Britain apologises for 'appalling treatment' of Abdel Hakim Belhaj | World news
The prime minister wrote to Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, to apologise unreservedly on behalf of the government for its failings over the case and missed opportunities to end their ordeal.
The attorney general, Jeremy Wright, read out May’s letter in the Commons as he announced that Boudchar, who was pregnant when the couple were kidnapped, would receive £500,000 compensation for the UK’s role in her treatment. Belhaj has neither sought, nor received, a financial settlement.
Boudchar and their 13-year-old son Abderrahim travelled to London and watched from the public gallery as Wright told MPs that, after mediation, the government had reached a full and final settlement with the couple, who had withdrawn their legal claim.
In her letter, May admitted the UK should have done more to reduce the risk that the couple could be mistreated, and had wrongly missed opportunities to help them once they were held in the prisons of the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
She acknowledged that Britain should have realised sooner that its allies were involved in unacceptable practices, implying criticism of Libya for torture and the CIA’s practice of rendition.
Downing Street confirmed that parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) would have full access to all government papers on the Belhaj case for the first time for its inquiry into rendition, which is expected to report later this year.
In her letter, which was handed to Belhaj in person by the British ambassador in Istanbul, May said: “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.
“The UK government believes your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way. The UK government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering.
“… On behalf of Her Majesty’s government I apologise unreservedly. We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it. The UK government has learned many lessons from this period.”
The couple have fought for compensation and an apology for more than six years after papers came to light during the Libyan revolution that revealed the role played by British intelligence officers in their kidnapping.
They were seized in Thailand in 2004 before being hooded, shackled and flown to one of Gaddafi’s prisons, where Belhaj was tortured and sentenced to death. He was released six years later. Boudchar was four and a half months pregnant when she was abducted. She was released shortly before giving birth.
After receiving the letter, Belhaj told the Guardian: “The wording of the apology was heartfelt. There was a feeling of concern, an admission of the shortcomings, an expression of unreserved apology, lessons learned, admission of failings and an expression of disappointment towards the international partners that I was handed over to.
“All of these sentiments that came through in the apology, I welcome them. This is in spite of my belief that the length of time is part of the suffering. That is because you feel that you suffered and endured and were wronged, and then you have to wait for years. But what matters is the result in the end.”
He said the responses of MPs was like a balm, and he felt some realised the need for laws to prevent it happening again.
“From the very first moment, I insisted that there must be an apology. I never asked for monetary compensation because I don’t want to impose on the taxpayers, and so I can put a quick end to this suffering, but what led us to the courts is the rejection of the demand for an apology. I welcome this step, the acceptance of the apology condition, and I hope this is not repeated with someone else.”
Boudchar said after the attorney general’s statement: “I thank the British government for its apology and for inviting me and my son to the UK to hear it. I accept the government’s apology.”
Wright told MPs: “There remains a considerable international threat to the UK and our allies and it is important that government and the security and intelligence agencies are able to respond properly so we can keep our country safe.
“But it is also important that we should act in line with our values and in accordance with the rule of law. That means that when we get things wrong it is right and just that we should acknowledge it, compensate those affected and learn lessons. I believe this is such a case.”
By the beginning of last year, the government had spent £750,000 defending the claim. Wright said no admission of liability had been made by any defendants, which include the former foreign secretary Jack Straw and Sir Mark Allen, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, as well as the government.
Straw, who was foreign secretary at the time of the rendition operations, told MPs in 2005 that suggestions the UK was involved in such abuses were “conspiracy theories” and there was no truth in the claims.
When documents emerged during the 2011 Libyan revolution showing MI6 had been involved in the kidnap of two of Gaddafi’s opponents, their wives and children, Straw insisted he had not been involved in any wrongdoing. Allen has also maintained his innocence.
In a statement issued on Thursday, Straw said he had been responsible for authorising actions to protect national security, including sharing information with foreign governments. Usually, he said, requests such as those for rendition were put in writing and agreed in writing. On this occasion, he had given oral approval, which was permitted in rare cases of great urgency.
“I took these responsibilities very seriously. As I have said on many occasions I sought to act at all times in a manner which was fully consistent with my legal duties, and with national and international law.”
Tony Blair was criticised in the Commons for his government’s role in rendition, with Joanna Cherry, the SNP’s justice spokeswoman, asking whether the case revealed part of the “dark side” of his deal in the desert with Gaddafi in 2004, and the Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh calling on him to apologise.
Ken Clarke, the Conservative chairman of the all-party group on extraordinary rendition, said: “Given the fulsome nature of the apology, the question has to be asked why it has taken the government so long to settle this matter, particularly when Mr Belhaj offered to settle the case in 2013 for £3 and an apology? The delay is deeply regrettable.”
Fellow Tory Andrew Mitchell called for the UK government to pass on details of the Belhaj apology to US officials examining the conduct of Gina Haspel, who is expected to be confirmed as the next director of the CIA.
“It’s important that the attorney general hands his opposite number in Washington the details of this case,” Mitchell said. “The next head of the CIA is currently going through an inquiry process. She was in charge of a black site in Thailand where this poor lady [Boudchar] was held.”
David Cameron announced in 2010 that there would be an independent inquiry into allegations of UK involvement in rendition and torture. A damning report was quietly published three years later, just as a jury was reaching its verdict in the Lee Rigby trial. Ministers then handed responsibility for the questions the judge-led inquiry had been unable to answer to the ISC.
Sapna Malik, from the law firm Leigh Day which represented Belhaj and Bouchar, said: “Today’s candid apology from the government helps restore the humanity and dignity so brutally denied to my clients during their ordeal, and is warmly welcomed.”
Cori Crider, the lawyer representing the Belhaj family on behalf of the human rights organisation Reprieve, said the extent of the government’s apology was unprecedented. “It’s broader and deeper and more sincere than any apology we have seen from the war on terror,” she said.