British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a rare formal public apology Thursday to one of 15 Libyan Islamists delivered into the hands of Col. Moammar Gadhafi by British and American intelligence services and tortured after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States.
In a letter read out in parliament by Attorney General Jeremy Wright, May apologized to Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, who was four months pregnant when she was rendered. In the letter sent to the couple, May said the British government was “profoundly sorry” for their “appalling treatment.”
“What happened to you is deeply troubling,” May wrote in her letter, which lawyers characterized as unprecedented and the deepest apology offered by a Western government for abuses thrown up during the war on terror. “The UK Government believes your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way,” May said.
The letter concluded, “The UK government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering. The UK government shared information about you to its international partners. We should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated. We accept that this was a failing on our part.”
Wright told lawmakers in the House of Commons the government had reached an out-of-court settlement with the couple.
The apology concludes a complex legal battle by Belhaj and his wife over the role of British politicians and spies in the couple’s 2004 rendition from Thailand to Libya. Belhaj, a former leader of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, was jailed and tortured by Gadhafi’s henchmen.
The apology coincides with renewed public attention in the United States on the issue of rendition and torture. This week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, Gina Haspel, a 33-year veteran of the agency, was questioned about her past role at a covert detention site in Thailand, where terror suspects were waterboarded.
Boudchar, who watched from the Commons public gallery as the apology was disclosed to lawmakers, later said outside the British parliament, “This is a historic day for us. The British government apologized to us for what we’ve been through. We’ve waited six years for this apology.”
Boudchar is to receive compensation of $676,000, but Belhaj didn’t seek any money.
In several interviews with VOA in 2012 and 2013, Belhaj, now a leading politician in Libya, emphasized his only aim in filing a legal action in the British courts was to secure a public apology from the British government and to prompt a debate about how the war on terror should be conducted. He detailed to VOA the torture he’d undergone in Libya, but expressed no animus toward Britain and the United States, although he said he also was considering taking legal action against the U.S. government.
Belhaj’s LIFG was composed of Islamist dissidents who tried for more than two decades to overthrow Gadhafi and mounted an insurgency in eastern Libya. LIFG members fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet-installed government of Mohammed Najibullah, but their primary reason for being in the country – according to their leaders Belhaj and Sami Mostefa al Saadi – was to learn insurgency skills for the battle against Gadhafi in Libya.
Many LIFG members fled in the weeks and months after the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, fearing the U.S. wouldn’t distinguish between them and al-Qaida, according to Belhaj. Some, however, did formally join al-Qaida.
Belhaj was released six years after his rendition – 18 months before the 2011 uprising against Gadhafi. Boudchar was freed from a Libyan jail shortly before giving birth.
Two weeks after the couple were rendered to Libya, Britain’s then-prime minister Tony Blair, paid his first visit to Libya to meet Gadhafi for what was dubbed “the summit in the desert.” During the summit, the Libyan autocrat announced he was joining the ‘war against terror” and gave the go-ahead for a lucrative gas exploration deal for Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell.
Former LIFG members now describe themselves as Islamist modernizers.
Several told Human Rights Watch for a report the rights group released in 2012 that they were tortured by U.S. interrogators before being rendered to Libya, where they were tortured again. When Gadhafi’s intelligence boss interrogated Sami Mostefa al Saadi, that boss bragged, “Before 9/11, you went to countries where we couldn’t reach you. But now, after 9/11, I can just pick up the phone and call MI6 or the CIA.”
In Afghanistan, the Libyan Islamists kept al-Qaida at arm’s length, al Saadi told VOA in a 2013 interview. It is a claim confirmed by several independent experts who have studied the group. Osama bin Laden, on several occasions, urged the anti-Gadhafi Libyans to join in with al-Qaida. And in two notable meetings in Kandahar, he debated the Libyan Islamists. “He was polite, never lost his temper,” al Saadi told VOA. “He was soft-spoken but obdurate.”
Former LIFG members complain that in the pursuit of al-Qaida suspects, British and American intelligence failed to distinguish between al-Qaida militants targeting the West, and Islamists engaged in armed opposition against repressive regimes in their own countries. They say London and Washington accepted at face value Gadhafi’s claims the LIFG was part of al-Qaida. “We weren’t,” Belhaj told VOA in 2012. “Our fight was with Gadhafi.”
Former LIFG members do acknowledge that some in the West still harbor doubts about their motives – acknowledging that with several of their numbers subsequently joining al-Qaida, their position wasn’t helped in explaining the difference.
Reacting to the apology, Belhaj, in Istanbul on a visit, said, “I welcome and accept the prime minister’s apology, and I extend to her and the attorney general my thanks and sincere goodwill.”
Martha Spurrier, director of the British rights group 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.”
She said, though, a full judge-led inquiry into Britain’s involvement in torture and rendition is still needed. “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,” she said.