Libyan renditions case: hearing today on secret spy policies

Two Libyan families who have sued the UK government over their rendition to Gaddafi’s torture chambers will today, in an Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) at 5pm, seek disclosure of secret government policies about whether private calls with their lawyers can be spied on and privileged information from those calls misused.

The families of Abdel-Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi were kidnapped in Southeast Asia in 2004 and sent to Libya in a joint CIA-MI6-Libyan operation. Messrs. Al-Saadi and Belhaj were ‘rendered’ along with their two wives and Mr al-Saadi’s four children, who were between the ages of six and twelve at the time of the rendition. The two men were held in secret detention until 2010.The Belhaj family is suing the UK government, ex-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and former MI6 counter-terror head Sir Mark Allen for their kidnap and torture, and cooperating with an ongoing Scotland Yard investigation into the UK role in the kidnappings.

Today’s hearing involves a related claim, in which the families allege that the UK government spied on their private calls with their lawyers about these cases, and that information from their conversations was improperly passed to lawyers or government officials involved in the torture cases.

The complaint was made after it emerged that each of the security services has a legal policy about what to do when private lawyer-client information is swept up during surveillance. Those policies have not been disclosed to the families in this case; the government claims that the contents of these policies are secret.

The IPT hears surveillance complaints against the security services, and operates under rules different from that of a regular court — it has, for example, routinely held hearings in a judge’s chambers without notifying complainants, such as these families, in advance. The Tribunal has also, to date, never upheld a complaint against the security services.

At today’s hearing, lawyers for the families will argue that legal policies on interception of privileged material cannot be properly secret, and that the IPT can — and should — order the government to turn these policies over. The Government have suggested that the IPT lacks power to order disclosure from the parties, a suggestion the families’ lawyers contend would mean the IPT would fail the most basic definition of a ‘court’.

The hearing will take place at: The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, Rolls Building, Court 27
Before Mr Justice Burton, sitting with Professor Graham Zellick CBE QC. Thursday 16th October 2014, 5pm.

Cori Crider, Director of Reprieve’s Abuses in Counter-Terrorism team and counsel to the families, said: “The question at the heart of this case is simple. If the spies kidnap you and send you to a torture chamber, and you then sue them for that kidnap, it is all right for them to spy on your calls with your lawyers in order to defend themselves against the torture claim? The government is so desperate to avoid admitting it has done this that it is telling the IPT it has no power to order the government to reveal its policies in this area. But a ‘tribunal’ that cannot order the production of evidence is not really a court at all. We look forward to today’s hearing.”