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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

UK apologises for role in Libyan military leader's rendition

The UK Attorney General Jeremy Wright said "we sincerely regret our failures"

Abdul Hakim Belhaj received an apology from the UK government in May for his rendition by to Libya. AFP
Abdul Hakim Belhaj received an apology from the UK government in May for his rendition by to Libya. AFP

After a prolonged legal battle, the British government apologised for the illegal rendition of a former Libyan rebel commander who claims he was tortured by the Qaddafi regime.

Abdul Hakim Belhaj was snatched along with his wife in South East Asia in 2004, in a CIA-led operation based on intelligence supplied by the UK. He was held in a Libyan jail for six years, during which time he was questioned by UK officials.

Mr Belhaj’s wife Fatima Boudchar, and son Abderrahim, 14, were in the public gallery as UK Attorney General Jeremy Wright told the House of Commons that Theresa May has written to the family to apologise, saying what happened to them was “deeply troubling”.

"During your detention in Libya, we sought information about and from you. We wrongly missed opportunities to alleviate your plight: this should not have happened,” Mr Wright said. “The UK government has learned many lessons from this period... we sincerely regret our failures."

The statement added that there was no admission of liability on the part of any of the defendants, and that Mrs Boudchar was to receive £500,000 in compensation. Mr Belhaj received no pay-out.

The settlement comes six years after Mr Belhaj first offered to settle the case for an apology and no damages but instead resorted to a series of court actions that threatened to reveal the secrets of the intelligence operations between Britain and America to the public.

Now the prominent figure in a powerful Libyan Islamist faction, Mr Belhaj was represented by Leigh Day, a legal firm which, earlier this year, found itself at the centre of a scandal amid allegations it was involved in a “factory” set up to encourage false claims against the UK Ministry of Defence over the conduct of British Army personnel in Iraq.

It is just the latest case in recent years to have tied the UK government in knots. In 2013, the Government eventually managed to deport Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan after a near decade long battle in the courts – Abu Qatada claimed his right to a fair trial would not be granted due to the risk of evidence gained through torture being used to prosecute him.

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Despite previous suggestions of a settlement, Mr Belhaj persisted with the case, calling since 2012 for an apology from the British government, alongside a symbolic payment of £1 from each of the defendants. In launching litigation proceedings, Mr Belhaj was also assisted by the campaign group Reprieve, which acted on behalf of many of the Guantanamo Bay detainees.

His battle with British authorities can be traced back to 2004, when, along with his pregnant wife Fatima Bouchar, he was arrested in Kuala Lumpur. The operation was CIA led he claimed, and he was subsequently handed back to the Libyan regime via the UK controlled island of Diego Garcia. Mr Belhaj then spent almost seven years in prison, where he was tortured. He claims that then UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had authorised the move.

Mr Belhaj returned to public consciousness in 2011 as the Libyan revolution unfolded, leading the brigade responsible for the capture of Bab Al Azizia, despot Muammer Al Qadaffi’s main military base during the battle for the capital – Tripoli, and later as head of the National Military Council.

Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen of the Baker Institute for Public Policy, noted that Mr Belhaj was one of the key Qatari-backed actors in the Libyan opposition. “Qatar developed close links with key Islamist militia commanders [in Libya] such as Abdelhakim Belhaj, once the head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group [LIFG] and, in 2011, the commander of the Tripoli Brigade.”

Al Watan, the political party he headed, was founded by the controversial Islamist cleric Ismael Al Salabi, whose brother Ali has been given sanctuary in Doha by the Emir of Qatar. His followers have since been linked to those responsible for a string of violent attacks, including the Manchester bombing last year and the Sousse attacks in Tunisia in 2015 that was perpetrated by Ansar Al Sharia.

His long record stretches back to 1988, when amid a regime clamp down much of the LIFG fled to Afghanistan, where a warrant claims Mr Belhaj formed “close relationships” with senior Al Qaeda members and Taliban chief Mullah Omar.

Omar Ashour, a non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution notes: “They [LIFG] even gave a religious oath of loyalty (bay’a) to Mullah Omar.”

Arab officials have gone so far as referring to him as the “Libyan apostle of Osama bin Laden”.

Mr Belhaj has always denied links to Al Qaeda. In 2011, he told Time magazine: “It happened that we found ourselves in the same place at the same time as Al Qaeda: in Afghanistan, where we sometimes fought next to them when it was to liberate the country, but we were never at their service.”

It was during the Libyan revolution that allegations against the UK government’s involvement in the rendition came to light.

A letter dated 2004 found in the office of former Libyan intelligence chief Moussa Koussa, from Sir Mark Allen, then head of MI6’s counter-terrorism unit, read: "I congratulate you on the safe arrival of [Mr Belhaj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years".

Mr Belhaj was presented with Theresa May’s letter of apology by the British ambassador to Turkey. In response, he said: "I welcome and accept the Prime Minister’s apology, and I extend to her and the Attorney General my thanks and goodwill."