LONDON (Reuters) - A former Libyan Islamist commander won the legal right to sue Britain for damages over the years of torture he says he suffered at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi’s henchmen after being illegally handed to Libya by British and U.S. spies.
The ruling on Thursday by the Court of Appeal in London could open the way for litigation against the British government in similar torture or rendition cases.
Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a rebel leader who helped topple Gaddafi in 2011 and is now leader of the Libyan al-Watan Party, says he and his pregnant wife Fatima were abducted by U.S. CIA agents in Thailand in 2004 and then transferred to Tripoli with the help of British security officials.
Britain and the United States had been keen to build relations with Gaddafi at the time, following his 2003 pledge to give up sponsoring terrorism and to end Libya’s chemical and nuclear weapons programmes.
In 2004, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair met the former Libyan leader in what was described as the “deal in the desert”, bringing Libya back into the international fold after a series of infamous attacks abroad, including the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
In 2011, Belhadj began legal action against former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Britain’s MI5 and MI6 spy agencies, a former intelligence chief, and relevant government departments but last year a High Court judge ruled English courts could not hear the case.
That was because the allegations about Belhadj’s abduction and rendition involved other countries, most notably the United States, and state immunity, which protects states from being sued in foreign courts. A bar on claims which call into question the actions of other states also forbade it.
Three senior judges at London’s Court of Appeal overturned that decision on Thursday, paving the way for Belhadj and his wife to pursue damages, although the government was given permission to take the case to Britain’s Supreme Court.
“The allegations in this case — although they are only allegations — are of particularly grave violations of human rights,” the judges’ ruling said.
“The stark reality is that unless the English courts are able to exercise jurisdiction in this case, these very grave allegations against the executive will never be subjected to judicial investigation.”
Belhadj says he was originally detained in China, before being transferred to Malaysia and then moved to a CIA “black site” in Thailand.
Belhadj was handed over to CIA agents, acting on a tip-off from MI6, and flown via the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Tripoli.
As a long-standing enemy of Gaddafi, he was imprisoned and tortured until his release in 2010 while his wife was also mistreated during her four-month incarceration.
After the fall of Gaddafi, documents were discovered which indicated British officials had been in contact with former Libyan spy chief Moussa Koussa over Belhadj.
“Our part of the ‘deal in the desert’ — the kidnap, the secret CIA jail, the torture chamber in Tripoli — is as fresh and as painful for us as if it happened yesterday,” Belhadj said in a statement.
“We never dreamed Britain would have conspired in such a thing until we saw the proof with our own eyes, right there in Moussa Koussa’s dusty binders.”
Members of the British domestic intelligence agency MI5 and its foreign equivalent MI6 have for years faced accusations they colluded in the ill-treatment of suspected militants, often at the hands of U.S. authorities.
British ministers have repeatedly denied any knowledge of sending anyone to face torture abroad, and there have also been warnings that exposing secret intelligence material in court cases might damage relations with Washington.
A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said they were studying the detail of Thursday’s ruling and whether to appeal against it, but declined to say more at this stage.
But human rights campaigners said the verdict was significant.
“The government so fears this case going to trial that they have stalled for years by throwing up a parade of scarecrows — claiming, for example, that the United States would be angered if Mr and Mrs Belhadj had their day in court in Britain,” said Cori Crider, Director at Reprieve.
“The court was right: embarrassment is no reason to throw torture victims out of court.”
Editing by Catherine Evans