you is deeply troubling. It is clear that you were both subjected to appalling treatment and that you suffered greatly, not least the affront to the dignity of Mrs Boudchar, who was pregnant at the time. The United Kingdom Government believe your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way.

The United Kingdom Government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering. The United Kingdom Government shared information about you with its international partners. We should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated. We accept this was a failing on our part.

Later, during your detention in Libya, we sought information about and from you. We wrongly missed opportunities to alleviate your plight: this should not have happened.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, I apologise unreservedly. We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it.

The United Kingdom Government has learned many lessons from this period. We should have understood much sooner the unacceptable practices of some of our international partners. And we sincerely regret our failures’.

I hope that the Government’s acknowledgment of these events in these unequivocal terms, and the apology they have each been given, will be of some comfort to Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. As the Prime Minister observed in her letter to Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar, the Government have learned lessons from this period.

These events took place in the period after the 11 September 2001 attacks, which was one in which we and our international partners were suddenly adapting to a completely new scale and type of threat. It is clear with the benefit of hindsight that the Government, the agencies and their staff were, in some respects, not prepared for the extreme demands suddenly placed on them. The unacceptable practices of some of our international partners should have been understood much sooner.

The Government have enacted reforms to ensure that the problems of the past will not be repeated. We have made it clear that Ministers must be consulted whenever UK personnel involved in a planned operation believe a detainee is at serious risk of mistreatment by a foreign state. We have also improved Parliament’s ability to oversee the actions of the agencies through the Justice and Security Act 2013. The Intelligence and Security Committee is a committee of Parliament, fully independent of the Government. It has a statutory right to review past intelligence operations, and the committee and its staff have direct access to agency papers. These reforms mean that the framework within which the UK now operates is very different from that in the early 2000s.

I end by reiterating that vital work is done to keep us safe and we aspire to the highest ethical standards. When those standards are not met, it is right that we apologise, that we compensate those who have suffered as a result and that we make whatever changes we can to avoid the same thing happening again. This is the approach we have now taken in this case and, as such, I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and am especially grateful to Jeremy Wright, the Attorney-General, for advance sight of it yesterday and, in particular, for his humane handling of this matter.

Mrs Boudchar has been in the Public Gallery of the other place today, and I am sure that the whole of both Houses of Parliament will sympathise with her and Mr Belhaj for having suffered such appalling treatment at the hands of others. What happened to them both is deeply disturbing, not least as Mrs Boudchar was pregnant at the time. I only hope that the settlement of the legal case allows some closure to a terrible set of events in their lives.

The Prime Minister has written to Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar, who is in the Palace today, to apologise for this terrible treatment. She is entirely right to have done so, and to accept—unequivocally and unreservedly—the failings on the part of the UK Government at that time.

I of course agree with the Minister and with the Attorney-General that our security and intelligence services carry out vital work in helping to keep us all safe. But the rule of law must always be respected and must always be the guide of the actions of government. Our security and intelligence services must be properly overseen. When things do go wrong, it is right to acknowledge that in very clear terms, to do what can be done to make recompense, and to learn lessons for the future.

The Attorney-General rightly raised in his Statement problems regarding information sharing, more actions being required to reduce the risk of mistreatment and missed opportunities to alleviate human suffering. We must do all we can to stop this ever happening again.

The relationship between our intelligence and security services and government is now subject to a different framework. That is a welcome step in the right direction. The statutory right of the Intelligence and Security Committee, independent of government, to review past intelligence operations and its direct access to agency papers are important. That Ministers must be consulted whenever UK personnel are involved in a planned operation in which they believe a detainee is at serious risk of mistreatment by another state is absolutely crucial. I appreciate that the Minister is, understandably, limited in what he can say openly today, but I would ask for an assurance that such ministerial consultation will be detailed, considered and informed by as much information as can reasonably be made available to Ministers at the time.

In addition, might the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that we will always be vigilant in ensuring that the framework within which our intelligence and security services operate is robust and is always shaped by our core values: the rule of law, liberty and human rights? After all, it is only behaving to those standards ourselves that allows us to stand up for those values around the world.

My Lords, I too am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Attorney-General’s Statement.

On 21 February 2008, this House was concerned with the use of UK facilities and UK airspace by the United States for the purposes of extraordinary rendition. In answer to a Written Question from my right honourable friend Menzies Campbell, now my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, assurances had been given by Mr Jack Straw in 2005, and later assurances were given by Mr Blair, the Prime Minister, in 2007, that these events had never occurred—that there had been no extraordinary rendition. A Statement in February 2008 was made by the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, in this House to the effect that this was incorrect and that extraordinary rendition had taken place through the British territory of Diego Garcia. Perhaps I may crave the House’s indulgence for quoting myself. I said on that occasion:

“We look for a public inquiry, as we have called for several times, which will investigate what extraordinary renditions have taken place not just to European countries but to places where we know that torture takes place—places such as Syria, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, where it is thought that there are secret holes where United States detainees are held. We cannot be satisfied by assurances given by the Government today on this matter”.—[Official Report, 21/02/08; col. 351.]

Nothing was said in 2008 about the events of 2004—the abduction, detention and rendition to Libya of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar, who were opponents of the Gaddafi regime and could expect torture and imprisonment.

Today, the Prime Minister’s apology, as we have heard, contains the following:

“The UK Government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering”.

We are entitled to know in what specific way. Mr Belhaj’s claim was that MI6 provided information to the CIA which led to his capture in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 and rendition via Bangkok to a Libyan jail. He further claimed that he was interrogated by British intelligence officers during his six years’ imprisonment and during the period of torture that he endured. All this was denied at the time. The Prime Minister says in her letter:

“The UK Government believes your accounts”.

