Rendition ordeal that raises new questions about secret trials

The Guardian reports: Just when Fatima Bouchar thought it couldn’t get any worse, the Americans forced her to lie on a stretcher and began wrapping tape around her feet. They moved upwards, she says, along her legs, winding the tape around and around, binding her to the stretcher. They taped her stomach, her arms and then her chest. She was bound tight, unable to move.

Bouchar says there were three Americans: two tall, thin men and an equally tall woman. Mostly they were silent. She never saw their faces: they dressed in black and always wore black balaclavas. Bouchar was terrified. They didn’t stop at her chest – she says they also wound the tape around her head, covering her eyes. Then they put a hood and earmuffs on her. She was unable to move, to hear or to see. “My left eye was closed when the tape was applied,” she says, speaking about her ordeal for the first time. “But my right eye was open, and it stayed open throughout the journey. It was agony.” The journey would last around 17 hours.

Bouchar, then aged 30, had become a victim of the process known as extraordinary rendition. She and her husband, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a Libyan Islamist militant fighting Muammar Gaddafi, had been abducted in Bangkok and were being flown to one of Gaddafi’s prisons in Libya, a country where she had never before set foot. However, Bouchar’s case is different from the countless other renditions that the world has learned about over the past few years, and not just because she was one of the few female victims.

Documents discovered in Tripoli show that the operation was initiated by British intelligence officers, rather than the masked Americans or their superiors in the US. There is also some evidence that the operation may have been linked to a second British-initiated operation, which saw two men detained in Iraq and rendered to Afghanistan. Furthermore, the timing of the operation, and the questions that Bouchar’s husband and a second rendition victim say were subsequently put to them under torture, raise disturbing new questions about the secret court system that considers immigration appeals in terrorist cases in the UK – a system that the government has pledged to extend to civil trials in which the government itself is the defendant.

This year, the Crown Prosecution Service announced police had launched an investigation into the “alleged rendition and alleged ill-treatment” of Bouchar and Belhaj, and a second operation in which a Libyan family of six were flown to one of Gaddafi’s prisons.

It appears inevitable that Scotland Yard’s detectives will want to question the man who was foreign secretary at the time – Jack Straw.

Ten years before Bouchar’s abduction and rendition, many of her husband’s associates had been permitted to settle in Britain. These men were members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah fi-Libya, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organisation formed in the early 1990s and dedicated to Gaddafi’s removal. The LIFG was not banned in the UK, and its members appear to have found the country a convenient place to gather and raise funds. There were even reports – officially denied – that MI6 encouraged the LIFG in an unsuccessful attempt on the dictator’s life.

But from 2002 the UK ceased to be such a safe haven for the LIFG. The US and UK governments were beginning to repair their relations with Gaddafi, a rapprochement that would soon see him abandon his WMD programme and open his country’s oil and gas reserves to western corporations.

One Thursday evening in November that year, a 36-year-old LIFG member who was living in London was arrested by armed police as he attempted to board a flight at Heathrow. He was told he was being detained under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, a piece of legislation that had been rushed on to the statute books within weeks of 9/11, and which allowed the British government to detain international terrorism suspects without trial. From that moment the man was anonymised, by court order – in part to protect his relatives in Libya – and could be referred to only as “M”.

When M had arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker eight years earlier, he had readily told Special Branch detectives that he was a member of the LIFG. On his arrest at Heathrow he insisted that the organisation had no connection with international terrorism and was concerned only with the removal of Gaddafi. After being detained at Belmarsh high security prison in south-east London, M appealed to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), a tribunal that allows the government to give evidence in secret, unseen by the appellant or the appellant’s lawyers.

In March 2004, M became the first and only person detained under the act to win an appeal at SIAC. The tribunal accepted that there were no links between LIFG and al-Qaida, and criticised the Home Office for its “consistent exaggeration” of M’s alleged links with members of al-Qaida. As the law permitted only “international terrorists” to be detained without trial, and not domestic insurgents, M was set free. A few days after SIAC’s decision, notice was passed to the Home Office and MI5, and Fatima Bouchar and her husband were detained in Bangkok.

Bouchar’s husband made no secret of being a leading member of the LIFG. That year, the couple had left China, where they had been living in exile, and attempted to travel to the UK via Malaysia. When they were detained in Kuala Lumpur and questioned about Belhaj’s false Iraqi passport, an acquaintance went to the British high commission to explain that the couple were attempting to reach London. Shortly after this, they were told that they would be permitted to travel to the UK on a BA flight, despite not having EU passports or UK visas. But when the aircraft stopped off at Bangkok, the pair were detained and taken to a US-run detention facility.

It was known that the CIA had been operating a secret prison in Thailand since 9/11, but its precise location was unknown. Bouchar and Belhaj arrived there within minutes of being detained, suggesting that it was located within the perimeter of Don Muang international airport. They were immediately separated.

Belhaj says he was blindfolded, hooded, forced to wear ear defenders, and hung from hooks in his cell wall for what seemed to be hours. He says he was severely beaten. The ear defenders were removed only for him to be blasted with loud music, he says, or when he was interrogated by his US captors. [Continue reading...]

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