16.05.2021

Britain apologises for ‘appalling treatment’ of Abdel Hakim Belhaj

Theresa May has apologised for the “appalling” treatment of a husband and wife who were the victims of a so-called rendition operation mounted with the help of MI6.

The attorney general, Jeremy Wright, read out a letter from the prime minister in which she apologised unreservedly to the Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, on behalf of the government.

He also announced that Boudchar, who was pregnant when the couple were kidnapped, would receive compensation of £500,000 for the UK’s role in her treatment. Belhaj had neither sought, nor received, a financial settlement.

Boudchar watched from the Commons public gallery as Wright told MPs that, after mediation, the government had reached a full and final settlement with the couple, who had withdrawn their legal claim.

Who is Abdel Hakim Belhaj?

Britain apologises for ‘appalling treatment’ of Abdel Hakim Belhaj

Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, were the victims of a so-called rendition operation mounted with the help of MI6.

They have battled for compensation and an apology for more than six years, after papers that came to light during the Libyan revolution revealed the role that British intelligence officers played in their 2004 kidnap in Thailand.

The couple were hooded and shackled and flown to one of Muammar Gaddafi’s prisons, where Belhaj was tortured and sentenced to death.

They had sued the former foreign secretary Jack Straw, and Sir Mark Allen, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, as well as the agency itself and the Foreign Office. Among the evidence obtained by Scotland Yard was a faxed letter from Allen to Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, in which he made clear that MI6 had tipped off the Libyans about the couple’s whereabouts.

Boudchar was four and a half months pregnant at the time that she was kidnapped. She was set free shortly before giving birth.

Two weeks after the couple were renditioned to Libya, Tony Blair paid his first visit to the country, embracing Gaddafi and declaring that Libya had recognised “a common cause, with us, in the fight against al-Qaida extremism and terrorism”.

Other documents discovered during the Libyan revolution make clear that information extracted from Belhaj was used to justify the detention in Britain of members of his Islamist opposition group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, some of whom had settled in the UK as refugees many years earlier.

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May told the couple the UK should have done more to reduce the risk that they could be mistreated, accepting that it was a failing on the government’s part.

She also said the UK had wrongly missed opportunities to help the couple once they were in custody in the prisons of the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

The prime minister acknowledged that the unacceptable practices of the UK’s international allies should have been realised sooner, implying criticism of both the Libyan regime and the CIA’s practice of rendition.

“It is clear that you were both subjected to appalling treatment and that you suffered greatly, not least the affront to the dignity of Mrs Boudchar who was pregnant at the time,” she said.

“The UK government believes your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way.

“The UK government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering. We should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated. We accept that this was a failing on our part.

“We wrongly missed opportunities to alleviate your plight. This should not have happened.

“On behalf of Her Majesty’s government I apologise unreservedly. We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it. The UK government has learned many lessons from this period. We should have realised much sooner the unacceptable practices of some of our international allies, and we sincerely regret our failures.”

Fatima Boudchar and her son Abderrahim Belhaj, 14, with their lawyers (far left and right). Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The couple have battled for compensation and an apology for over six years after papers came to light during the Libyan revolution that revealed the role that British intelligence officers had played in their kidnapping.

They were seized in Thailand in 2004 before being hooded and shackled and flown to one of Gaddafi’s prisons, where Belhaj was tortured and sentenced to death. He was released six years later. Boudchar was four and a half months pregnant when she was abducted. She was set free shortly before giving birth.

Reacting to the apology, Belhaj told the Guardian: “The wording of the apology was heartfelt. There was a feeling of concern, an admission of the shortcomings, an expression of unreserved apology, lessons learned, admission of failings and an expression of disappointment towards the international partners that I was handed over to.

“All of these sentiments that came through in the apology, I welcome them. This is in spite of my belief that the length of time is part of the suffering. That is because you feel that you suffered and endured and were wronged, and then you have to wait for years. But what matters is the result in the end.”

