During the past week academic institutions have expressed contrition at past links with Libya and parliament has debated whether control order legislation should continue. Yet there has been total silence as to why it was that Libyan dissidents came to form a significant block of those made subject to control orders, and to a second highly contentious measure: deportation to a country that practised torture.
Following the bombings in London on 7 July 2005, known within a day to have been carried out by young British nationals, Tony Blair said: «The rules of the game have changed.» Within weeks he had initiated an agreement with Colonel Gaddafi on the deportation of Libyan dissidents who had sought asylum and whose presence, he claimed, constituted one of the gravest threats to the security of this country.
As to why this small group required such urgent and extreme attention, parallel chronologies provide some clues. In 2005 Libyan oilfields were made available for public auction. Might there have been a two-way accommodation? You give us oil, we give you your dissidents?
In order to achieve the men’s removal to Libya, a country whose leader had a grim record of eliminating opponents, the government had created new mechanisms: memorandums of understanding (MOU), whereby regimes known to practice torture might sign up to an unenforceable promise that they would not torture deported individuals. Gaddafi was evidently a man who could be trusted, but for good measure an independent organisation would monitor the wellbeing of the men deported to Libya: the Gaddafi Foundation, headed by Gaddafi’s son Saif.
The government presented its assessment to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), the court created to hear secret evidence in national security cases. Deportations would almost certainly have been ordered on the basis of the MOU had not the government’s expert witness ventured one observation too many: when asked whether the men would enjoy a fair trial in Libya, the witness replied of course, Gaddafi would personally intervene to ensure that the judges delivered just that. When SIAC refused the deportation, waiting in the wings was a second best: control orders, which impose severe restrictions on the individual affected. In the case of the Libyans our government and intelligence services had thereby ensured for Gaddafi a neutralisation of one small manifestation of dissent to his regime.
It is hardly surprising if this is not generally known. The appeals of those subject to deportation or to control orders on the grounds of national security are heard almost entirely in secret (in the Libyan cases we can guess that key evidence undoubtedly emanated from Libya itself). However, the existing record, albeit of only the puny «open» sessions of the Libyan cases, provides an insight into the self-deceiving blindness that determined the relationship of the last government and Gaddafi.
One aspect of the government’s «expert» evidence to SIAC given by its witnesses – retired diplomats – was undoubtedly correct: «The speedy conclusion of MOU negotiations in response to the prime minister’s conversation with Colonel Gaddafi demonstrates Libya’s commitment to working constructively with the United Kingdom on deportation of terrorist suspects.» Considering his Gaddafi’s current claim that all Libyan dissidents are members of al-Qaida, one can see how the two countries’ agendas so readily aligned.
Silent as to any connection between the proposed deportation of the Libyans and the signing of a Shell oil agreement in 2005, a government witness explained: «Recent developments in UK-Libyan relations demonstrate the extent to which the Libyan authorities have begun increasingly to look to the UK for help in bringing about the changes needed to enable them to improve the lot of Libyan people». The witness continued: «The expectation is that the direction taken by Libya has permanently changed, and the steady normalisation of both the country’s external relationships and its internal situation will continue.»
The government’s terrifyingly wrong-headed assessments of the Libyan body politic would have led by February 2011 to the probable death of the dissidents had they been deported; after all the Libyan penalty for membership of their organisation was death – and the British government in the MOU had committed itself only to «considering asking Libya to commute that sentence» if imposed after the individuals’ return.
Of the urgent steps that should be taken as a result of this appallingly deluded adventure, at the very least the present government’s still ongoing policy of deportations with MOUs to torturing regimes, its continuing imposition of control orders and its reliance on secret courts should be frozen pending proper scrutiny of the Libyan affair: an open, transparent inquiry, ruthlessly conducted until a clear picture is available. Only then could the direction our own body politic took under the last government be said to have changed.
By Gareth Peirce, the senior partner at Birnberg Peirce and Partners.