Britain, MI6 and the Belhaj case: the outstanding questions

Abdel Hakim Belhaj during a gathering at Green Square in Tripoli, Libya in 2011. EPA-EFE/MOHAMED MESSARA

Britain, MI6 and the Belhaj case: the outstanding questions

Attorney General Jeremy Wright has issued a statement apologising for the UK’s role in the illegal rendition of Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, in 2004.

The attorney general, watched by Boudchar and her son from the Houses of Commons public gallery, read out a letter from UK Prime Minister Theresa May in which she apologised unreservedly for the “harrowing experiences” suffered.

Belhaj had been part of the anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and had fled to Afghanistan in the 1990s, leaving shortly after the US-led invasion in 2001.

He was eventually tracked down by the CIA to Kuala Kumpur, following a tip-off from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and picked up while en route to the UK before being transferred to a CIA “black site”. Both he and his wife were rendered to Libya, where Belhaj was tortured and sentenced to death. He was only released by the Gaddafi regime in 2010 under a “de-radicalisation” initiative. Boudchar was four-and-a-half months pregnant when she was abducted and released shortly before giving birth.

Secret documents found in the ruins of the Libyan capital Tripoli in 2011 gave evidence of SIS’s involvement in the rendition, leading to legal action being taken against the British government, former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw and SIS’s Mark Allen.

The prime minister’s statement read:

It is clear that you were both subjected to appalling treatment and that you suffered greatly … The UK government believes your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way.

Fatima Boudchar, wife of Libyan politician Hakim Belhadj, poses with a letter after speaking to reporters waiting outside the Houses of Parliament on May 10, 2018. EPA-EFE/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

The attorney general revealed that Boudchar received £500,000 in compensation. Belhaj has so far not received (and not asked for) a financial settlement. This “full and final” statement included no “admission of liability”. But in a statement, Belhaj said:

I welcome and accept the prime minister’s apology, and I extend to her and the attorney general my thanks and sincere goodwill.

Previously, Belhaj said that he would settle the case if he received a token payment of £1 as long as he received an apology from the British government.

The human rights group Reprieve called the statement “unprecedented” and a “victory for everyone who opposes injustice, secret detention, and torture”, while Sapna Malik from solicitors Leigh Day, who represented Belhaj and Boudchar, said the “candid apology from the government helps restore the humanity and dignity so brutally denied to my clients during their ordeal and is warmly welcomed”.

The British government will hope that this is the end of a long-running dispute over its role in Belhaj and Boudchar’s rendition which surfaced in 2011. The documents found in Tripoli showed that, in March 2004, SIS’s then director of counter-terrorism, Mark Allen, wrote to the head of Libya’s national intelligence agency, Mukhabarat el-Jamahiriya, congratulating him on Belhaj’s arrival, saying: “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years”. Allen continued:

The intelligence on Abu Abd Allah (Belhaj’s alias) 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.

The statement marks the end of a long legal battle against the British government, Mark Allen and Jack Straw. Straw continues to deny wrongdoing.

This is not the first time that the UK government has paid out to victims of rendition. In 2012, the UK government offered £2m to the family of another Libyan dissident, Sami al-Saadi, after he was forced to board a plane in Hong Kong and fly to Tripoli with his wife and four children.

The British government also paid out to former detainees at the US Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba, including Binyam Mohamed, who had been mistreated while being held in Pakistan. Britain’s Security Service (MI5) was “complicit” in his torture, the Court of Appeal ruled in 2010.

Unanswered questions

There remain significant questions about the UK’s role in supporting rendition and complicity in torture. In July 2010, the then UK prime minister, David Cameron, announced a “short and sharp” official inquiry into claims of abuse under retired appeal judge, Sir Peter Gibson. The inquiry was subsequently shelved after UK police announced an investigation into claims of ill-treatment by Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi.

The legal case was also subsequently dropped due to “insufficient evidence” despite a large amount of material being passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.

An interim report of Gibson’s “Detainee Inquiry”, based on a mass of material examined (around 20,000 documents), was published in 2013. Shortly afterwards, the government announced that claims of ill-treatment would be dealt with by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) – rather than the original judge-led inquiry. But the ISC’s scrutiny of the case remains a long way off.

In her letter to Belhaj and his wife, the prime minister said: “The UK government has learned many lessons from this period. We should have understood much sooner the unacceptable practices of some of our international partners and we sincerely regret our failures.”

But the important issues raised by Gibson’s interim report remain. It listed 27 questions Gibson was unable to answer ranging from intelligence liaison to interrogation policy, ministerial guidance to the use of the UK’s overseas territories for CIA rendition flights, and the disclosure of information.

Did the UK’s spies take sufficient interest in the welfare of detainees rendered thanks to UK intelligence? What policies did the UK intelligence community have in place when supporting US extraordinary renditions? Were Britain’s spies willing to support US renditions despite public statements that they were not complicit in torture? What did government ministers and senior officials know?

These are just some of the questions that need to be answered. In the US, the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence completed a major investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme and use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. The over 500-page summary (out of a total of 6,700 pages) was released in December 2014 with a damning critique of agency practices.

In the UK, letters of apology are welcome but where is the official inquiry into claims of ill-treatment and rendition by Britain’s spies?