World News

Britain Apologizes to 2 Libyans for Role in CIA Nightmare

Posted May 10, 2018 7:12 p.m. EDT

CAIRO — The British government issued an apology Thursday to a Libyan dissident and his wife for its role in a CIA abduction in 2004 that landed them in Libya, where the man was tortured by Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces and imprisoned for six years.

The apology to the dissident, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, was the culmination of a six-year legal battle and represented a rare public rebuke by the British government of its own intelligence services.

“It is clear that you were both subjected to appalling treatment and that you suffered greatly, not least the affront to the dignity of Mrs. Boudchar, who was pregnant at the time,” Prime Minister Theresa May told the couple in a letter that was read out in Parliament.

“We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it,” May said.

Belhaj is a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which tried to overthrow Gadhafi in the 1990s. After that effort failed, Belhaj fled into exile. In 2004, he and his wife, who was four months pregnant, were detained in Malaysia based on a tip by British intelligence operatives who told their U.S. counterparts that the couple were suspected of having ties to al-Qaida.

After being flown to Thailand, they were transferred to a secret CIA detention site, where Belhaj said he was tortured for two days. The couple were later flown to Libya, where Belhaj was held at the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. He says he was tortured extensively and sentenced to death before being released in 2010.

“The U.K. government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering,” May said.

The events occurred at a time when Britain’s MI6 intelligence service and the CIA were drawing closer to Gadhafi’s government. The role of MI6 became apparent only in 2011 after researchers from Human Rights Watch found correspondence from a senior British official in the office of Moussa Koussa, Gadhafi’s notorious intelligence chief.

In a letter congratulating Koussa on the safe arrival in Libya of Belhaj, Mark Allen, the counterterrorism chief at MI6, took credit for Britain’s role in the rendition, which he called “the least we could do for you and for Libya.”

On Thursday, Boudchar watched from the visitors gallery in Parliament as the apology was read; her husband later told reporters in Turkey that he was “filled with joy” that the matter had been settled. Britain will pay 500,000 pounds, or about $675,000, in compensation to Boudchar but nothing to Belhaj, who sought only an apology.

The apology comes at a particularly unwelcome time for the CIA as the Trump administration’s nominee to lead the agency, Gina Haspel, has been under intense scrutiny this week over her role at a secret detention site in Thailand, where the Libyan couple was once held.

Belhaj, who is now a politician in Libya, criticized the nomination of Haspel, who in 2002 oversaw a CIA “black site” in Thailand that, he said, sounded like the one where he was held.

“What does it mean for someone to be elevated and honored, someone who oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where torture was being practiced?” he said.

In an article for The New York Times this week, Boudchar described her time in CIA captivity in Thailand. She said black-clad figures wearing ski masks trussed her, chained her to a wall and assaulted her. “They hit me in the abdomen just where the baby was,” she wrote. “To move me, they bound me to a stretcher from head to toe, like a mummy. I was sure I would shortly be killed.”

After her transfer to Libya, Boudchar said, she was held in a filthy prison and released just before she gave birth. Her newborn son weighed just 4 pounds, which she attributed to her mistreatment at the hands of the CIA.

On Thursday, Boudchar, wearing a head scarf and dark glasses, emerged with her son, who is now 14, from Parliament holding aloft her copy of the apology letter. “The British government has apologized after six years,” she said through an interpreter.

Allen and Britain’s former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, were both named in the original lawsuit but were withdrawn by agreement. Under a settlement, Britain has not admitted any liability, but May said the government had “learned many lessons from this period.”

“We should have understood much sooner the unacceptable practices of some of our international partners,” she wrote in her letter.