Did British Spies Collude in the Rendition and Torture of Libyan Rebels?

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Stefan Rousseau / AFP / Getty Images

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron addresses a crowd from a podium decked with the National Transitional Council's adopted flag in Benghazi on September 15, 2011.

On Sept. 15, 2011, as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi scurried from one hideout to another, British Prime Minister David Cameron traveled to Benghazi to congratulate rebel leaders on their victory. Aware that the U.K. had supported their cause with air strikes and strong diplomatic posturing, a sea of Libyans chanted, “Thank you, Cameron!”

If accusations currently under investigation by Scotland Yard prove to be true, however, those chants of goodwill may soon give way to hisses. On Jan. 12, British authorities launched two criminal investigations into whether, years before the uprising, British spies had actually helped deliver two Libyan rebels — and their families — to Gaddafi and his henchmen. The announcement comes at a time those two rebels are poised to launch lawsuits against the British government.

The Metropolitan Police made the announcement in a joint statement with the Crown Prosecution Service, which oversees prosecutions in England and Wales: “The allegations raised in the two specific cases … are so serious that it is in the public interest for them to be investigated now rather than at the conclusion of the Detainee Inquiry [a separate and ongoing inquiry into the treatment of detainees after 9/11].”

The first case involves Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a founder of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which sought to overthrow Gaddafi from 1994 onward. In 2004, as part of a joint CIA and MI6 operation, authorities arrested him and his pregnant wife at the Kuala Lumpur Airport as a suspect in the U.S.-led war on terror. CIA agents then delivered him to the Abu Salim prison in Libya, where he says he was routinely beaten, suspended from the ceiling by his wrists and forced to take drugs. He claims that during interrogations led by British security agents he made hand gestures to covertly express he was being tortured. “The British people nodded, showed they understood,” he told the Independent. “But nothing changed. The torture continued for a long time afterwards.” Among other things, Belhaj says he was denied a bath for three years out of the seven he was imprisoned. His wife was also imprisoned for several months, but was released shortly before giving birth. Libya released Belhaj and around 200 other Islamists in March 2010. He went on to command rebel forces in Tripoli in August 2011.

The second case involves Sami al-Saadi, another member of the LIFG and an opponent of the Gaddafi regime. Authorities detained him, his wife and their four children in Hong Kong in 2004, subsequently forcing them on a plane to Tripoli. Upon arrival, they were allegedly handcuffed and hooded, and had to sit with their legs bound together with wire. He watched his young daughter lose consciousness before being separated from his family and imprisoned. It’s one of the few known rendition cases involving an entire family (with children ages between 6 and 13). Al-Saadi claims that as a result of the MI6-mounted operation — launched in conjunction with Gaddafi’s intelligence chief and Foreign Minister, Moussa Koussa — he suffered years of torture until his release in early 2010.

Lawyers for the men say that documents obtained by Libyan security services after Gaddafi’s fall detail the U.K.’s role in the alleged abuse. In one letter, Mark Allen, the former head of counterterrorism at MI6, thanks Koussa for arranging a visit for then Prime Minister Tony Blair to Libya in 2004. He then refers to Belhaj using the Libyan’s alias. “Most importantly, I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq,” it says. “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.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he rejected torture and the ill-treatment of detainees. “We will never support it, we won’t ask other people to do it on our behalf,” he said. He also pledged that the government and intelligence agencies would give their “complete and full cooperation” to each investigation.

Despite the rising tension over those two cases, the top brass at MI5 and MI6 can breathe easier over previous allegations of abuse in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. Prosecutors announced that they would not bring charges against British agents involved in the case of Binyam Mohamed — a British man arrested by American authorities in Pakistan in 2002.

(SEE: Faces of Guantánamo — Profiles of the Unjustly Imprisoned.)

Mohamed claims that the CIA took him to Morocco, where he was abused for 18 months, before moving him to Afghanistan and finally Guantánamo Bay. Although British agents did question Mohamed in Pakistan and subsequently supplied information to the Americans, police did not find sufficient evidence to suggest these agents knew he was at risk of torture. Regardless, prosecutors still maintain that he could have endured ill-treatment.

Mohamed has already received compensation for his ordeal. But for Belhaj, who is now suing the U.K. government, money may be an afterthought. He hopes his case will ultimately pave the way for healthier relations between London and Tripoli. “I believe the new Libya and the United Kingdom must forge a positive relationship looking forward,” Belhaj said yesterday. “But to start on a good footing, Libyans need justice for the crimes of the past.”

Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.