This week, Abdel Hakim Belhadj (aka Belhaj), a Libyan military commander and rebel leader, who is the head of the Tripoli Military Council and the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, initiated legal proceedings against the British government and the security forces for their key role in his illegal abduction, rendition and barbaric treatment — and that of his pregnant wife Fatima Bouchar — in March 2004.
Mr. Belhadj, also identified as Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq, has instructed solicitors at Leigh Day & Co. to take legal action, and the legal action charity Reprieve are acting as US counsel and are also providing investigative support.
In 2004, when Mr. Belhadj’s ordeal at the hands of the British, the Americans and the Gaddafi regime began, he was living in Beijing, China, having previously led the resistance to the Gaddafi regime, and having, for a while, lived in Afghanistan. In early 2004, when Ms. Bouchar began to fear they were under surveillance, they decided to try to seek asylum in the UK. At the airport, however, they were detained and deported to Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, their previous destination before China.
On arrival they were seized and held for several weeks, and then told that they would be allowed to travel to the UK, via Bangkok. They were then “forced to board an aircraft” bound for Bangkok, as Reprieve explained in a press release, and then “separated, handed over to US authorities and taken to what they believe was a US secret prison,” where “they were subjected to a barrage of barbaric treatment.” If this was in Thailand, then it may contradict claims that the secret prison used to hold “high-value detainees” in 2002 closed at the end of that year, as a new facility opened in Poland.
Mr. Belhadj has explained that, when he was not being interrogated, he “was hung by his wrists from hooks in his cell for prolonged periods, while hooded, blindfolded and viciously beaten.” Fatima Bouchar has said that she was “mistreated so severely that she finds it difficult to discuss even today.”
Still isolated from each other, they were then rendered to Libya from Bangkok by the US authorities, and, as was normal for US rendition fights, Mr. Belhadj “was hooded and shackled to the floor of the plane in a stress position, unable to sit or lie during the entire 17-hour flight.” Adding to British woes, the flight stopped to re-fuel in Diego Garcia, the British Indian Ocean Territory leased to the US, where, for many years, there have been rumors of the existence of another secret prison.
In Libya, Mr. Belhadj was imprisoned for six years in some of the country’s most brutal jails, including Abu Salim in Tripoli, where 1200 prisoners were killed in a massacre by Gaddafi’s forces in 1996. In Libya’s prisons, he “was savagely beaten, hung from walls and cut off from human contact and daylight,” and has stated that he was interrogated by “foreign” agents, including agents from the UK. In 2008, he was sentenced to death after a 15-minute trial. For two more years, his abuse continued, and then, in 2010, he was released as part of negotiations between the Gaddafi regime and former members of the LIFG.
Alarmingly, Fatima Bouchar was also imprisoned on her return to Libya, and was subjected to aggressive interrogations,. In total, she was held for four months, and was released just three weeks before her baby was born. As Reprieve noted, by this time “her health, and that of her baby, was in a precarious state.”
Speaking of the case, Cori Crider, Reprieve’s legal director, said, “Mr. Belhaj was totally willing to come to an agreement with the British government. He made it absolutely plain that what he cared about was an open apology and for those who tortured him and his wife to be brought to justice. It is only after those requests were ignored for a month that he has decided to make his grievance public.”
Sapna Malik of Leigh Day & Co. added, “[T]he barbaric treatment which our clients describe, both at the hands of the Americans and the Libyans is beyond comprehension and yet it appears that the UK was responsible for setting off this torturous chain of events … [O]ur clients want those responsible for the wrongs done to them, and other Libyans, in the past be held to account and the truth to come out, so that the new Libya can finally turn the page.”
Disgracefully, evidence of the UK’s role in the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Fatima Bouchar was revealed in a number of fawning, and previously classified documents that came to light in Tripoli, in September, as the Gaddafi regime fell, and which were discovered by Human Rights Watch. These documents reveal that the British government told the Libyan government that the couple were in Malaysia in early March 2004, and Sir Mark Allen, who was then the director of counter-terrorism at MI6, wrote to the notorious torturer Moussa Koussa, the head of Libyan intelligence, who, earlier this year, fled Libya as the regime began tumbling and was briefly welcomed in the UK.
In a letter dated March 18, 2004, just a week before British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Gaddafi in Libya to welcome him on board as an ally in the “war on terror,” Allen wrote an embarrassing and self-incriminating letter, in which he stated, “Most importantly, I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Abdel Hakim Belhadj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad. I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week.”
He added, “Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from Abu Abd Allah through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence on Abu Abd Allah was British. I know I did not pay for the air cargo. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful for the help you are giving us.”
