Libyan rebel leader says MI6 knew he was tortured

The Independent reports:

“They knew I was being tortured, I have no doubt of that,” Abdelhakim Belhaj, a former prisoner who is now the rebel security chief of the Libyan capital, said about the British intelligence 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.”

The appalling treatment inflicted on Mr Belhaj, a former head of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group (LIFG), is now in the centre of an international diplomatic storm. The Independent revealed, after discovering secret files in Tripoli, how Britain played a key role in the rendition of Mr Belhaj, which delivered him into hands of the Gaddafi regime for seven years of incarceration, six of them in solitary confinement.

Mr Belhaj’s vehement claims that British officials were fully aware of the maltreatment he was undergoing and lays the UK intelligence services open to charges of direct complicity. There is nothing to suggest in a tranche of MI6 papers that the UK raised concerns about his ordeal with the regime.

Instead there are repeated requests to the Libyan secret police for information about Mr Belhaj, including one believed to be from Sir Mark Allen, who was then MI6’s head of counter-terrorism and now works for BP, when arranging Tony Blair’s visit to meet Colonel Gaddafi. “I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week. Abu Abd Allah’s [a nom-de-guerre for Mr Belhaj] information on the situation in this country is of urgent importance to us.”

Speaking to The Independent in a Tripoli hotel now being used by the Transitional National Council (TNC), Mr Belhaj described being interviewed by three British agents, one woman and two men, at the security headquarters of Moussa Koussa, who was then Libya’s spymaster. The two questioning sessions each lasted about two hours. The name of the female officer is known to The Independent but it is not being published for security reasons. Documents show that she was one of the most frequent visitors to Tripoli under the Gaddafi regime.

“The British people they sent were real experts, they knew the names of LIFG members in England, even their codenames. I have been told [by regime officials] that if I named them as being involved with al-Qa’ida they would be returned to Libya and my own conditions would improve. I was given names of other opposition people who were not even members of LIFG, who I did not even know,” Mr Belhaj, 45, said.

“I told the British, as I told everyone else, that LIFG had no link with al-Qa’ida. I knew making a link would stop what was happening to me, but I was not going to do it. I showed the British about what was happening to me.”

Mr Belhaj’s sense of being betrayed extends beyond the unheeded plea for help to the UK agents during his interrogation. After being arrested in Malaysia as a suspect during the US-led “war on terror”, he had applied for asylum to the UK, which was supposedly granted. Instead, British intelligence used the system to start a chain of events that led to his rendition to Libya. As Mr Belhaj and his wife, who was four months pregnant, travelled from Kuala Lumpur to the Thai capital, Bangkok, on the way to London in March 2004 they were arrested by CIA officers and the Thai police.

Mr Belhaj said he was subjected to physical abuse in Thailand before being moved to Abu Salim prison, a place of fear for Libyans where torture became a daily occurrence and often involved being suspended from the ceiling by his wrists.

Mr Belhaj, who was released from prison under an amnesty by the regime earlier this year, said yesterday: “My wife is still badly affected by what happened, even after all these years. It was very frightening for her. I am angry that the asylum application was used in this way. I thought Britain was a place where human rights were respected. I thought it was a place I could go to be safe. Instead, they used this to trap me.

Patrick Cockburn writes:

Here is an account by a Libyan, who did not want to disclose his name, of what it was like to be tortured by Libyan security. He says: “I was blindfolded and taken upstairs. I was shocked with electricity and made to sit on broken glass. They were kicking and punching me until I confessed. I said ‘No’.” This went on for over a week.

One day the interrogators tied his hands behind his back and took him upstairs. He continues: “They opened the door and I saw my son and wife. There were five or six members of security with masks. They tied me to a chair and one of them said: ‘Do you want to sign or should we torture them?'”

According to the prisoner one of the interrogators took his 10-month-old son and put a wire on his hand and “he screamed and his face turned red”. The little boy appeared to stop breathing. Soon afterwards the prisoner signed the confession demanded by Libyan security.

The testimony about the baby’s torture in front of his father was recorded by Human Rights Watch in Tripoli in 2005. The same year the UK signed a Memorandum of Understanding accepting Libyan diplomatic assurances that torture would not be used against Libyan exiles repatriated from the UK to Libya. Few documents agreed to by a British government exude so much hypocrisy and cynicism.

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