Former British minister Malcolm Rifkind calls for probe into Hong Kong role in CIA rendition programme that sent Sami al-Saadi to be tortured in Libya
As Prime Minister Theresa May apologises for ‘appalling treatment’ of Abdul Hakim Belhaj, former foreign secretary calls for top-level inquiry into almost identical case that involved a 12-day detention in Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s role in a pan-Asia secret rendition programme run by US and British intelligence services should be scrutinised as part of a top-level inquiry, a former British cabinet member has said.
The call from former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind came as it emerged a prominent human rights barrister retained to pursue legal action against the Hong Kong government over an alleged role in the CIA and MI6-led rendition programme – which included cloak-and-dagger operations in Malaysia and Thailand – was no longer involved in the case.
The new probe became a possibility after Britain issued a full public apology earlier in May to Abdul Hakim Belhaj – an opponent of Libya’s then ruling regime led by the late dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
In 2004, Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar – who was 4½ months pregnant at the time – were abducted in Kuala Lumpur following a tip-off from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) before being transferred to an alleged CIA black site in Thailand.
The couple were taken to Libya, where they were tortured and Belhaj was sentenced to death. The couple were subsequently released.
While the Belhaj ordeal has remained in the headlines, an almost identical case – also in 2004 – in which senior Hong Kong officials allegedly sanctioned an illegal detention and secret rendition on the say-so of US and British intelligence, has received scant coverage.
It involved the 12-day detention at Hong Kong International Airport of Libyan national Sami al-Saadi, his wife and their four young children, followed by their forced repatriation – also via Thailand – to the Tripoli torture cells of the Gaddafi regime.
This month’s apology to Belhaj, for what British Prime Minister Theresa May described as their “appalling treatment”, came six years after the UK government paid al-Saadi £2.2 million in compensation for his ordeal which began in Hong Kong.
It was at this point al-Saadi launched what has been a protracted – and highly secretive – legal bid for compensation from the Hong Kong government.
Both the government and al-Saadi’s legal representative John Clancey, from the law firm Ho, Tse and Wai, declined to answer questions about what both would only confirm were “ongoing discussions” over legal action.
Almost 14 years after the only known secret rendition ever carried out in Hong Kong, new pressure could be applied after Rifkind – an elder statesman of British politics and a former chairman of the intelligence and security committee (ISC) of the country’s parliament, which would almost certainly be tasked with carrying out a probe – called for a new inquiry.
Rifkind’s primary aim was to discover how much then British prime minister Tony Blair knew of the secret rendition programme. When asked this week if the Hong Kong case should be an integral part of the probe, he told the Post: “In my view, [it would be] desirable for the ISC to consider each and every case where there have been admissions or serious allegations that British intelligence agencies were involved directly, or indirectly, in the illegal rendition of individuals to Libya.”
Rifkind, who was foreign secretary in the government of Margaret Thatcher, added: “Any such investigation by the ISC should also consider whether the prime minister, or any other minister, was aware of and gave any degree of consent to any such renditions which are considered to have taken place.”
It also emerged that prominent human rights barrister Paul Harris SC, who joined al-Saadi’s Hong Kong legal team in December 2012, was no longer part of al-Saadi’s Hong Kong legal team.
In 2012, Harris said he was confident Sami al-Saadi had a strong case given the cache of classified papers unearthed in Tripoli, which implicate security officials in Hong Kong alongside British, American and Libyan spy agencies in the illegal extradition.
“The documents I’ve seen show a very strong case,” he said at the time.
Asked about the case and the fact he was no longer involved, Harris said he “could not comment on the case at present for legal reasons”.