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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Grotesque deeds that stained our democracy

Published by The Mail on Sunday (1st July, 2018)

A few days after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, I entered the ransacked residence of the British ambassador to Libya where I found scores of secret documents.

The floors were littered with paper that exposed how Tony Blair, desperate for a diplomatic triumph amid his unfolding disaster in Iraq, had turned over the British state apparatus to appease a despotic regime.

I waded through documents from Downing Street, letters from top officials and confidential security briefings that lay amid overturned board games and piles of domestic papers. The notes revealed Blair even aided Gaddafi’s son Saif with his dodgy PhD thesis.

Yet most depressing was the firm evidence that as well as sharing intelligence-gathering techniques and assisting security goons infamous for barbarity, Britain was colluding in the illegal kidnapping and torture of terrorism suspects.

This was not just morally wrong. It also damaged our global standing, corroding Britain’s ‘soft power’ strength as a force for decency in the world, while torture has been shown time and again to deliver untrustworthy results since people can say anything to stop pain.

I even came across a 39-page dossier sent by British intelligence –marked ‘UK Secret’ – packed with proposed questions for rebel leaders who were victims of an illicit rendition operation mounted with the help of MI6 to return them to Libya. This discovery came in September 2011.

Since then, the disturbing extent of British ties to such activities under Blair have slowly seeped out, despite his then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw telling parliament there was ‘no truth’ in claims the UK was ‘involved in rendition’.

Last week saw the shattering of Straw’s insouciance with the release of forensic reports by parliament’s intelligence and security committee that show how British links to torture and rendition were worse than reported in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

This damning indictment came just weeks after Theresa May was forced to apologise for the UK’s role in the ‘appalling’ treatment of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife.

They were grabbed in Thailand in 2004 – the same month as Blair’s ‘deal in the desert’ with Gaddafi – before being blindfolded, shackled and flown to Libya where Belhaj was tortured and sentenced to death.

His pregnant wife was chained to a wall. Belhaj was leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which sought to oust Gaddafi. His case proves our Government encouraged and ignored despicable behaviour alongside the US in the so-called war on terror.

Yet those, such as Blair, who oversaw such deeds still strut the world pontificating on good governance.

Belhaj also shows the lethal inconsistency of British foreign policy. First our spooks paid his group to attempt assassination of Gaddafi in 1996. Then they helped the Libyan despot capture and interrogate his foe. Finally Belhaj ended up playing a key role in the liberation of Tripoli backed by British forces.

But this goes beyond diplomatic incompetence. Our political masters sanctioned grotesque deeds that stained UK democracy and assisted actions of revolting cruelty.

That it has taken until now for Britain to face up to its misdeeds has added insult to injustice for those individuals who paid the price in blood, pain and suffering for our leaders’ inhumanity.

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