Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar
Gaddafi opponent Abdul-Hakim Belhaj was kidnapped along with his pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, and rendered to Libya. Abdul-Hakim was tortured and imprisoned for 6 years.
Reprieve is assisting the couple with their legal action against the UK government for its part in their ordeal.
Abdul-Hakim is a Libyan national and a known Gaddafi dissident. In 2004, he and his wife Fatima were living in China. Fatima was pregnant and, fearing that the authorities were watching them, the couple decided to seek asylum in the UK. But when they tried to leave the country, they were detained and deported to Malaysia. Abdul-Hakim and Fatima were detained in Kuala Lumpur for several weeks, and then told that they would be allowed to travel to the UK, but only via Bangkok. During the flight, Abdul-Hakim was hooded and shackled to the floor of the plane in a stress position, unable to sit or lie for 17 hours. Neither he nor Fatima was aware that the other was on the plane.
When they arrived in Bangkok, they were handed over to US authorities, and taken to what they believe was a US secret prison. In between his interrogation sessions, Abdul-Hakim was hung by his wrists from hooks in his cell for prolonged periods, while hooded, blindfolded and viciously beaten. To this day, Fatima finds it difficult to discuss her experiences in the prison.
The couple were then rendered by US authorities to Libya. Abdul-Hakim was detained for six years in some of the country’s most brutal jails, and interrogated by ‘foreign’ agents, including some from the UK. He was savagely beaten, hung from walls and cut off from human contact and daylight. About 4 years in to his detention, he was sentenced to death after a 15-minute trial. Officials continued to torture him until 2010, when he was eventually released.
Fatima was imprisoned in Libya for four months. She was released just three weeks before giving birth, by which time her health, and that of her baby, was in a precarious state.
We know that the UK played an important role in the couple’s rendition – the evidence is detailed in documents held by the Libyan security services, which came to light after Gaddafi’s fall. The documents describe how the UK alerted the Libyans to Abdul-Hakim and Fatima’s presence in Malaysia in early March 2004. In a letter from Sir Mark Allen, former director of counter-terrorism at MI6, to Moussa Koussa, head of the Libyan intelligence agency at the time, Sir Mark passes on thanks for organising Tony Blair’s recent visit to Colonel Gaddafi:
Most importantly, I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Abdul-Hakim Belhaj]. 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.
Sir Mark Allen, 18 March 2004
We believe that the couple’s rendition to Libya is part of the dark underside of the so-called “deal in the desert” struck between Tony Blair and Gaddafi in 2004. That infamous meeting – when Blair embraced Gaddafi in a tent – happened the same month as this operation. In January 2012, the Crown Prosecution Service and Metropolitan Police launched a criminal inquiry into the torture and rendition of Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and fellow Libyan Sami al Saadi. Abdul-Hakim and Fatima refused to settle the case without an unequivocal admission of liability from the British government. Instead, they asked for a token £1 each from Sir Mark Allen (former head of MI6), Jack Straw (former foreign secretary) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In December 2013, the High Court found that the couple had a “potentially well-founded claim” that the UK was “directly implicated” in their abuse, but ruled that the case should not be heard because it could damage UK-US relations. Reprieve took the case to the Court of Appeal, and won.
The UK government is desperately trying to make sure its role in the Belhaj-Boudchar renditions never sees the light of day.
Cori Crider, strategic director at Reprieve
In October 2014, Reprieve filed a related claim in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, and a rare public hearing was held. The IPT is a highly secretive body responsible for hearing claims brought against the security and intelligence services. We feared that the security services had been eavesdropping on our confidential communications with Abdul-Hakim and Fatima, which would be a serious breach of their right to a fair trial. The government conceded that the intelligence services did indeed have policies relating to the interception of private calls between lawyers and their clients. However, when asked to give greater detail, the government refused, as the information might ‘be damaging to public interest or prejudicial to national security’. As things stand now, Abdul-Hakim and Fatima will get their day in court.
The UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has today ordered intelligence agency GCHQ to destroy illegally collected communications of a Libyan rendition victim.
Today (Friday) sees the consultation close on proposed new 'codes of practice' for state surveillance of confidential communications between lawyers, journalists, MPs and members of the public.
The UK government today argued that it should not have to admit to several Libyan renditions victims, or to the public, whether it spied unlawfully on their protected communications with their lawyers.
A report published today by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) reveals that MPs have questioned the security agencies over allegations that “information obtained through GCHQ’s interception activities may have enabled them to ‘rig’ ongoing civil and criminal cases” brought by victims of a joint MI6-CIA ‘rendition’ and torture operation.
This Friday the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) will hold a hearing over UK government spying on privileged lawyer-client communications.