“They knew I was being tortured, I have no doubt of that,” said Abdelhakim Belhaj of MI6 agents who came to interrogate him while he was in the hands of Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police.
“I hoped they would do something about it. I was too terrified during the meeting to say out loud what was being done to me because I thought the Libyans [secret police] were taping what was going on. When the Libyan guards left, I made sign movements with my hands. The British people nodded, showed they understood. They showed this understanding several times. But nothing changed, the torture continued for a long time afterwards.”
Mr Belhaj was speaking to me in September 2011, in Tripoli soon after the rebels had captured Libya’s capital from Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and two days after we had discovered documents about Britain’s part in Mr Belhaj’s rendition at the offices of Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s intelligence chief.
The former head of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group was arrested in Malaysia as a suspect during the “war on terror”. He had applied for asylum to the UK, which was supposedly granted. Instead, British intelligence triggered a chain of events that led to his rendition along with his pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, and their children to the regime in Tripoli.
Mr Belhaj and his family had been released from prison by the Libyan authorities a short time before widespread protests began against the Gaddafi regime and had joined the uprising which followed. In December 2011 he announced that he was suing the British Government over the rendition. Scotland Yard began an investigation into the case. Last week the Crown Prosecution Service said that there is “insufficient evidence” to bring charges against British officials.
The CPS issued a long, detailed statement about the decision not to prosecute. At the time of the discovery of the documents, security sources had said that Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary, had authorised what happened. The CPS document did not support that claim: who exactly authorised what remains unclear. Straw has always denied the claims made against him.
In Tripoli, Mr Belhaj issued a statement that said: “For many years I have waited and put my faith in British justice … they say the rule of law in Britain reaches everyone, even the most powerful. Today I wonder if that idea was a myth.”
There are claims that the lack of prosecution was a cover-up: an attempt to hide more damaging details being revealed about the relationship between Tony Blair’s government and the Gaddafi regime. The claims haven’t been substantiated.
But there are other players involved. As Mr Belhaj said during our interview: “There was a queue of people here to see me. The Americans were first, then the British: they knew what was going on. France, Germany, Italy, Spain. They all came with questions. They all dealt with Gaddafi.”
Qatar is another player in this matter. After the revolution Mr Belhaj was a candidate in the elections of 2012. He was supposed to be receiving so much backing by the Qataris that a group of students in Benghazi assured me at the time that his party colours were the same as that of Qatar Airways. In fact, there is a definite difference in shades, but the students felt they knew the true colours of the Islamists.
Qatar is also the place that Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s spymaster and Belhaj’s captor, obtained refuge after the fall of the regime. Moussa Koussa had arrived in Doha via London where he was debriefed. The UK refused requests by Libyan opposition and human rights groups to detain him. Neither Qataris, Mr Belhaj’s former mentors, or the British government would want their links with Moussa Koussa publicly explored.
The British military establishment was not antipathetic to Mr Belhaj after he sued the British Government. In fact his militias were regarded as prime candidates when Downing Street decided to train Libyan forces two years ago. “I can get to see Belhaj at any time”, I recall a British general declaring at a meeting in the Ministry of Defence. The training programme, at the end, came to an ignoble end with the Libyan recruits (not from Mr Belhaj’s militia) sent home from Bassingbourne Barracks in Cambridgeshire after a breakdown of discipline with some of them facing charges of sex assaults.
Mr Belhaj himself supposedly offered training in Libya to Syrian rebel fighters against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, after meeting members of the Syrian opposition in Istanbul and the Syrian border in 2011. This was before the arrival of the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis in Syria’s bloody civil war and British and other Western officials held that Mr Belhaj’s initiative was a good thing.
There are changes taking place in Libya now with international backing for a UN-sponsored administration in Tripoli and progress being seemingly made against Isis in their strongholds. Mr Belhaj may well take a more prominent role in politics and, as we see, realpolitik makes unusual bedfellows. Who knows how what the future holds in the relationship between the UK and the man sent back to Colonel Gaddafi?