Therefore, I take it that what Mr Belhaj said in his statement of claim is admitted, despite the fact that liability in the case is not admitted.

Another phrase used by the Prime Minister was that she was,

“profoundly sorry for the ordeal”,

of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. If that is so, why did this Government try to quash these proceedings and argue a defence of state immunity and “foreign act of state” immunity all the way up to the Supreme Court as recently as January of last year? Do the Government now recognise that these defences must be subject to exceptions where there are violations of fundamental norms of international law and basic human rights, such as the prohibition of torture, which has been recognised in this country since Felton’s case in 1628?

A further point is that the costs of such a series of applications and appeals, which were unsuccessful, have no doubt fallen upon the public purse. What were those costs?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for her observations and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. As the Statement made clear, more could have been done to prevent the suffering of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar when the Government shared information with their international partners. Although the Government believed assurances that they sought in good faith about the treatment, with the benefit of hindsight they feel that they could have done more. Furthermore, after the detention of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar in Libya, it is now clear that the United Kingdom Government missed opportunities to alleviate their plight.

As regards future ministerial scrutiny, of course that will be all that is required to ensure that these events do not repeat themselves. Our vigilance will be clear and robust, and will reflect our core values, as outlined by the noble Baroness.

With regard to the queries from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, I will not make any comment on operational matters, but it is not the case that the Government tried to quash any decision. The case which was raised and which has now been settled without admission of liability raised complex issues of law, and we of course respect the decision of the United Kingdom Supreme Court handed down in January 2017. The costs were incurred by the Government Legal Department and were approximately £3 million.

My Lords, I should like to draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition. I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend for repeating the Statement and to the Government for having taken the opportunity to draw a line under this very unhappy and unsatisfactory episode. They are to be congratulated on having grasped this particular nettle.

Perhaps I could ask my noble and learned friend to follow up on a couple of loose ends that are still lying around. The first relates to the press release put out by the Crown Prosecution Service on 9 June 2016 when it decided not to proceed with the case against Sir Mark Allen. The press release said that,

“there is sufficient evidence to support the contention that the suspect”—

that is, Sir Mark Allen—

“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”.

Will any further probing take place on what that political authority was and who gave it?

Secondly, there has been discussion in the Statement and elsewhere about the question of consolidated guidance and the review of consolidated guidance dealing with interviewing prisoners abroad when they are at risk of torture and ill treatment. There has been discussion about this being reviewed for some months, and tomorrow never seems to come for this. Will the Minister explain where we are with the review of consolidated guidance and when we might expect to see it published?

I am obliged to the noble Lord. It is not for me to comment upon a press release from the Crown Prosecution Service, which is, of course, an independent body concerned with the consideration of criminal complaints and cases. Therefore, I cannot add to the comments that were made in that press release.

On the matter of guidance, the current consolidated guidance is from 2010. That sets out the principles consistent with both domestic and international law governing the interviewing of detainees overseas and the passing and receiving of intelligence-related matters and information. At the moment, I am not able to give any indication as to when a review of that guidance will be completed, but it might be informed—apart from anything else—by the work of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which is due to publish its detainee report in the near future. In light of that, we will give attention to the 2010 guidance.

My Lords, I had forgotten that it was a Question asked by me in the other place that initially produced the Answer that no such rendition had taken place. At the time, there was great speculation that airfields other than the principal airfields in the United Kingdom were being used for that purpose. It might help the House if I were to point out that I was subsequently given a public apology by the successor as Foreign Secretary, Mr David Miliband. Even by the standards of the time, what happened in this case was quite extraordinary and unacceptable. The strength of these new arrangements—some of which arose out of recommendations made by the Intelligence and Security Committee, of which I subsequently became a member—will be to ensure that nothing of this kind ever happens again in any circumstances.

On a technical note, I understood the Advocate-General to say—I may have misheard him—that there was no admission of liability when this settlement was made. Having listened very carefully to the terms of the letter written by the Prime Minister, it seems to me that on any view, that might not be a judicial admission of liability but it is most certainly, in the minds of any who hear it, an admission by the Prime Minister that a great wrongdoing was created in this case.

As I indicated, the conclusion of the mediation was, among other things, that there was no admission of liability. However, the noble Lord will recognise the concern that the Prime Minister and the Government felt over the events that led to the detention of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. I hope that the Prime Minister’s clear apology will speak for itself.

My Lords, about a decade ago, I had the privilege of chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee, which produced a report on rendition. I assume, therefore, that all of the information that the Minister has given us today in this Chamber, and which the security services and the Government have given to the ISC, comes under a different regime. The committee now has more powers of greater strengths. Will the Minister tell us when the ISC is likely to report on this matter?

Clearly, I am not in a position to determine the timing of the ISC report, but my understanding is—and the expectation is—that it will be published later this year.

My Lords, I welcome this Statement: it is very clear in drawing a line under matters. Things have changed since these events happened. I was the Security Minister at the time and when I asked the question about rendition, I was told, as a Minister in the Government, that it was not going on. Does the Minister feel that this could not possibly happen again now because of the changes that have been put in place by a number of noble Lords, when they were in the other place, and by the committees that are in place or does he think that such a thing could happen again, where a tiny cabal of people is able to do something and there is no way of breaking this out?

My Lords, I am confident that we have put in place such measures as will ensure that there will be no repetition of this.

My Lords, the Statement mentions the unacceptable practices of other countries on several occasions. Can the Minister assure this House that we will not be bent in our moral judgment by the need to kowtow or suck up to other countries, which appears to be one of the reasons that has driven this behaviour in the past? Can he also undertake to make sure that these other countries have been told that we find these practices unacceptable?

My Lords, our international partners are well aware of our standards, our belief in the rule of law and our desire to uphold the rights of the individual. They are therefore well aware of our concerns in that area.