In view of the US, British and French aerial assault on Libya, it may sound strange to recall a meeting the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had with the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi on March 25, 2004. Blair travelled to Libya to meet Colonel Qaddafi in what was the first ever state visit by a British prime minister to the country. Despite Qaddafi’s brutal track record of oppressing his own people at home and sponsoring terrorism abroad, Blair felt that their common grievances against “al-Qaeda, extremists and terrorism” made friendship with Libya necessary for the security of the Middle East, Britain and the wider world. Subsequent events would tragically reveal that the only people whose security was not considered, indeed mercilessly sacrificed, was that of the Libyan people, both in Libya and the UK. From that day, opposing Qaddafi, peacefully or otherwise, would become a crime synonymous with terrorism.
The witch-hunt of Qaddafi opponents began on 2 October 2005 with the arrest and detention of five Libyan dissidents, who had been granted asylum by the UK, on the grounds that they were a threat to national security. The five men were on a list of 25 names given by Libya to the UK. The substantive accusations against them were that they were opposed to the Qaddafi regime. Deportation proceedings were commenced against them. One of the five men arrested, Ziyad Ali Hashem (“DD”), explained in an interview with human rights organisation Cageprisoners how when he first sought asylum in the UK in 2004, he was interviewed by MI5 at the airport who assured him that Britain was open to him for the purposes of engaging in dissident activity against the Libyan regime.
Less than two weeks later, on October 13, 2005, then Home Secretary Charles Clarke signed an order proscribing a number of organisations around the world under the Terrorism Act 2000, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organisation which was dedicated to the overthrow of Qaddafi.
So why ban the LIFG? It has been accepted that they have never targeted civilians, either in Libya or abroad. On the contrary, they have a long history, since their founding in 1995, of clashing with the Libyan security forces, including assassination attempts on Qaddafi himself. By any definition of the word, they are courageous heroes striving to overthrow a tyrannical despot who has enslaved his population. But the world had changed. Any Muslim with a gun had become synonymous with al-Qaeda, irrespective of whether that gun was for self-defence or defence of the weak and oppressed. The LIFG and indeed anyone opposed to Qaddafi were now a threat to our security and had to be dealt with accordingly, even those who Britain had previously recognised as at risk of persecution in Libya.
Much of the problem had to do with the definition of terrorism itself under the Terrorism Act 2000 which includes any action designed to influence the policy of any government, anywhere in the world, including by, for example, damage to property. The main problem to which this gives rise is that the counter-terrorism measures are capable of application to speech or actions concerning resistance to an oppressive regime overseas. For example, the creation of the offence of encouragement of “terrorism” in 2005, under this definition criminalises any expression of a view that armed resistance to a brutal or repressive anti-democratic regime might in certain circumstances be justifiable, even where such resistance consists of campaigns of sabotage against property, and specifically directed away from human casualties. On 24 October 2005, ten days after proscribing LIFG, Charles Clarke gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in which he defended the scope of the definition on the basis that “there is nowhere in the world today where violence can be justified as a means of bringing about political change.”
The definition was upheld by the High Court as well in January 2007 when Mr. Justice Mackay convicted one of the Libyan refugees arrested in October 2005 of possessing a blueprint for setting up an underground organisation in Libya to oppose Qaddafi. The judge held that the defendant could not plan, from England, the overthrow of Qaddafi: all he and other Libyan exiles could do was to urge the UK Government to take action to invade or otherwise attack the regime, which is also problematic, as it could lead to a conviction for the crime of “encouragement of terrorism” under the Terrorism Act 2006.
Two months after the LIFG was proscribed, three Libyan refugees were arrested and for belonging to and funding the LIFG. One of the men, Ismail Kamoka, had been released almost two years earlier after having been detained without charge for 16 months. Despite the court noting that he admitted to being a member of LIFG, it did not regard that as being a threat to national security at that time. Two years later, Blair and Qaddafi had kissed and Kamoka was now a threat to our security. In June 2007, all three were convicted. Kamoka was sentenced to almost four years imprisonment. The sentencing judge recommended that all three men be deported to Libya upon the completion of their sentences.
The only difficulty in deporting these newly discovered terrorists was the fact that Qaddafi’s regime was known to brutally torture and abuse dissidents and there was a real risk of deportees such as these men being subjected to such abuse. Even the Foreign Office warned that it still had “serious concerns” about human rights under Qaddafi’s regime, concerns which include “restrictions on political prisoners, arbitrary detention and conditions in Libyan prisons”.
Time for another state visit to Tripoli. On 29 May 2006, Blair again visited Libya, and on this occasion signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Qaddafi under the terms of which Qaddafi promised not to torture any terror suspects deported to Libya.
But Blair could not visit his Arabian master empty handed and had to take some sacrificial lambs with him. If Qaddafi was the mad dog, Blair was most certainly the loyal puppy. Five days before he travelled to meet Qaddafi, anti-terror police arrested a number of other Libyan dissidents who had been granted asylum in the UK.
These men included Abdul Baset Azzouz, a refugee from Libya, who was arrested during a dawn raid on his home, during the course of which he sustained numerous blows to his head in front of his wife and young children. Azzouz was told that he was being arrested for immigration reasons on the basis that he posed a threat to national security. Using secret evidence, which he has never seen to this day, the government accused Azzouz of having contact with the LIFG. After nine months of being detained without trial, Azzouz was granted bail on health grounds due to rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, depression and injured ligaments in his leg. The terms of Azzouz’s bail order effectively imprisoned him and his family to a small radius around their home, restricted from regularly joining his masjid congregation, and unable to mingle with his community.
In April 2008, the Court of Appeal upheld a SIAC ruling that two other Libyan dissidents (Faraj Hassan and Ziyad Ali Hashem) could not be deported to Libya as there were substantial grounds for believing they would be subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment if returned. Tony Blair was exasperated at the original SIAC ruling: “In order to be able to give a strong signal that those people cannot get away with what they want to do, we have to be able to deport people and send them back to their own country.”
Many of the detainees were subsequently released from prison as they could similarly not be deported to Libya but they were instead placed under suffocating control orders which virtually incarcerated them and their families in their own homes. One individual, “AV”, appealed the decision to the High Court which quashed his control order when it found him not to be a threat to national security.
Over the next two years, the government finally revoked all deportation and control orders from the detainees, after they won their lengthy court battles proving their innocence.
This was the plight of the Libyans in the UK whose security and safety was sacrificed in the interests of realpolitik. For four years, their lives and the lives of their families were devastated as they were persecuted in the land that had offered them refuge, in order to please the agent of their persecution. As Andy Worthington poignantly said, “their only ‘crime’ was to seek asylum at the wrong time”.
Their identities, their backgrounds and the reasons for their punishment were deliberately hidden from the British public in order to further terrorise a people already petrified by this government through carefully manipulated politics of fear. Veiled behind anonymous initials, secret evidence and Kafka-esque courts, the government manipulated the Libyans’ cases to justify the erosion of civil liberties through the introduction of draconian anti-terror laws. These men were opponents of Qaddafi, a leader as much despised by the British public as by his own people. Had the British government left them alone to remove Qaddafi rather than persecute them, it would have saved this country millions of pounds, and more importantly, thousands of innocent Libyan lives.