Tony Blair looks haunted, but with new claims that he was behind torture and war lies he's got a lot to be haunted by

One can only fear for Tony Blair after last Thursday's European summit at Brussels.

The former Prime Minister had been intriguing and plotting to be appointed European president ever since he left No 10 more than two years ago.

There are several reasons why he so desperately wanted the job, but perhaps the main one concerns the immunity from prosecution seemingly enjoyed by all politicians in high office. 

Haunted: Former Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Sunday

For the truth is that evidence continues to amass that, under the Blair premiership, the British state was responsible, at times, for some illegal actions which, on occasions, could be considered to be barbarism.

Blair is well aware that if he had become president of the European Council, it would have been very hard to bring him to account.

Indeed, he has watched over the years how Italian prosecutors have found it exceptionally hard to make his close friend and holiday companion, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, face justice. As an ordinary citizen, however, it is a different matter.

There are three main areas where Blair may have committed illegal acts while in office.

The first concerns corruption, whereby businessmen or large corporations were able to influence government policy or gained other favours in exchange for donations to the Labour Party (for example, the change in policy over tobacco advertising secured by Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone after he gave £1million to the party).

But the most shocking aspect of the Blair administration - which is ironic, since it introduced the Human Rights Act - was its apparent indifference to human rights.

Fresh evidence is emerging every week of the alleged complicity of the British state in the torture of terrorist suspects, particularly after President Bush's White House took a much more brutal approach to such enemies of America after the bombing of the Twin Towers in 2001.

It is inconceivable that British intelligence agents would have been involved in the torture of terror suspects without explicit ministerial sanction.

The question is how much did Blair himself know - and the evidence he did is getting nearer his door all the time. A Human Rights Watch report into British complicity with torture is to be published on Tuesday and will add to the pressure.

The third area of potential illegality concerns the still highly controversial decision to go to war with Iraq in March 2003.

A number of legal experts argue that the war was illegal and Tony Blair is therefore guilty of war crimes.

This is why the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, whose public hearings finally get under way in London next week, is potentially so dangerous for Blair.

The key question under review is whether the former Labour prime minister lied to the British people.

At the time, Blair said the main reason Britain had to go to war against Saddam Hussein was because of the Iraqi leader's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Again and again, Blair asserted that he had convincing evidence that those weapons posed a lethal threat, not only to Iraq's neighbours, but to Britain.

It was these claims that convinced wavering Labour backbenchers to support the Government.

They were in Blair's brilliant and passionate Commons speech on March 18, 2003, that won over doubters that Britain had no other option but join the U.S. in its invasion of Iraq - a military operation that culminated in the greatest humiliation for British forces since Suez in 1956.

Without his doomladen warnings about WMDs, Blair would never have won that Commons vote and Britain would never have gone to war.

But, as we now know, there were never any WMDs. Now, six years on, the crucial question is: did Tony Blair grossly exaggerate - or even invent - the evidence that he told MPs was 'extensive, detailed and authoritative'.

The Chilcot Inquiry is bound to look again at Blair's dossier to Parliament in September 2002 when he stated that 'the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt' that Saddam had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.

However, there is mounting evidence that British intelligence never claimed that its officials' briefings of the Prime Minister were anything other than speculation.

Indeed, there remained serious uncertainties in the intelligence assessments - but Blair never levelled with MPs, or the British public, about this.

For instance, one Joint Intelligence Committee assessment emphasised that 'intelligence remains limited, and Saddam's own unpredictability complicates judgments'.

Most importantly, one devastating piece of evidence has emerged since Blair stepped down as prime minister that suggests he may even have known, by the time the war started, that everything he was telling Parliament and the British people about Iraq's so- called WMDs was utterly false.

A book by the Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Ron Suskind reveals that on the eve of the Iraq war, MI6 obtained a direct interview with Saddam's intelligence chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush.

According to Suskind, Habbush insisted that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. 

This account would suggest that by the time Blair made that crucial speech to the Commons on March 18, he knew that the war was unnecessary  -  and, indeed, illegal.

It would also suggest that he misled Lord Goldsmith, the then Attorney General, when he communicated his 'unequivocal' view that Iraq was in breach of UN resolution 1441.

And, of course, if Suskind is right, it would also destroy Blair's main justifications for the war.

It is essential to stress that Suskind's account is supported by verbatim accounts of conversations he had with Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6.

What's more, the author's central allegation - that MI6 interviewed Saddam's intelligence chief - has never been challenged.

Surprisingly, there is no suggestion yet that the Chilcott Inquiry has called Michael Shipster, the MI6 intelligence agent who conducted that extraordinary eve-of-war interview with the intelligence boss, to give evidence.

There is still time for him to be summoned - the public hearings are due to last until February - and it is essential that his testimony is heard.

In recent months, Tony Blair has acquired a worn and haggard look. He appeared a haunted man when he attended the Cenotaph ceremony on Armistice Day. Considering what is on his mind, this is no surprise.

His predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, has only to enter a restaurant and the room will rise to applaud her. Tony Blair, in contrast, is increasingly reviled and insulted.

In all the previous inquiries into the Iraq disaster, Blair has been able to use the power that comes from high office to protect himself from censure.

Now that he is a private citizen, and his dreams of the European presidency have evaporated, he is vulnerable as never before.

Mandy, Corfu holidays and his Russian oligarch friend 

I have received a response from Sergey Babichenko, press secretary to the Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, in reply to the list of questions I posed in this column last month about his company called Basic Element and his business connections.

I originally raised these issues after questions about Mr Deripaska's relationship with Business Secretary Lord Mandelson.

Friend of Mandelson: Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska

Mr Deripaska originally hit the headlines in the summer of 2008 when it was revealed that he had met both Mandelson and Shadow Chancellor George Osborne on a yacht off Corfu and where it was alleged that he had offered to donate money to the Tory Party.

Mr Babichenko's letter to me reads as follows: 'By the time Mr Deripaska became involved with the Russian aluminium industry, the latter had been targeted by organised crime groups and plant managers were routinely corrupt and controlled by criminals.

'The smelters had little revenues, failed routinely to pay their employees, made few investments, and paid no taxes. Through the persistent efforts and hard work of Mr Deripaska and others like him, criminal groups were driven out, economic performance was improved and these problems were resolved.

'Your questions are clearly designed to give the wrongful impression that Mr Deripaska is associated with criminal elements, which is misleading and wrong.

'Regarding the U.S., Mr Deripaska has visited that country twice this year. This was reported on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Friday, October 30, the day before Mr Oborne's column was published.

'We do not comment on private meetings. However, as it happens, Mr Deripaska has not met Lord Mandelson since the summer of last year.

'He has never offered Lord Mandelson a position on the board of any company. Basic Element has no plans to float on the London Stock Exchange.' I am grateful to Mr Babichenko for his explanations.

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