The former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the rendition of the Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj.
Rifkind said the intelligence and security committee (ISC), the panel of MPs and peers that provides oversight of the UK’s intelligence agencies, was best placed to investigate the roles of the then prime minister, Tony Blair, his foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and other government ministers in the 2004 rendition.
Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar were flown from Bangkok to Tripoli in an operation involving MI6, the CIA and Muammar Gaddafi’s intelligence services.
The British government this week announced that it had reached a “full and final” settlement with the couple over the incident. The attorney general, Jeremy Wright, told the House of Commons that the prime minister Theresa May had written to Belhaj and Boudchar to apologise for the “appalling” treatment they had received.
After the statement, Straw conceded publicly for the first time that he had authorised some of MI6’s actions, despite previously telling MPs that allegations of his involvement in rendition were conspiracy theories.
Rifkind, a former chairman of the ISC who served in various cabinet roles under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, told the BBC: “I think it’s absolutely vital and in the public interest that the role of the prime minister and ministers at the time in this affair should become better understood.
Tony Blair was prime minister. He has been uncharacteristically silent, so far as I am aware not a word has he said. Jack Straw said he would love to give evidence to the ISC on those matters relevant to national security where he can’t speak openly.
“What is not known is the extent to which the then prime minister and other ministers were party to what MI6 was doing. And we know that Mr Blair took a very strong personal interest in Libya.”
Belhaj and Boudchar fought a protracted legal battle over their claim that they were kidnapped and returned to Gaddafi’s regime in a move linked to Blair’s infamous “deal in the desert” with the Libyan leader.
They said that, following three years of evading Gaddafi’s agents after fleeing Libya, they were seized in Malaysia and sent to Thailand for rendition as a result of a tip-off from UK intelligence.
Rifkind said the ISC would be able to make 95% of its findings public. “That’s exactly why the intelligence and security committee [is] there. They are senior parliamentarians. They are the only people outside the government who have the right, absolute right, to see all the highly classified information and therefore would be able to come to a judgment,” he said.
“They could quite easily come to the judgment either that ministers, in their view, did not know, or were not involved, or that ministers were … right up to their necks, as it were.
“There will be no reason of national security why either the involvement of the prime minister, or ministers, or their non-involvement, should not be, not only investigated, but the results announced to parliament and to the wider public.”
He added that the committee had the right to decide on its own authority whether to carry out such an investigation.
During the 2011 Libyan revolution, documents also came to light revealing MI6’s role in the rendition of a second Libyan opposition figure, Sami al-Saadi, who was kidnapped along with his wife and four young children.
Straw has said he would be happy to give evidence to the ISC, stating that he sought to act at all times in a manner consistent with his legal duties while foreign secretary. But that would be done behind closed doors, and MPs have called for Straw to give evidence before parliament about his role in the kidnap and mistreatment of the two families.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, say there needs to be a broader inquiry, independent of government.