13:48, May 10 80 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-10 13:48:05
The Guardian view on illegal rendition: take the ethical option

When a government falls short of its own high ethical standards, the attorney general Jeremy Wright told MPs on Thursday, it must do three things: first, there should be a proper apology; second, there should be appropriate compensation; and, third, there must be changes, based on a learning of lessons for the future. That all sounds admirable and principled. But how does it measure up in practice? The British government’s apology to Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar for its part in the 2004 rendition operation, which kidnapped them in Thailand to end up in Libyan jails, ticks the first two boxes. The question is whether it also ticks the third.

The apology was given on Thursday after an out-of-court settlement of the Belhaj/Boudchar couple’s litigation against the British government, along with the former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw and the former MI6 counter-terrorism chief Sir Mark Allen. It was certainly full. It takes the form of a letter from the prime minister, read out in full by Mr Wright, with Mrs Boudchar listening in the gallery, and a copy of which was handed to Mr Belhaj by the British ambassador to Turkey. The choreography was meticulous. Britain apologised “unreservedly”. Theresa May herself was “profoundly sorry”.

The compensation element was substantial too. Mr Belhaj did not ask for compensation, though he had been seized, then beaten and tortured in a secret US facility in Thailand before being taken to a Libyan jail. But Mrs Boudchar did make a claim. She had also been kidnapped in Bangkok, four-and-a-half months pregnant, in an operation initiated by MI6 agents, before being tightly taped to a stretcher by three Americans for a 17-hour flight to Muammar Gaddafi’s prisons in Libya. She remained there for four months. On Thursday the UK paid her £500,000. Mr Wright said the payment was appropriate and “beyond doubt”.

The true test of any apology is whether it changes attitudes and behaviour. This one is without precedent as a public apology for the actions of the UK intelligence service. But it has echoes of earlier apologies for egregious British state action, notably David Cameron’s 2010 statement about the “unjustified and unjustifiable” 1971 Bloody Sunday killings, in which he said “you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible”.

That goes for Britain’s intelligence and security services too. In the Belhaj/Boudchar case their conduct was indefensible. Mr Wright said on Thursday that, in the aftermath of 9/11, the agencies were “suddenly adapting” to a huge new threat. They were slow to understand the “unacceptable practices” of some “international partners”. Mr Wright minced his words there. He did not say that those partners included the United States. He did not say how far the British agencies got caught up in the indefensible.

This is a very live issue indeed. In Washington, Gina Haspel is currently having her confirmation hearings as Donald Trump’s new CIA director. From 2002, Ms Haspel ran the secret CIA centre in Thailand where inmates were tortured and where Ms Boudchar was mistreated. Mr Trump supports torture. He wants to bring back waterboarding. John McCain, the only US senator to have actually been tortured, is fighting Ms Haspel’s nomination on that basis. The former UK minister Andrew Mitchell was absolutely right to draw attention to the dangers on Thursday. If Britain has genuinely changed and learned from the Belhaj/Boudchar cases, as Mr Wright insisted on Thursday, it is hard to see how traditional transatlantic intelligence relationships can long survive the parting of ethical ways that is now occurring.

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