Belhaj and Boudchar: Litigation Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:21 pm on 10th May 2018.

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Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Attorney-General 12:21 pm, 10th May 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement. In 2012, Mr Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Mrs Fatima Boudchar, brought a claim against the United Kingdom Government and two individuals: the right hon. Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary; and Sir Mark Allen, a former director at the Foreign Office. The claimants alleged that the UK Government were complicit in their abduction, detention and rendition to Libya in 2004, and in the treatment they suffered at the hands of others. Mrs Boudchar was pregnant at the time.

The claimants’ case, in outline, is that in early 2004, they were detained and forcibly conveyed through a number of jurisdictions by others, ultimately to be handed over to the Libyan regime of which Mr Belhaj was an opponent. During this period, they were subjected to a harrowing ordeal that caused them significant distress. Mrs Boudchar was released from detention in Libya in June 2004 and gave birth shortly afterwards. Mr Belhaj was not released until March 2010

The claims against Jack Straw and Sir Mark Allen were withdrawn on 3 May 2018. Today, I can announce to the House that, following mediation, the UK Government have reached a full and final settlement of Mr Belhaj’s and Mrs Boudchar’s claims. I pay tribute to the constructive way in which Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar have approached the mediation. This has been a long-running and hugely complex piece of litigation that has been difficult for all individuals involved as parties.

As we have seen in recent years, there remains a considerable international threat to the UK and our allies. It is important that the Government, and the security and intelligence agencies, are able to respond properly to keep our country safe, but it is also important that we should act in line with our values and in accordance with the rule of law. That means that when we get things wrong, it is right and just that we acknowledge it, compensate those affected and learn lessons. I believe this is such a case.

The settlement of this claim has been agreed out of court. The main elements of the agreement I can report to the House are as follows. First, no admissions of liability have been made by any of the defendants in settling these claims. Secondly, the claimants have now withdrawn their claims against all the defendants. Thirdly, the Government have agreed to pay Mrs Boudchar £500,000; Mr Belhaj did not seek and has not been given any compensation. Finally, I have met Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar—indeed, Mrs Boudchar is present in the Gallery to hear this statement—and the Prime Minister has now written to them both to apologise.

I think it right that I should set out to the House the terms of that apology in full:

“The Attorney General and senior UK Government officials have heard directly from you both about your detention, rendition and the harrowing experiences you suffered. Your accounts were moving and what happened to you is deeply troubling. It is clear that you were both subjected to appalling treatment and that you suffered greatly, not least the affront to the dignity of Mrs Boudchar, who was pregnant at the time. The UK Government believes your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way.

The UK Government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering. The UK Government shared information about you with its international partners. We should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated. We accept this was a failing on our part.

Later, during your detention in Libya, we sought information about and from you. We wrongly missed opportunities to alleviate your plight: this should not have happened.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, I apologise unreservedly. We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it.

The UK Government has learned many lessons from this period. We should have understood much sooner the unacceptable practices of some of our international partners. And we sincerely regret our failures.”

I hope that the Government’s acknowledgment of these events in those unequivocal terms, and the apology they have each been given, will be of some comfort to Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. As the Prime Minister observed in her letter to them both, the Government have learned lessons from this period.

These events took place in the period after the 11 September 2001 attacks. It was a period in which we and our international partners were suddenly adapting to a completely new type and scale of threat. It is clear, with the benefit of hindsight, that the Government, the agencies and their staff were, in some respects, not prepared for the extreme demands suddenly placed on them. The unacceptable practices of some of our international partners should have been understood much sooner.

The Government have enacted reforms to ensure that the problems of the past will not be repeated. We have made it clear that Ministers must be consulted whenever UK personnel involved in a planned operation believe that a detainee is at serious risk of mistreatment by a foreign state. We have also improved Parliament’s ability to oversee the actions of the agencies through the Justice and Security Act 2013.

The Intelligence and Security Committee is a Committee of Parliament and is fully independent of Government. It has a statutory right to review past intelligence operations, and the Committee and its staff have direct access to agency papers. These reforms mean that the framework within which the UK now operates is very different from that in the early 2000s.

I end by reiterating that vital work is done to keep us safe and that we aspire to the highest ethical standards. When those standards are not met, it is right that we apologise, that we compensate those who have suffered as a result, and that we make whatever changes we can to avoid the same thing happening again. That is the approach we have now taken in this case and, as such, I commend this statement to the House.