H.K. still active as spy hub of the east

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am


The strange case of suspected terrorist Sami al-Saadi, aka Abu Munthir, and his rendition from Hong Kong to Libya highlights the special administrative region's ongoing role as an intelligence hub long after the handover.

Hong Kong was once seen as a Casablanca of the East in terms of espionage due to its free-wheeling entrepot status under British rule. But even after 1997, mainland officials expressed both public and private concerns that the city remained a nest of Western spies.

But Saadi's testimony to Britain's respected Guardian newspaper - and documents found in Tripoli last week detailing his family's week-long secret passage through Hong Kong - suggest extensive work here by both Britain's MI6 and America's CIA, as well as their formal dealings with local authorities as they plotted his departure. British agents planned his capture, while the CIA became involved after Hong Kong objected to a Libyan flight landing here, and offered to bankroll another flight from a third country. The documents show an Egyptian plane was found and assurances were given to Hong Kong that the human rights of Saadi and his family would be respected.

What is less clear is whether mainland Chinese security services were involved in the March 2004 operation. Beijing has repeatedly accused Muslim Uygur activists in Xinjiang of Islamist terrorism in the wake of September 11, while evidence has emerged internationally of Uygurs training in camps inside Pakistan. It is unclear where Saadi was living during his exile in China or precisely what contact he may have had with Uygur separatists. The Daily Telegraph reported last week that MI6 told the Libyans in 2003 that they were co-operating with Chinese counterparts.

Certainly agents from Britain's external security intelligence service, MI6, appeared keen to get Saadi out of the mainland as a first step. His Guardian account described dealings with MI6 through an intermediary, which ended in him being 'tricked' to come to Hong Kong for an interview at the British consulate.

He and his family were detained on arrival by Hong Kong immigration officials, apparently due to a forged French passport. His consulate interview never happened, but M16 agents interviewed him later during his six years in Libyan jails. His complaints about torture fell on deaf ears.

Within five days - amid meetings between British and Libyan leaders over oil deals - he was delivered after dealings that involved Libyan security officials, the CIA, M16 and Hong Kong security bureau chiefs.

This is the first report of a rendition flight involving Hong Kong. Thailand and Japan have been linked to the controversial practice which, human rights groups have warned, is designed to deliberately circumvent international laws against torture.

The importance of East Asia to the so-called 'black' flights - which more commonly linked South Asia with the Middle East and Europe - is highlighted in a book released last week. Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA's Secret Rendition Programme, by investigative reporter Stephen Grey, notes the rendition of Saadi through Hong Kong, the only reference to the city. 'There are flights that we know about going through Japan from the US,' Grey said, according to Japan's Kyodo news agency.

'There have been secret detention facilities used in Thailand, and the renditions to those places would make use of airports such as Japan's.'

Thailand has denied that any suspects were held on its soil. Washington declared Thailand a 'major non-Nato ally' in 2003 - when the programme was at its height.