Government lawyers are attempting to prevent documents that detail the relationship between the British government and Muammar Gaddafi from being made public under the Freedom of Information Act, just days after in the kidnap and torture of one of the Libyan dictator’s opponents.
They are appealing against an information tribunal ruling that the documents should be handed to Nigel Ashton, professor of international history at the London School of Economics.
At a hearing in London on Wednesday, lawyers for the Cabinet Office will argue that Ashton’s request should be dismissed as being “vexatious” because of the amount of time it would take to redact the papers before release, on such grounds as national security and the safeguarding of international relations.
At a hearing last year, the information tribunal ruled that Ashton had made a request for “information which is of great public value and significance”, and that as a consequence the clause in the act that deals with vexatious requests – those that are manifestly unjustified – could not be invoked.
Ashton initially requested copies of Downing Street files that covered the period from the Lockerbie bombing of December 1988 to the revolution of 2011 that resulted in Gaddafi being deposed and murdered. He subsequently narrowed his request to files from the years 1990 to 2002, but has said he may request more.
Last week Theresa May told Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the leader of an Islamist militia that had been opposed to Gaddafi, and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, that she was “profoundly sorry” about the .
The government paid Boudchar £500,000. Throughout his six-year legal battle, Behaj insisted he wanted only an apology, and he received no payment. In return, the couple dropped their civil claim against MI6 and the Foreign Office, and against and Sir Mark Allen, who were foreign secretary and head of counter-terrorism at MI6 at the time of the couple’s kidnap.
The couple’s lawyers also withdrew their attempt to seek a judicial review of the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to charge Allen with criminal offences after a four-year Scotland Yard investigation.
The couple had been taken off a flight in Bangkok and detained by the CIA after a tipoff from . They were put on a flight to Tripoli, where Belhaj was imprisoned for six years and frequently tortured. Boudchar was taped head to foot to a stretcher for the 17-hour flight. She was four and a half months pregnant at the time.
Four weeks later, a second leading opponent of Gaddafi was kidnapped in Hong Kong after an MI6 tipoff and flown to Tripoli with his wife and four children. He settled his claim against the British government in 2012, receiving £2.2m. Documents discovered in government offices in Tripoli during the Libyan revolution show the kidnap operations followed lengthy MI6 surveillance of the two men.
Papers recovered at the same time show that information subsequently extracted under torture from the two men was used to justify the detention and attempted deportation of a number of Libyans living in Britain.
There were also papers that detailed the way in which Gaddafi’s intelligence officers were invited to Britain, where they allegedly threatened Libyan asylum seekers and British-Libyan nationals, in the presence of MI5 officers.
Asked whether it was resisting Ashton’s request because it did not wish to see further evidence of unlawful and politically embarrassing activities coming to light, the Cabinet Office declined to comment.
Ashton submitted his request for information in 2014 and hopes ultimately to achieve a greater understanding of the role the British government played in creating as it is today.
This would include examining British responses to the Lockerbie bombing and Gaddafi’s support for the IRA; the period of rapprochement during which the rendition plots were hatched; and the UK’s role in supporting the insurgency that eventually toppled the Gaddafi regime.
“The public interest in understanding Britain’s policy towards Libya is overwhelming,” Ashton said. “It seems extraordinary that the Cabinet Office has resisted my freedom of information request at every turn.”