HK Business Aviation Centre accused over dissident's rendition

A hub for tycoons at Chek Lap Kok is at the centre of claims by a Libyan dissident over his forced removal to face torture in his homeland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 1:21am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 3:17am

It was a Saturday evening, just after 8pm on March 27, 2004 when a secluded corner of Chek Lap Kok - one of the world's busiest airports - played host to a very unusual event.

An Egypt Air Boeing 777, with the tail number SU-GBP, had just landed at the Hong Kong Business Aviation Centre,  tucked away in the southwestern corner of the airport.

The large, multimillion-dollar hangar is a hub for tycoons and those who can afford to fly on private jets.

But on this warm, spring evening eight years ago, there was little time for the usual pleasantries enjoyed by luxury-jet passengers.

Instead, Sami al-Saadi - a Libyan dissident and suspected terrorist - and his wife were handcuffed and forced onto the empty, darkened Egypt Air plane.

The couple's four young children, screaming and scared for their lives, boarded the plane separately, not knowing where their parents were.

None of the passengers knew where they were going.

But US and British spies, 8accused of secretly colluding with former Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi  to plot and carry out the secret rendition, knew exactly where the plane was headed: Tripoli.

This is the claim being made by Saadi, who was freed by anti-Gaddafi rebels who stormed Tripoli last year, releasing prisoners from the notorious Abu Salim  jail.

Saadi's ordeal began when he and his family arrived in Hong Kong on or around March 15, 2004, believing they were headed for Norway via Beijing.

Instead, he was detained in Hong Kong for almost two weeks for passport violations, After being held under armed guard, Saadi was forced to return to his homeland, where he was jailed the moment he landed.

He was a founding member and chief strategist of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant guerilla movement.

He has launched legal action against the British government for its alleged role in the rendition and is also preparing to sue the Hong Kong government for its hand in allowing the secret flight to go ahead.

Saadi's case first came to light when secret files were unearthed at the offices of Gaddafi's intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa. 

In a 32-page fax, labelled "top secret", details emerged of the correspondence believed to be between the CIA, Britain's M16, Libyan 8officials and those in Hong Kong who were tasked with arranging  the secret flight.

The documents form the backbone of the legal case that Saadi is mounting against the British government as well as Hong Kong.

At the centre of the secret flight is Madonna Fung, a senior aviation executive who was the customer services manager of the Hong Kong Business Aviation Centre at the time of the alleged rendition.

A spokeswoman for the centre said Fung, now the general manager of the centre, "has little recollection of what happened as far back as 2004 or whether she was, in fact, on duty on that particular day". The spokeswoman refused to answer questions about the centre's involvement in the rendition flight, claiming "the matters you asked about are confidential records" and "not available for disclosure".

The centre's major shareholder is Hong Kong Business Aviation Holding, whose directors include Michael Kadoorie, David Tong Chi-leung, Christopher Cheng Wai-chee, Yung Wing-chung, Bernard Pun Chun-sun and Hung Bo-lin. In June 2004, former chief secretary 8Rafael Hui Si-yan, currently under investigation by the ICAC, joined the centre as a director.

Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines and Signature Combs, a US company registered with an address in Florida, both have minority stakes in the centre.

The centre's current chairman is Tony Miller, a former civil servant who was permanent secretary of financial services and the treasury between 2002 and 2004.

It is also a principal subsidiary of Sun Hung Kai Properties, which owns 35 per cent of the operations.

An affiliate of the centre is Signature Flight Support (SFS), owned by London-listed company BBA Aviation. 

SFS, which operates aviation services across the US and Europe, including military and government support, has been linked to rendition flights including those of current Guantanamo Bay detainees, according to 8investigations by human rights legal charity Reprieve. 

The company's only Asian presence is at the Hong Kong Business Aviation Centre.

Saadi's legal team in Hong Kong from Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners say repeated attempts to 8retrieve records from the centre have been refused.

Cori Crider, one of the lead lawyers representing Saadi in the British lawsuit, said the centre and the Hong Kong Airport 8Authority's refusal to hand over documents did not give a good impression.

"They have been stalling on requests for evidence about their role in the Saadi rendition for months," she said from Tripoli where she is investigating the case.

"Why is this, if there is nothing to hide? All this stonewalling looks unhappily like a cover-up."

Earlier this month, Gaddafi's chief spy, Abdullah al-Senussi, was extradited from Mauritania after he fled Tripoli last August.

Senussi was regarded as a 8senior member of Gaddafi's team and was linked to the 1996 massacre of more than 1,200 prisoners in the Abu Salim jail.

Saadi told the Libyan press that Senussi had threatened to kill him during his time at the notorious jail.

"How ironic that the tables have turned," Saadi told a Libyan news channel, which was established after Gaddafi fell.

"The same people who are guarding you now in prison are the same people you sentenced to death in your prison."

Gaddafi first took power in 1969 after leading a military coup to overthrow King Idris.  He was 27 at the time.

Over the next few decades, he cemented a reputation as an authoritarian leader linked to terrorist groups including an attack in Berlin which killed three US soldiers, prompting Washington to sever ties with Libya.

In 1988, the explosion of a bomb on an airliner flying over Lockerbie in Scotland killed more than 250 people.

The US and British governments were desperate to capture the two Libyans suspected to be responsible for the tragedy, but Gaddafi refused to hand them over, leading to UN sanctions against Libya.

In 1999, Gaddafi decided to turn over the suspects and by 2003, the sanctions were lifted as Western powers started to court the dictator in a bid to seek and destroy weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

On March 25, 2004, then British prime minister Tony Blair made an historic visit to Libya, meeting Gaddafi in a tent in Tripoli,8 months after the dictator agreed to stop a WMD programme.

Days later, Saadi - a long-time opponent of Gaddafi - was hand-delivered to Gaddafi's henchmen, beginning years of torture, according to Saadi's claims.
Saadi's case is the first of its kind in Hong Kong.

In Europe, political and judicial inquiries into secret rendition flights have lead to claims either being dismissed or in some cases, compensation of up to €1 million (HK$10 million) paid to the victims.

In May this year, the Justice and Home Affairs section of the Centre for European Policy Studies  released a report looking at the various political and judicial inquiries into the CIA's programme of extraordinary renditions and secret prisons in Europe.

The report was requested by the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. 

It found that while the European Parliament had been proactive in investigating European member states and their roles in active or passive complicity with US-led renditions and 8secret detentions since 2001, "politics and state secrecy have placed disproportionate roles in preventing disclosure of the truth and hindering the aggrieved individuals' access to justice".

A spokesman for the Security Bureau in Hong Kong refused to answer questions about Saadi's case.

"We do not comment on individual cases," he said.