The UK ambassador hands Theresa May’s apology letter to Abdel Hakim Belhaj. Photograph: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

Boudchar, who was in parliament with her son, said: “I thank the British government for its apology and for inviting me and my son to the UK to hear it. I accept the government’s apology.”

Belhaj added: “What I saw from the responses of the MPs today, it was like a balm, and I felt that there were those who saw the need for laws and guarantees to prevent this from happening again.

“From the very first moment, I insisted that there must be an apology. I never asked for monetary compensation because I don’t want to impose on the taxpayers, and so I can put a quick end to this suffering, but what led us to the courts is the rejection of the demand for an apology. I welcome this step, the acceptance of the apology condition, and I hope this is not repeated with someone else.”

Wright told MPs: “As we have seen in recent years there remains a considerable international threat to the UK and our allies and it is important that government and the security and intelligence agencies are able to respond properly so we can keep our country safe.

“But it is also important that we should act in line with our values and in accordance with the rule of law. That means that when we get things wrong it is right and just that we should acknowledge it, compensate those affected and learn lessons. I believe this is such a case.”

The government’s most senior law officer set out some details of the out-of-court settlement, including Boudchar’s compensation and the couple’s decision to withdraw their legal claim.

He said that no admission of liability had been made by any defendants, who include the former foreign secretary Jack Straw and Sir Mark Allen, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, as well as the government.

“This has been a long-running and highly complex piece of litigation which has been extremely difficult for all the individuals involved as parties,” he said.

In a statement, Straw said: “I welcome the withdrawal of the proceedings against me that had been brought by Mr Belhaj and Ms Boudchar. I recognise that the events they describe will have been deeply distressing for them.

“As foreign secretary I was responsible for approving or authorising a wide range of matters to protect our national security, including by meeting our international obligations to share information with international partners.

“I took these responsibilities very seriously. As I have said on many occasions I sought to act at all times in a manner which was fully consistent with my legal duties, and with national and international law.”

Straw said he had limited recollection of the events, but had ascertained that on 1 March 2004 he gave oral approval for “some information to be shared with international partners”.

“In every case where my approval was sought I assumed, and was entitled to assume, that the actions for which my approval was sought were lawful,” he said. “This included in appropriate cases obtaining assurances as to the humane treatment of those concerned.

“This case clearly raises serious issues. However, I remain constrained for national security reasons as to what further I can say publicly.”

Straw noted that he had already been interviewed by police investigating the case, and said that he was ready to provide a full account of his knowledge of the circumstances of Belhaj’s case to the parliamentary intelligence and security committee.

Sapna Malik from the law firm Leigh Day, who represented Belhaj and Bouchar, said: “Today’s historic occasion is a tribute to the resilience of our clients in their quest for justice.

“After six long years of litigation, HMG has rightly acknowledged that, even in the fields of counter-terrorism and international relations, there are lines which must not be crossed and which were crossed here, with devastating consequences for my clients.

“Today’s candid apology from the government helps restore the humanity and dignity so brutally denied to my clients during their ordeal, and is warmly welcomed.”

Cori Crider, the lawyer representing the Belhaj family on behalf of the human rights organisation Reprieve, said the extent of the government’s apology was unprecedented. “It’s broader and deeper and more sincere than any apology we have seen from the war on terror,” she said. “We are very gratified by it.”

Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said: “The government’s unreserved apology for the unimaginable suffering Mr Belhaj and Ms Boudchar have endured is welcome. Justice was delayed, but at least it hasn’t been denied.

“David Cameron promised a full judge-led inquiry into our country’s involvement in torture and rendition in 2010, but it is still yet to materialise. Until torture survivors and the British public know the full extent of the UK’s failings, ministers cannot claim to have learned the lessons to prevent this ever happening again.”

Belhaj had said in the past he would settle for just £3, £1 from each of the defendants, as long as he and his wife received an apology from the British government.

The couple’s lawyers brought judicial review proceedings against the Crown Prosecution Service after it concluded that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Allen following a four-year investigation by Scotland Yard. Both Straw and Allen have always denied any wrongdoing.

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