LONDON (Reuters) – A former Libyan Islamist commander won the legal right to sue Britain for damages over the years of torture he says he suffered at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi’s henchmen after being illegally handed to Libya by British and U.S. spies.
The ruling on Thursday by the Court of Appeal in London could open the way for litigation against the British government in similar torture or rendition cases.
Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a rebel leader who helped topple Gaddafi in 2011 and is now leader of the Libyan al-Watan Party, says he and his pregnant wife Fatima were abducted by U.S. CIA agents in Thailand in 2004 and then transferred to Tripoli with the help of British security officials.
Britain and the United States had been keen to build relations with Gaddafi at the time, following his 2003 pledge to give up sponsoring terrorism and to end Libya’s chemical and nuclear weapons programmes.
In 2004, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair met the former Libyan leader in what was described as the “deal in the desert”, bringing Libya back into the international fold after a series of infamous attacks abroad, including the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
In 2011, Belhadj began legal action against former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Britain’s MI5 and MI6 spy agencies, a former intelligence chief, and relevant government departments but last year a High Court judge ruled English courts could not hear the case.
That was because the allegations about Belhadj’s abduction and rendition involved other countries, most notably the United States, and state immunity, which protects states from being sued in foreign courts. A bar on claims which call into question the actions of other states also forbade it.
Three senior judges at London’s Court of Appeal overturned that decision on Thursday, paving the way for Belhadj and his wife to pursue damages, although the government was given permission to take the case to Britain’s Supreme Court.
“The allegations in this case — although they are only allegations — are of particularly grave violations of human rights,” the judges’ ruling said.
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