Tony Blair has refused to personally apologise to the Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who was tortured in a jail in Libya following a rendition operation mounted with the help of MI6, saying he knew nothing about the case until after he left office.
Blair, speaking about the case for the first time since Theresa May’s government apologised to Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, said he was “content to go along with” that apology, but did not express any personal remorse.
“This has been subject to a long legal process,” Blair told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I have gone along with what the government has done, which is to issue an apology. I didn’t know myself about this case until after I left office, so I’m content to go along with that apology. And that’s all that’s frankly sensible for me to say.”
Blair’s contention that he knew nothing about the case is different to that of his foreign secretary at the time, Jack Straw. Following May’s apology, Straw released a statement saying he had approved “some information to be shared with international partners” over the case, but he had assumed any connected actions would be lawful.
Belhaj and his wife were seized in Thailand in 2004, hooded, shackled and flown to one of the prisons of the then Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, 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 released shortly before giving birth.
The couple have fought for compensation and an apology after papers came to light in 2011, during the Libyan revolution, that revealed the role played by British intelligence officers in their kidnapping.
Who is 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.
This month May wrote to them to apologise unreservedly on behalf of the government and to offer Boudchar £500,000 in compensation. Belhaj has neither sought nor received a financial settlement.
Pressed on how he could not have known about the case before leaving office in 2007, Blair said: “There’s a lot of things in this case, some of which have been out in the media, some of which have been not.
“There’s been a settlement of the case. As I say, I’m content to go along with the government’s apology in relation to it. It’s not something I dealt with myself when I was in government. I think that’s all I can say.”
Asked whether he could nonetheless make a personal apology to Belhaj and Boudchar, Blair said: “I’m sorry for any mistreatment that’s been given to people. How on earth would you ever justify that?”
Blair said he was “wholly and 100%, in all circumstances, opposed to the use of torture” and had always made this plain when in office.
The papers discovered during the Libyan revolution showed beyond doubt that MI6, the CIA and Gaddafi’s intelligence agencies were involved in the kidnap and torture of Belhaj and another of Gaddafi’s opponents, Sami al-Saadi.
They had also been involved in the kidnap and severe mistreatment of the men’s wives, and Saadi’s four children, the youngest aged six.
The two families were abducted in Bangkok and Hong Kong and flown to Tripoli in separate “rendition” operations three weeks apart, in March 2004. In between, Blair paid his first visit to Tripoli, embracing Gaddafi and declaring that they were making “common cause” against al-Qaida and terrorism.
In 2012 the Saadi family accepted a settlement of £2.23m from the UK government, which made no admission of liability.
Blair’s claim to have known nothing about the matter would suggest Straw authorised aspects of the operation without discussing these with Blair.
Since the apology, pressure has been growing for Blair and Straw to explain what they knew. The Conservative former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the case.
Rifkind said the intelligence and security committee – the panel of MPs and peers that provides oversight of the UK’s intelligence agencies – was best placed to investigate the roles of Blair, Straw and other ministers.
Amnesty International said on Tuesday there was a need for a proper judicial inquiry into UK involvement in rendition cases.
Allan Hogarth of the charity said: “We shouldn’t accept attempts to draw a line under the involvement of UK officials in these horrors. We still need a judicial inquiry into the UK’s role in torture carried out by its partners – including the CIA’s extensive programme of rendition and illegal detention.”