The fallout from one of Britain’s Blair-era extraordinary rendition operations continued to inch its way through the high court this week, in a case involving , the SAS and allegations of a high-level cover-up of a blunder.
Lawyers representing one of the victims bringing a damages claim against the government allege that he became caught up in the rendition programme as a consequence of mistaken identity.
However, as the court attempts to discover where the truth lies, the public is likely to learn little about the case. Government lawyers are arguing that it should be heard largely in secret, and they are likely to succeed.
The case dates back to February 2004, when troops from B Squadron of the SAS raided a house in al-Saydiya, a neighbourhood in south-west Baghdad. They were searching for members of (LeT), a Pakistani Islamic militant group, who were thought to have travelled along a jihadi pipeline from Iran to Iraq.
Two of the occupants of the house were killed but two others were captured, and one had a passport in the name of Ahmad Dilshad. This is a common enough name in Pakistan, but it was also the name of one of the leaders of LeT. Both men were handed over to US forces almost immediately.
The operation, codenamed Aston, was considered something of a triumph for MI6 and British special forces. A senior SAS officer later told a BBC journalist that it helped demonstrate to senior US commanders that the British were capable of mounting their own transnational counter-terrorism initiatives.
The two prisoners were held initially at a secret detention facility at Baghdad airport that British troops helped to run. The men allege that while there they were tortured by being beaten with chains, threatened with execution and confined to cells 18 inches wide.
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Human Rights Watch has documented the abuse of prisoners at this facility. The Guardian has spoken to British soldiers and airmen who served there, who say that prisoners were held in dog kennel-sized cells, from which they were taken and beaten during interrogation.
The following month, the two captives were flown separately to on the CIA’s rendition flights. One appears to have been forced aboard the same Boeing 737 that had been used earlier that week to fly an opponent of Muammar Gaddafi and his pregnant wife to Tripoli, another rendition operation mounted with the help of MI6.
Both men were taken to Bagram prison, north of Kabul, where one was registered as Detainee 001432 Dilshad, Ahmad.
“Dilshad” protested that he was not an Islamic militant at all, but a businessman named Amantullah Ali. He said he was travelling on a false passport because the Pakistani authorities had confiscated his real one – and that if he had been Ahmad Dilshad of the LeT, he would not have used his own passport to travel to to wage jihad.
Furthermore, Ali’s family say he would never have been admitted as member of LeT, let alone rise to lead it, as it is a Sunni militant group and he is a Shia Muslim.
The brutal conditions endured by inmates at Bagram – particularly in the early days of its operation – have been well documented. In 2005, a US army found two inmates had been beaten to death.
But at some point during his incarceration, Ali’s jailers appear to have accepted that that was his real name, and began referring to him as such in correspondence. So too did the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Meanwhile, British government ministers were repeatedly denying that anyone captured by British forces in Iraq had been subjected to extraordinary rendition; the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, went so far as that any allegations of UK involvement in rendition were conspiracy theories.
When the truth finally emerged, and it became clear that Ali and the second man captured by the SAS, Yunus Rahmatullah, had in fact been rendered to Afghanistan, John Hutton, the then defence secretary, made a in which he said he regretted that “inaccurate information … has been given to the House”.
But, he added, the men had in fact been members of LeT. Since then, a series of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers – Bill Rammell, Liam Fox, Alistair Burt and, most recently, former Lib Dem armed forces minister Nick Harvey – have all maintained, in statements to the Commons or in letters, that Ali and Rahmatullah were members of the banned militant group.
The case against Rahmatullah appears to have hinged on his association with Ali. The pair spent 10 years at Bagram before they were finally released, without having been charged, and allowed to return to Pakistan.
At this point, Ali produced a birth certificate in the name of Amanat Ali, born in Faisalabad in March 1965. The Pakistani government then gave him an identity card in the name of Amanatullah Ali. His family continued to insist that they were Shia. The whereabouts of Dilshad, meanwhile, are not known.
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Lawyers for the men say they believe that ministers were misled, and continue to be misled, by false intelligence.
But the British government’s position remains that the men were Sunni militants, with lawyers for the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office telling the high court this week that the pair “were assessed to be members of LeT”.
The supreme court has that the rendition of the two men and their detention at Bagram was unlawful. The men are now seeking damages from the British government.
Government lawyers deny that they were in any way mistreated by British troops, and say the UK cannot be held liable for any mistreatment they are alleged to have suffered once they were handed over to US forces.
However, these are issues that may well be considered behind closed doors. Government lawyers applied on Tuesday for permission to deploy – or secret evidence – under the terms of the controversial .
The application was “troubling” said Maya Lester QC, for Rahmatullah. “Justice must be done and seen to be done.”
The Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, who has long campaigned for the British government to be frank about its involvement in rendition, said: “I understand that these two men were held without charge for a decade after being captured by British troops and transferred to US custody. They should not now be shut out of their own court hearings.
“Ministers provided incorrect information to parliament about this case, and for many years. If this case is heard secretly, many people could well feel that the truth has never been exposed.”
Omran Belhadi, a lawyer at Reprieve, an NGO that has been supporting the two men, said: “Everyone but MI6 agrees this was a case of mistaken identity. Even the Americans – after rendering and holding him [Ali] for a decade without charge or trial– ultimately recognised they held the wrong man under the wrong name and released him without charge.
“Yet MI6 continue to try to cover-up their embarrassing mistake, misleading ministers, and going to the extreme of asking the government to demand court hearings be held in secret.”
The judge is currently considering the application to have much of the case heard in secret. If he agrees to it, Ali and his lawyers will never be permitted to see the evidence that the government will say is proof that he is a Sunni militant and leader of LeT, rather than a Shia businessman, and the victim of a dreadful case of mistaken identity.
And neither will the British public.