LONDON — Britain's spy agencies will face a criminal investigation into claims that intelligence shared with Moammar Gadhafi's regime led to the torture or rendition of two Libyan men and their families, authorities announced Thursday.
A criminal inquiry was launched in 2008 when a former Guantanamo Bay detainee alleged that intelligence agencies were complicit in his torture. The inquiry later expanded to include claims by two Libyans who accused intelligence agents of sharing sensitive information with Gadhafi's regime.
"We want to get to the bottom of this — not just on grounds of justice or ethical considerations, but because this whole saga has threatened to make Britain less safe," said Conservative lawmaker Andrew Tyrie who chairs a special committee on the practice of extraordinary rendition.
Tripoli's military council commander Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a former fighter in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which had opposed Gadhafi and had asylum in the U.K., claims both British and U.S. intelligence may have played a role in his 2004 detention in Thailand's capital Bangkok and transfer to Tripoli.
Documents uncovered during the fall of Tripoli disclosed the close working ties between Gadhafi's spies and Western intelligence officials. One document allegedly contained a message from British foreign spy agency MI6 making reference to the rendition of Belhaj, also known as Abu 'Abd Allah Sadiq.
"I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu 'Abd Allah Sadiq," the message said. "This was the least we could do for you and Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years."
Belhaj, who said his pregnant wife was also abused, praised the decision Thursday to open a criminal inquiry.
"I trust the police will get to the bottom of this, and find not just the rank-and-file agents, but those ministers who were truly responsible for her suffering," Belhaj said. "To this day, I cannot understand why my pregnant wife was put on the same plane and abused as well."
Sami al-Saadi, another Libyan who had been opposed to Gadhafi, also claims Britain's foreign spy agency, MI6, played a role in his rendition, or return to a country where torture is allowed.
Intelligence agents complicit in alleged torture?
The New York-based Human Rights Watch found a cache of documents in the abandoned office of Gadhafi's former intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, after the fall of the regime. Among them was a fax the CIA sent to Koussa in March 2004, which purportedly showed that the agency would support MI6 and Gadhafi in seeking Saadi's rendition.
Two days after the fax, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Tripoli to meet Gadhafi. The two were photographed embracing and several deals were announced, including a multimillion pound agreement for a gas exploration contract with Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant.
The visit was partially aimed at getting Libya to abandon weapons of mass destruction.
Still, Saadi, his wife and four children were bundled onto a plane from Hong Kong to Libya where they were then separated. Saadi claims he was tortured.
It's not is not clear whether investigators could call on Blair for questioning. Former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said he did not know about the rendition.
MI6 chief John Sawers said Thursday it was in the agency's interest to deal with the new allegations "as swiftly as possible so we can draw a line under them and focus on the crucial work we now face in the future."Slideshow: Moammar Gadhafi through the years (on this page)
While British intelligence agents will face new questions over the Libyans' claims, prosecutors and police said Thursday there was insufficient evidence to prove that agents were complicit in the alleged torture or mistreatment of former Guantanamo detainees.
The case that prompted the initial investigation was that of former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed.
Mohamed, an Ethiopian who moved to Britain as a teenager and was initially held in Pakistan, says he was sent by the U.S. to Morocco where he was interrogated and brutally tortured. He alleges that he told an MI5 officer of his mistreatment in 2002.
Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions, said there was evidence that intelligence agents provided information to the US authorities about Mohamed and also supplied questions for them. But, he said, there was "insufficient evidence to prove to the standard required in a criminal court" that any spies provided information when they knew he was being tortured, or suspected he was at risk.
Mohamed said Thursday he hadn't expected British spies to be charged, but that new evidence may eventually emerge that would reopen cases.
"If there is any further and wider criminal investigation ... I believe it would be completely impossible to decide that there has not been a pattern of massive complicity by UK bodies in criminality at the highest levels directed at other Muslim prisoners," Mohamed said. "My experience was not isolated; it was part of a pattern."Story: UK charm offensive preceded Lockerbie bomber's release
Eliza Manningham-Buller, a former head of MI5, has said she believes the U.S. deliberately misled its allies over its handling of detainees during the so-called war on terror.
In a separate allegation of complicity from a former detainee, investigators also say they failed to find sufficient evidence — mostly because they lacked access to witnesses and the detainee who had been held by U.S. authorities at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Payouts to former Gitmo prisoners
Some 3,000 terror suspects continue to be held at the secretive detention facility where detainees lack access to lawyers. Human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized U.S. authorities for a lack of transparency and legal protection for the detainees.
"One thing you read very clearly in those materials is that it is not that there wasn't torture, it is not that the British weren't involved, it is that there are witnesses who are not available to put their part," said Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer with the legal charity Reprieve who represents some of the alleged victims of torture and rendition.
Most of the torture allegations came from terror suspects who were either initially held in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or sent to other countries such as Morocco for interrogation.
British agents were accused of passing on information about detainees but not of direct abuse.
Britain has already made payouts to 16 former detainees at Guantanamo. Among those alleged to have been part of the settlements were Mohamed, Bishar Al Rawi, Jamil El Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, Moazzam Begg and Martin Mubanga.
British prosecutors and police said that while there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges now, cases could be reopened if new evidence emerges.
A separate government inquiry into Britain's role in the so-called war on terror is expected to begin later this year.
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