Abdel Hakim Belhaj is not the first former opponent of Gaddafi to sue the British government. In October, Sami al-Saadi (also known as Abu Munthir), another prominent figure in the LIFG, launched an action to claim damages from the British government after the documents discovered in Tripoli revealed the key role played by MI6 in his rendition as well. The Tripoli documents revealed a fax the CIA sent to Moussa Koussa, just two days before Tony Blair’s visit to Gaddafi, which, as the Guardian put it, “shows that the agency was eager to join in the Saadi rendition operation after learning that MI6 and Gaddafi’s government were about to embark upon it.”
As the Guardian was also keen to point out, after Blair’s visit, Gaddafi announced that he “had signed a £550m gas exploration deal with Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant.” Three days later, part of thew human cargo that helped to buy this deal — Sami al-Saadi — who had been seized by British agents in Hong Kong with his wife, two sons aged 12 and nine, and two daughters aged 14 and six, was forced onto a plane with his family and flown to Tripoli, where, on arrival, “he and his wife were handcuffed and hooded, and their legs were bound together with lengths of wire,” and “[t]he entire family was then thrown in jail.” Al-Saadi’s wife and children were released after two months of what he described as “psychological torture,” while he, like Belhaj, was held for six years and, as he explained, “repeatedly beaten, subjected to electric shocks and threatened with death.”
In a claim that also explains how British cynicism spread beyond Libya, he also said that “he was interrogated about Libyans living in the UK, shown photographs of a number of them, and on one occasion questioned by two British intelligence officers while one of his Libyan interrogators was present,” and what is clear from the experience of Libyan dissidents in the UK, who had claimed asylum, is that, after Gaddafi’s miraculous volte-face, his enemies were subjected to arbitrary imprisonment in the UK (in prisons, and also under house arrest) and shameful attempts to repatriate them, in contravention of the UN Convention Against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Reinforcing this assessment, the Guardian explained that al-Saadi “had lived in north London for several years in the 90s, having claimed asylum in the UK, and a number of his associates suspect he was handed over to Gaddafi as a ‘gift,’ rather than as an individual who threatened British national security,” much as those other individuals became playthings in a depressingly immoral game.
The Guardian also noted that the CIA fax made it clear that “the plan was to render not just Saadi but also his family,” even though what awaited them in Gaddafi’s Libya was obvious. Foreign Office representatives refused to comment, but solicitors at Leigh Day & Co. and lawyers at Reprieve pointed out that they had identified other documents in the Tripoli cache relating to al-Saadi, including one showing MI6 “preparing the ground for his rendition five months before it happened,” in a fax sent in November 2003, in which an MI6 officer “tells one of Koussa’s aides that the agency is talking to the Chinese intelligence services about ‘the Islamic extremist target in China.’”
Back in October, Cori Crider said of al-Saadi’s claim, “The British security services have let slip that Sami al-Saadi’s illegal kidnap was ‘ministerially authorised.’ So who signed the torture warrant? Was it [former foreign secretary] Jack Straw? The Metropolitan Police must launch an immediate criminal investigation, focusing on the highest echelons of British government. The British public, to say nothing of Sami, his wife and his family, have a right to know.”
With Abdel Hakim Belhaj joining Sami al-Saadi in suing the British government, these are difficult times for Prime Minister David Cameron, who now finds Libyans joining a queue of torture victims seeking a thorough inquiry into Britain’s use of torture, and not the whitewash envisaged by Cameron, who, in July 2009, initiated a largely secretive judge-led inquiry, which has yet to begin its deliberations, but which has been boycotted by all the major NGOs.
Sadly, the Obama administration, as is typical, is studiously avoiding having to answer any questions about the Bush administration’s involvement in the rendition and torture not only of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, but also of several other Libyans, some of whom I profiled for the United Nations, and also wrote about in an article in September 2010, entitled, “Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Freed in Libya After Three Years’ Detention – And Information About ‘Ghost Prisoners.’”
Most significant, however, is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the former emir of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan. Seized by the US crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan, he was sent to Egypt to be tortured, where he came up with a false confession that al-Qaeda operatives had met with Saddam Hussein to discuss obtaining chemical and biological weapons. Al-Libi recanted his claim, but it was, nevertheless, used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq, and al-Libi himself, after a tour of US torture prisons, was also returned to Libya, where he too was imprisoned and tortured, Unlike Balhaj, al-Saadi and others, however, al-Libi never survived. In May 2009, it was reported that he had committed suicide in his cell at Abu Salim prison, a story that no one with knowledge of Gaddafi — or, for that matter, the CIA — believed, especially as ming, the US embassy in Tripoli reopened just three days after his death.