Peter Oborne writes:
Hallelujah! Next week Sir John Chilcot will finally send his two-million-word-long report on the Iraq war to David Cameron.
The news — confirmed in Parliament on Thursday — brings to an end this long-running scandal. Seven years have passed since Sir John’s report was commissioned — and it will be delivered more than five years late.
There is, however, an equally serious stain on Britain’s integrity concerning alleged crimes committed during the Blair years that will also shortly start to bubble to the surface.
This concerns torture — and in particular a police investigation into British involvement 12 years ago in the kidnap and subsequent treatment of Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, an exiled Libyan politician, who was suspected of connections with Al-Qaeda.
Briefly, Belhaj — a known dissident of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi — was living in China in 2004 when he decided to seek asylum in Britain.
While en route here, he was abducted at Bangkok airport in Thailand by U.S. authorities — after a reported tip-off by British intelligence — and flown to Libya to be locked up and tortured.
The police started looking into the case more than four years ago.
Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service, must decide whether to prosecute. If she gives the green light, it will lead to one of the most sensational trials in British political history.
We could see a former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in the dock, charged as a participant or accessory to the Common Law offence of kidnapping, as well as a statutory offence of torture under the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
This carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
We could also see a former senior MI6 officer, Sir Mark Allen, charged with the same set of offences. It is not inconceivable that Mr Straw and Sir Mark could appear alongside one another as co-defendants.
The police investigation into the Belhaj case followed a chance discovery by Human Rights Watch as they wandered through Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Tripoli after the dictator had been killed at the end of the 2011 Libyan uprising.
Amidst the ruins they found correspondence between Sir Mark Allen, a senior MI6 officer, and Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s head of Intelligence.
It suggested MI6 had helped in sending Belhaj to Libya, where he was imprisoned and tortured. Sir Mark congratulated Gaddafi’s intelligence boss on the ‘safe arrival’ of Abdul-Hakim Belhaj.
He wrote: ‘This is the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built up over recent years.’
On the face of things, the case for prosecution is compelling — especially as neither MI6 nor Sir Mark has challenged the authenticity of the letters.
The possibility of such a trial has, however, sent gasps of horror through Whitehall. This may help explain why the criminal investigation has been subject to a series of inexplicable delays.
The police took more than two years to carry out their initial investigation and I am told that they started to pass on their evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service in the autumn of 2014.
Normally, it takes the CPS a few months at most to decide whether or not to prosecute. Particularly, as in this case, when the evidence — in the shape of Sir Mark’s letters — appears to be so clear-cut.
Those who follow the case believe there have been two principle causes of delay.
They say the first stems from dramatically differing accounts of events from MI6 on the one hand, and the Blair government on the other.
Those who understand how MI6 works are adamant that patriotic British intelligence officers would never have become involved in illegal activity — let alone kidnap or torture — without clear approval or authority from at least a minister of Cabinet rank.
However, Jack Straw, who was Tony Blair’s Foreign Secretary at the time Belhaj was abducted, has repeatedly denied any knowledge of so-called extraordinary rendition — the official euphemism for kidnapping and transporting someone for torture to a country which tolerates such practices.
Mr Straw’s denial to Parliament when he was Foreign Secretary could hardly have been more emphatic:
‘Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States — and also, let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice [Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State under George W. Bush] is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition, full stop.’
One can only feel great sympathy for Alison Saunders, as she faces what is possibly the most momentous decision of her time as Director of the CPS.
Should she prosecute a former Foreign Secretary? A former senior British intelligence officer. Both? Or should she let the matter rest?
For it is a near certainty that Ms Saunders may come under pressure to scrap the case.
That would be known in higher legal circles as the ‘Shawcross option’, after the post-war Labour Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross, who once said:
‘It has never been a rule in this country — I hope it never will be — that suspected criminal offences must automatically be the subject of prosecution.’
Shawcross held that there are circumstances where the public interest overrides the requirement that justice must be seen to be done.
Versions of the Shawcross defence were subsequently applied to avoid the prosecution of British soldiers during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
They were also brought into play to halt a potential criminal prosecution of defence giant BAE, following allegations it had been involved in bribery when trying to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.
Many senior politicians and security personnel would love to see the Shawcross option invoked for the Belhaj case.
They maintain — and many would agree — that Sir Mark Allen and Jack Straw are British patriots who would never sanction an immoral act.
But Alison Saunders must also consider the message that using the Shawcross option would send across the world.
Let’s recollect the circumstances of Mr Belhaj’s abduction in more detail. He was with his pregnant wife in China when they decided to seek asylum in Britain.
On trying to leave the country, they were detained and deported to Malaysia where they were held for several weeks, before being told they could travel to the UK — but only via Bangkok.
After being abducted by U.S. authorities in Bangkok, they were brutally interrogated in a secret prison, before being ‘rendered’ to Gaddafi’s torturers in Libya.
Belhaj’s pregnant wife was punched, bound, and denied medical care, while Belhaj himself spent the subsequent six years in jail — years in which he endured hideous punishment at the hand of Gaddafi’s henchmen.
If the Sir Mark Allen correspondence is authentic, we know the British state has potentially been involved in a very serious crime indeed.
Can we just leave it at that? The fact is that the Belhaj case, after all this time, is starting to look like yet another government cover-up.
I do not know the precise facts that Alison Saunders must take into account as she contemplates her truly grave decision.
But I sincerely believe we need to come to terms with the truth about Britain’s involvement in torture during the dark period when we were George W. Bush’s closest allies in the so-called War on Terror.
It would send a dreadful message to the world about British values were we to fail to do so.