London (AFP) – Britain on Thursday apologised for contributing to the ill treatment of former Islamist fighter turned politician Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who was kidnapped in Thailand in 2004, handed over to Libya and tortured.
“The UK government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering,” Prime Minister Theresa May said in a letter to Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar, which was read out in parliament by Attorney General Jeremy Wright.
“On behalf of Her Majesty’s government, I apologise to you unreservedly,” the letter read.
Belhaj, who became Tripoli’s military commander after Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi was ousted in the 2011 revolution, claimed British complicity in their capture by the CIA and subsequent torture by his regime.
The British government accepted the couple “were subjected to a harrowing ordeal which caused them significant distress”, and said that it had reached “a full and final settlement” with them both.
Boudchar will receive £500,000 (570,000 euros, $670,000) compensation, but Belhaj did not seek any financial settlement, only an apology.
Boudchar was four-and-a-half months pregnant when she was kidnapped, telling the Guardian that she had been taped to a stretcher for the 17-hour flight to Tripoli.
She was released shortly before giving birth.
– ‘Unacceptable practices’ –
Belhaj was held for more than six years and said he was subjected to torture.
“Your accounts were moving and what happened to you is deeply troubling,” wrote May.
“The UK government believes your account, neither of you should have been treated in this way”.
The prime minister added that “we should have understood sooner the unacceptable practices of some of our international partners. We sincerely regret our failures.”
Belhaj initially said he was taking action against MI6’s former counter-terrorism chief Mark Allen.
Papers found after Kadhafi’s ouster showed the British official had told the Libyan government that it was “the least the UK could do” to help capture Belhaj.
He also sued ex-foreign secretary Jack Straw, but dropped both of the cases as he mediated a “full and final settlement” with the government.
Belhaj fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and became the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which sought to overthrow Kadhafi and replace his regime with an Islamic one.
Following his release from prison in Libya, Belhaj founded the conservative Islamist party Al-Watan.
He also founded a pro-Islamist television channel, which was also opposed to Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army.
He had an office in Tripoli where he regularly received US, British, French and other Western envoys.
Belhaj and his men were part of the Fajr Libya faction which seized Tripoli in 2014.
As a party leader, he participated in the talks held in Morocco which brought about Libya’s interim Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015.
However, he has vanished from Libyan public life since then and is now based in Istanbul.
In May 2017, pro-GNA armed groups took control of the prison where former leaders of the Kadhafi regime, including Abdallah Senoussi and Saadi Kadhafi, were being held under the control of Belhaj’s men.
The same day, the headquarters of his television channel was torched.
It was later transferred to Istanbul from where it continues to lead an anti-Haftar campaign.