Lawyers attack secret hearing for Jack Straw illegal rendition claim
A claim by a Libyan politician and his wife accusing the former foreign secretary Jack Straw and a former senior MI6 officer of being involved in illegal rendition of the couple can be heard in private, the High Court has ruled.
The case brought by the Gaddafi opponent Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar involving their alleged rendition and subsequent torture in Libya is one in which a “closed material procedure” may be used, Mr Justice Popplewell said. Belhaj’s lawyers say that the decision could pave the way for the trial – which also involves allegations against the former spy Sir Mark Allen – to be held in secret, and would mean that Belhaj, his wife, the media and their lawyers would be excluded.
The judgment comes after a hearing earlier this month at which lawyers for Belhaj and his wife opposed the government’s request for a closed procedure under section 6 of the Justice and Security Act. They argued that extensive evidence of the CIA torture programme, and of their abduction, had been in the public domain for years.
However, on Friday Mr Justice Popplewell found that “despite the weight and cogency” of the claimants’ evidence he had “little hesitation” in concluding that disclosure of the government’s material “would cause significant damage to the interests of national security ... irrespective of the current sensitivity of the intelligence itself”. The judge also said that it was “very unlikely that the [defendants’ sensitive] material could be put into open or made available to the claimants or their legal representatives in a way which would better promote a fair and effective trial than a closed material procedure”.
Sapna Malik, a partner at the London law firm Leigh Day who represents Belhaj and Boudchar, said: “It is frustrating that despite the wealth of material in our clients’ possession we will now enter the Kafkaesque world of closed defences and covert evidence, with the prospect of a secret trial, from which our clients will be excluded and unable to fully test the defendants’ case. We hope that the judge will reconsider his decision.”
Cori Crider, a lawyer at the human rights charity Reprieve, which is supporting the case, said: “We’re disappointed that there has been no effort to engage with extensive evidence that has been in the public domain for years. We will ask the court to revisit at the end of the secret disclosure process.”