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Uncovered: Britain's secret rendition programme

Until now, this country has been guilty only by association in the illegal transfer of prisoners. But the covert rendition of a Moroccan man by MI5 agents suggests that the practice was central to Britain's 'war on terror'

MI5 was directly involved in the rendition of a Moroccan national, illegally taken from a Belgian prison to work for Britain's Security Services in London, an investigation by The Independent has discovered.

The man, now aged 29 and who cannot be named for his own safety, was secretly transferred from a Brussels jail in April 2004 and then further held and interrogated by senior MI5 officers at a secret base near London.

Documents seen by The Independent show that in September 2003 a Belgian court sentenced the man to four years in prison for the use of false documents and association with terror suspects. Yet less than a year later Home Office papers reveal that the Moroccan, who was born in Rabat, was in Britain and had been granted leave to remain in the UK by the British Government.

The Home Office document, dated 4 November 2004, says: "It has been decided that the Secretary of State's discretion should be exercised in your favour and you have been granted limited leave to remain in the United Kingdom for a reason not covered by the Immigration Rules."

The case is the first evidence of a UK-based rendition recruitment programme operated by the Security Service after the 11 September attacks on America. Until now, Britain's involvement in the practice appeared to be limited to providing assistance to American renditions.

In an interview with The Independent, the man's Belgian lawyer, Christophe Marchand, said that the rendition took place while the suspect was waiting to appear before the central criminal court in Brussels in relation to his appeal.

Mr Marchand, Belgium's foremost defence attorney and author of the book European Trends on the War on Human Rights, said his client, then 23 years old, had been questioned by MI5 agents in Forest Prison in Brussels where he had been detained without trial and held in solitary confinement for more than two years. During his later interrogation and detention at an MI5 safe house 40 minutes from central London, the man did not have access to a lawyer.

Last night MPs and human rights groups said the case illustrated the extent of Britain's illegal role in the war on terror. Andrew Tyrie MP, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, said: "If it were to turn out that this man had been transferred to the UK against his will and against due legal process, we should well be concerned. Stories such as this underline the need for an inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened after 11 September."

Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal charity Reprieve, said: "We simply cannot be in the business of snatching people from foreign countries without any legal process. Why have we fought for the rule of law for all these decades if it is simply to be ignored when the Security Services decide it is not convenient to let judges into the debate?"

Mr Marchand suspects that the deal must have been approved by Belgium's security services and the state prosecutor. A year after his mysterious disappearance from prison, the Moroccan national contacted Mr Marchand. "We met in central London. He told me the whole story about how MI5 had arranged for his release and secret flight to London on a specially chartered British Airways aircraft. He told me he felt vulnerable in prison and didn't think he would ever be released. He feared being returned to Morocco even more because he felt sure that he would be tortured.

"They told him that if he agreed to work for MI5 he would have a new life in the UK. But he was very vulnerable at this time, he was young and held in solitary confinement where he was psychologically weak. He believed he had no choice. Once he arrived in the UK he was told that if he ever told anyone who he was working for his life would be in danger from al-Qa'ida. He told me that he thought this was an explicit threat that MI5 would make sure al-Qa'ida knew his identity if he ever broke his agreement with the Security Service."

Mr Marchand, an international expert in human rights law, accused Britain of being directly involved in rendition. "Of course it is rendition – it is the illegal transfer of someone from one country to another. He was transferred from Belgium without any legal safeguards. It is a very clear violation of the rule of law. Pressure was huge on him because he knew he was condemned to years in prison."

A spokeswoman for the Belgian embassy in London said she was aware of the case and the "disappearance" but could give no further details.

Lieve Pellens, of the Belgian Federal Prosecutors Office in Brussels, said she was sure the Prosecutors Office was "not implicated" in such an arrangement. "If a foreign authority wants to question someone held in the Forest Prison then they have to make a special request and we have to ensure that a Belgian officer is present," said Ms Pellens.

A spokeswoman for the Security Service said: "We do not comment on individuals. We do not comment on operational security matters."

Rendition: Explained

* Countries wishing to transfer a suspect from one state to another for arrest, detention or interrogation must operate through the judicial process, usually by making an extradition request.

* Where such transfers occur outside a legal framework, such as in the Brussels case which we have reported today, they are referred to as renditions.

* America's extraordinary rendition programme involves the further element of torture, usually by a third-party proxy state. In the Brussels case the Moroccan suspect faced the prospect of torture in his homeland and could not freely give consent for his transfer to Britain.

* Upon his transfer to the UK he was held in an MI5 safe-house, where he was interrogated without legal representation. All the time he knew he was at risk of deportation.