A human rights group is urging Britain’s Foreign office to “come clean” over claims that a British-administered island in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia, was used as a secret “black site” detention center by the CIA.
“We need to know immediately whether ministers misled parliament over CIA torture on British soil,” Cori Crider, strategic director at Reprieve, a legal action charity group, said in a letter to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague.
“If the CIA operated a black site on Diego Garcia, then a string of official statements, from both this and the last government, were totally false,” Crider said.
The letter followed a report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee that Britain had allowed the US to run a “black site” prison on Diego Garcia to secretly hold suspects without accountability. The Diego Garcia prison held some “high-value” detainees and was operated with the “full cooperation” of the British government, US officials familiar with the Senate report said.
“Were ministers asleep at the wheel? Or, as the report suggests, have we been lied to for years?” Crider wrote.
Reprieve is also representing Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a rebel military commander and opponent of the late Libyan leader, Mohamed Gaddafi, who was arrested in Malaysia and rendered to Libya, allegedly via Diego Garcia, in a joint US-UK intelligence operation.
“The Foreign Secretary must urgently clarify whether the CIA ran a secret prison on Diego Garcia, and whether our clients Abdel-Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar were among its victims,” Crider said.
Belhaj became Tripoli’s military commander in 2011, after the rebels took over the capital and ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In 2004 Belhaj – the then-leader of the anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – and his wife were detained by US intelligence officers at Bangkok airport, Thailand, when they were to fly to London to claim asylum.
Belhaj was then returned to Libya, allegedly due to a British tip-off, where he was tortured and jailed for almost six years, until Gaddafi was ousted.
Belhaj claims the UK helped the US to arrange his rendition. He launched legal action against the UK government, the former head of counter-terrorism at intelligence agency MI6, Mark Allen, and then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
“The first time I heard that I had gone through a place called Diego Garcia was when I was told by the head of the Libyan intelligence, Moussa Koussa, during my first interrogation session in a prison outside Tripoli,” Belhaj said. “[Moussa Koussa] told me that he knew, and that the plane had landed on an island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia.”
However, the UK court ruled that Belhaj could not sue MI6 as it would harm “national interests,” though the High Court judge concluded that Belhaj had a “well-founded claim” against intelligence officers.
The case could “jeopardize this country’s international relations and national security interests,” said Peregrine Simon, a British High Court judge.
“The government must come clean about the UK’s role in this dirty affair,” Polly Rossdale, deputy director at Reprieve, told The Observer on Sunday.
For years, the British government consistently denied that any detainees were held at Diego Garcia or that a secret CIA prison ever existed there. They only admitted in 2008 that two rendition flights carrying detainees stopped for refueling on Diego Garcia in 2002. “The US government confirmed that there have been no other instances in which US intelligence flights landed in the UK, our Overseas Territories, or the Crown Dependencies, with a detainee, on board since 11 September 2001,” UK Foreign Office minister David Liddington told the UK parliament in 2011.
The recent revelations about “the secret prison” are hugely troubling for the UK government as they spark questions about the UK’s relationship with the US.
Apart from the news about the CIA secret black site, the US Senate also found that the CIA purposely deceived the US Justice Department to attain legal justification for use of torture techniques. It also found that the CIA distorted how many detainees it held in “black site” prisons throughout the world and how many were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” many amount to torture.
The Committee and the CIA have in recent weeks gone back and forth with accusations of spying, meddling, and misrepresentation, highlighting an on-going feud between the agency and the Committee since the Senate probe began in 2009.