Did British Ministers Approve the Illegal Rendition and Torture of Libyan Dissidents?

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

Abdel Hakim Belhadj attends a debate at Libya's Tripoli University on Oct. 27, 2011. Belhadj is suing the British security services and government for their alleged role in his illegal rendition to Libya and his alleged torture there

On March 7, 2004, in a joint CIA-MI6 operation, Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhadj and his wife Fatima Bouchar were arrested at Bangkok’s airport. Belhadj, who had sought to undermine Muammar Gaddafi’s regime for years as the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), claims he was blindfolded, hooded and hung from hooks in his cell for hours at a time. He also claims that agents subjected him to loud music and lengthy interrogations and that he was later forced to consume drugs while imprisoned in Libya. These accusations form the basis of his lawsuit against the British security services and the British government for their alleged role in his illegal rendition to Libya and his alleged torture there.

Speaking to the media for the first time on April 8, his wife revealed details of her own ordeal. In an interview with the Guardian, Bouchar claimed the agents who arrested her in Thailand chained both of her ankles to the floor of her cell and one of her arms to the wall. She was four and a half months pregnant at the time. “They knew I was pregnant,” she said. “It was obvious.” She alleges that five days after being taken into captivity, American agents bound her to a stretcher by wrapping tape around her body — including her arms, chest and face. “My left eye was closed when the tape was applied,” she told the newspaper. “But my right eye was open, and it stayed open throughout the journey. It was agony.” After a 17-hour flight, authorities delivered Bouchar and her husband to Gaddafi’s henchmen.

(MORE: Did British Spies Collude in the Torture of Libyan Rebels?)

Bouchar’s revelations come at a time when the British intelligence services and government face renewed pressure over their role in the illegal rendition. Successive governments have denied any involvement. But on April 9, the BBC claimed that government ministers had approved the rendition. If true, that contradicts comments made by Jack Straw, who was Labour’s Foreign Secretary in 2004 when the rendition took place. “We were opposed to unlawful rendition. We were opposed to any use of torture,” Straw told BBC Radio 4 last year. “Not only did we not agree with it, we were not complicit in it and nor did we turn a blind eye to it.”

This morning, British newspapers quoted unnamed sources who claimed that Britain’s secret intelligence service is prepared to settle out of court with Belhadj for around $1.6 million. As the Daily Mail’s front-page splash read: “MI6 and a £1m ‘Bribe’ to Silence Torture Victim.” The government has declined to comment on the matter. British spies have also come under attack from human-rights law firms like Britain’s Reprieve, which claims that the government’s “Green Paper on Justice and Security,” published in October 2011, would shuffle torture cases into secret hearings. That move would spare the government and intelligent services the embarrassment of a public hearing and, they say, prevent the truth from ever being fully disclosed.

It looks like the public will, however, get a judge’s opinion of what happened to the two Libyan dissidents. On Jan. 12, British authorities launched two criminal investigations looking into allegations leveled by Belhadj and Sami al-Saadi, another member of the LIFG and an opponent of the Gaddafi regime. Documents recovered 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 Gaddafi’s intelligence chief and Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa for arranging a visit for then Prime Minister Tony Blair to Libya in 2004. He then refers to Belhadj 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.”

MORE: The Other Special Relationship: Documents Reveal Cozy Ties Between Britain and Gaddafi

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.