Ill-treatment claims by Libyans stall under-fire torture inquiry

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The future of a long-awaited inquiry into British complicity in torture was up in the air yesterday after the launch of fresh criminal investigations into further claims of ill-treatment in Libya.

Allegations from two Libyan rebels, Sami al Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhadj, that British spies were complicit in their rendition and ill-treatment in 2004, are so serious that they must be investigated before the official inquiry into similar claims can begin, police and prosecutors said.

The detainee inquiry, which is ed by Sir Peter Gibson, has already been widely criticised for lacking “credibility or transparency”, with human rights groups and lawyers for detainees refusing to take part. Campaigners, who are angry at the limits on the inquiry’s powers and the fact that the final decision on whether material can be made public will rest with the Government, also claimed that the police investigation was being “hobbled” by political pressure for a “sham” inquiry.

Clive Stafford Smith, director of the human rights group Reprieve, said: “I have nothing but praise for the police who have been investigating the case, but they are being hobbled, just as they were in the hacking inquiry.

“There seems to be political pressure to move forward with the sham Gibson Inquiry, at the cost of a proper police investigation.”

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced a multimillion-pound secret payout to 16 former detainees more than a year ago.

This was to let the security and intelligence services get on with their job and pave the way for the inquiry.

However, the latest police investigation will lead to further delays.

The Government said that it had “always been clear that the inquiry will not be able to start formally until all related police investigations have been concluded” and a spokeswoman for the inquiry said it was carefully considering its next steps.

But Keith Best, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, said it would be “farcical for Sir Peter Gibson to begin proceedings while criminal investigations into the Libya allegations continue, when the detainees in question have refused to participate in the inquiry”.

He added that it would be impossible to achieve the “closure” sought by David Cameron “through a seriously deficient Detainee Inquiry which does not have the necessary powers to get to the truth or allow meaningful participation by victims”.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, added that the lack of criminal charges meant it was now “even more important that the victims, security agencies and wider public benefit from a full and independent judicial inquiry into one of the worst scandals of recent memory”.

“The secretive and toothless Cabinet Office process chaired by Sir Peter Gibson is an embarrassingly inadequate response,” she said.

Sarah Ludford, the Liberal Democrat European justice and human rights spokeswoman, also said that signs of “non-co-operation of the British intelligence and security services and the Americans” in yesterday’s decision added to pressure for an inquiry.

Tara Lyle, a policy adviser with Amnesty International UK, said it was now “of paramount importance” for the inquiry to be “thorough, effective and properly conducted”.

“The police investigations are necessarily narrow in scope and only considered whether there was a realistic prospect of a conviction of an identified individual on the criminal standard of proof,” she said.

“The need to properly investigate the UK’s broader international responsibility for violations of its human rights obligations in relation to these matters remains.

“The key means of cleaning this up after numerous allegations that British officials were involved in the mistreatment of detainees held abroad is an inquiry, which would be more far-ranging and look at systematic issues, including both individual cases and the broader policy and practices of the agencies.”

She added: “The really worrying thing is that the Detainee Inquiry in its present form simply isn’t up to the job.”