Libyan rebel leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj sues British Government for illegal rendition to Libya

December 19, 2011

Head of the Tripoli Military Council and the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group Abdel Hakim Belhadj is taking legal action against the UK Government and its security forces for their part in the illegal rendition and barbaric treatment of both himself and his pregnant wife in March 2004.

Mr Belhadj, also known as Abu Abd Allah Sadiq, became a symbol of the new Libya as a commander of the anti-Gaddafi forces in the 2011 Libyan civil war. He has instructed law firm Leigh Day & Co to take legal action against the UK Government and the secret services following his illegal rendition to Libya in 2004, claiming complicity in his torture. Legal action charity Reprieve are instructed as US counsel and providing investigative support. In 2004 Mr Belhadj was living in China, having led a low-level insurgency against the Gaddafi regime during the 1990’s as the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. He lived in Beijing with his wife Fatima Bouchar. In early 2004, with Ms Bouchar pregnant and fearing they were under surveillance, they decided to seek asylum in the UK. However, on trying to leave the country they were detained and deported to Malaysia, from where they had previously travelled. On arrival in Kuala Lumpur they were immediately taken into the custody of Malaysian authorities. After being detained for some weeks, they were told that they would be allowed to travel to the UK, but only via Bangkok. The couple were then forced to board an aircraft, which flew them to Bangkok. On reaching Bangkok, the couple were separated, handed over to US authorities and taken to what they believe was a US secret prison. There they were subjected to a barrage of barbaric treatment.  In between his interrogation sessions, Mr Belhadj was hung by his wrists from hooks in his cell for prolonged periods, while hooded, blindfolded and viciously beaten. Ms Bouchar was also mistreated so severely that she finds it difficult to discuss even today. The couple were then rendered by US authorities to Libya out of Bangkok. 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, which stopped to re-fuel in Diego Garcia, the British Indian Ocean Territory.  Neither he nor his wife was aware that the other was on the plane. In Libya Mr Belhadj was detained for six years in some of the country’s most brutal jails and was interrogated by ‘foreign’ agents, including some from the UK. He was savagely beaten, hung from walls and cut off from human contact and daylight before being sentenced to death during a 15-minute trial about 4 years in to his detention. The beatings and inhumane treatment continued until 2010 when he was eventually released. Ms Bouchar 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. She was also subjected to aggressive interrogations during her detention.   Cori Crider, Legal Director at Reprieve, said: “Mr Belhadj 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.  Abdelhakim Belhadj is determined that this should not stand in the way of positive relations between the UK and the new Libya – it is just a shame that the current government will not so much as apologise, and make amends for the grievous mistakes of the Blair era.”   Sapna Malik from Leigh Day & Co, the lawyer representing Mr Belhadj and Ms Bouchar said: “the 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. “Whilst obviously grateful for the role that the present government and NATO have played in liberating Libya from the shackles of Gaddafi, our 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.” Evidence of the UK’s role in the couple’s rendition is detailed in a number of documents held by the Libyan security services, which came to light subsequent to the fall of the Gadaffi regime. These show how the UK alerted the Libyans to the couple’s presence in Malaysia in early March. The UK’s role in the rendition is made clear 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. In a letter dated 18 March 2004, Sir Mark passes on thanks for helping to sort out Tony Blair’s recent visit to Colonel Gaddafi. In the letter Mr Allen says: “Most importantly, I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Mr Balhadj]. 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.” Mr Allen goes on to say: “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.”

ENDSNotes to editors1. For further information please contact Katherine O’Shea in Reprieve’s press office on +44 (0)20 7427 1082 / +44 (0)79315926742. Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.  Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 15 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Follow Reprieve on twitter: @ReprieveUK; if you were forwarded this release, sign up to join our press mailing list.