Two MPs challenge refusal of judge-led rendition inquiry

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor
Photograph: PA

A Labour and a Conservative MP have joined with a human rights charity to mount a legal challenge against a decision to abandon a promise to hold a judge-led inquiry into torture and rendition involving British intelligence agencies after 9/11.

Dan Jarvis and David Davis have submitted an application for a judicial review in the high court in conjunction with Reprieve to try to reverse a decision made in the last days of Theresa May’s government, which contradicted a promise originally made by David Cameron.

Speaking to the Guardian, Jarvis, a former officer in the Paratroop regiment, said he was behind the action because he wanted Britain to show “we respect international law, that we are honest and learn from our mistakes, that we are better than this.”

Jarvis argued that current events in Syria – some Isis prisoners have been taken by the US from Syria to Iraq, while the fate of others remains uncertain as Turkey invades north-east Syria – highlighted the need to act with legitimacy. “Our responses to terrorism must be clear and must be legal,” he said.

Jarvis served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he said in his experience soldiers behaved within the law, but there was evidence other agencies may have behaved differently. “Our standing in the world is not as it should be. Some people don’t care about that, but I do,” he said.

Cameron announced shortly after becoming prime minister in 2010 that there would be a judge-led inquiry into repeated allegations that the security services were complicit in torture and rendition, and he appointed Sir Peter Gibson to undertake the work.

“The longer these questions remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom, fairness and human rights grows,” Cameron told the Commons at the time.

The Gibson inquiry was halted in 2012 while civil claims were being resolved and amid a row with human rights groups over how much of it would be heard in secret. Parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) held a more restricted inquiry, and the option of a judge-led inquiry was held open.

The ISC found in 2018 that British intelligence agencies were involved in dozens of episodes of torture and rendition, mainly in partnership with the US. The UK planned, agreed to or financed 31 rendition operations, British intelligence officers consented to or witnessed the use of torture on 15 occasions, and on 232 occasions agencies supplied questions to be put to detainees whom they knew or suspected were being mistreated.

A month earlier, May issued a public apology to a Libyan dissident, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, who were seized in Thailand and taken to Libya with the help of MI6 where they were imprisoned and tortured. “The UK government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering,” May wrote.

Ministers then invited submissions on what do next, with a judge-led inquiry remaining an option, until it was suddenly ruled out by David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, in one of the last acts of May’s premiership.

It is that decision that Jarvis and Davis are seeking to overturn, and those involved in the case suggest that a lacklustre initial legal defence from the government suggests ministers may not mind being defeated in court.