News of the death, in a Libyan jail, of Ibn al-Shaikh al-Libi, a US terror suspect who was the subject of an extraordinary rendition, then tortured in Egypt and Jordan as well as CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Poland has, understandably, raised questions about whether he committed suicide - as the Libyan authorities claimed - or whether he was murdered. Just two weeks ago, representatives of Human Rights Watch saw him in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison, and although he refused to speak to them, they reported that he "looked well."
Al-Libi's death should also raise uncomfortable questions for former US vice-president Dick Cheney, who is still turning up with alarming regularity on US television, peddling his claims that the use of torture saved America from further terrorist attacks. The focus on al-Libi should be a stark reminder that, when he was rendered to Egypt in early 2002, the CIA's proxy torturers extracted a false confession from him - that al-Qaida operatives had received training from Saddam Hussein in the use of chemical and biological weapons - which was used not to protect the US from attack, but to justify the invasion of Iraq. The claim featured prominently in secretary of state Colin Powell's presentation to the UN, just a month before the invasion began.
However, beyond the story of al-Libi's mysterious death and of Dick Cheney's role in torturing him to launch an illegal war - as documented by Moazzam Begg earlier this week - another disturbing aspect of America's cosy relationship with Colonel Gaddafi, in the war on terror emerged in Human Rights Watch's press release about al-Libi's death. The organisation noted that its researchers had interviewed four other prisoners also rendered to Libya by the CIA, who reported that they had been tortured - by or on behalf of US forces - in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Thailand.
What struck me as particularly significant was that, in 2007, Noman Benotman, an exiled opponent of the Gaddafi regime, had explained to the Washington Post that two of these men - Abdallah al-Sadeq and Abu Munder al-Saadi - had been seized by the CIA in Thailand and Hong Kong, but had only been "held briefly" before being rendered to Tripoli, because the CIA "realised very quickly that these guys had nothing to do with al-Qaida". In the bluntest terms possible, this means that these men were flown halfway around the world, at the CIA's expense, not because they were a threat to the US, but because they were considered a threat to Gaddafi, even though, before Libya's president adroitly joined the "war on terror", he was regarded as a pariah and an international terrorist and those who opposed him were seen as freedom fighters.
Moreover, these pawns in a political game are found not only in the CIA's rendition programme. There are also six prisoners in Guantánamo, picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were automatically labelled as international terrorists and associates of al-Qaeda because of their opposition to the Gaddafi regime.
Closer to home, there are other examples in Britain too: a handful of men, held without charge or trial, initially in Long Lartin prison, and, since last year, on strict control orders that amount to virtual house arrest, whose only "crime" was to seek asylum at the wrong time. One of these men, identified only as Detainee DD, arrived in Britain in 2004, around the same time that Tony Blair was in Tripoli, meeting Gaddafi for the first time and talking of the "new relationship" that had become possible since the regime renounced its WMD programme.
In an interview with the British human rights group Cageprisoners last year, DD explained, "I left Libya because I opposed the regime of Gaddafi. I came here as a political asylum seeker. My opposition to the Gaddafi regime was purely political; it did not involve the use of any sort of violence or force. This point is acknowledged by the British authorities too." A talented artist, he has coped with a death sentence hanging over him in Libya, and his constant fears that the British government will succeed in deporting him to face certain death, by drawing a number of satirical cartoons criticising the British government for its hypocrisy.
In both the US and the UK, the courts have intervened to prevent both governments from forcibly repatriating these men, whose return would contravene the UN convention against torture. One of the Libyans in Guantánamo has been fighting his involuntary return for two years. In the UK, the government's plans to deport 12 Libyans, supposedly underpinned by a memorandum of understanding signed between the British and Libyan governments guaranteeing that any deportees would be treated humanely, were derailed last April by the appeal court, which ruled that the government had failed to give enough weight to the risk of torture, and that the men would face a "complete" denial of a fair trial if they were sent back from Britain.
The fate of the Guantánamo prisoners is now in President Obama's hands, but in Britain, where the government's response to the appeal court's ruling was to impose control orders, detainee DD and his fellow countrymen are still wondering when, if ever, their disturbing legal limbo will come to an end. As DD explained last year: "Indefinite detention without charge is found only in dictator countries like Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt etc. If this country is to maintain democracy we must put a stop to indefinite detention without charge."