Gaddafi opponent Abdul-Hakim Belhaj was kidnapped along with his pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, and rendered to Libya. Abdul-Hakim was tortured and imprisoned for six years.
Abdul-Hakim is a Libyan national and a known Gaddafi dissident. In 2004, he and his wife Fatima were living in China. Fatima was pregnant and, fearing that the authorities were watching them, the couple decided to seek asylum in the UK. But when they tried to leave the country, they were detained and deported to Malaysia. Abdul-Hakim and Fatima were detained in Kuala Lumpur for several weeks, and then told that they would be allowed to travel to the UK, but only via Bangkok. During the flight, Abdul-Hakim was hooded and shackled to the floor of the plane in a stress position, unable to sit or lie for 17 hours. Neither he nor Fatima was aware that the other was on the plane.
When they arrived in Bangkok, they were handed over to U.S. authorities, and taken to what they believe was a U.S. secret prison. In between his interrogation sessions, Abdul-Hakim was hung by his wrists from hooks in his cell for prolonged periods, while hooded, blindfolded and viciously beaten. To this day, Fatima finds it difficult to discuss her experiences in the prison.
The couple were then rendered by U.S. authorities to Libya. Abdul-Hakim was detained for six years in some of the country’s most brutal jails, and interrogated by ‘foreign’ agents. He was savagely beaten, hung from walls and cut off from human contact and daylight. About four years into his detention, he was sentenced to death after a 15-minute trial. Officials continued to torture him until 2010, when he was eventually released.
Fatima was imprisoned in Libya for four months. She was released just three weeks before giving birth, by which time her health, and that of her baby, was in a precarious state.
Reprieve is assisting the couple with their legal action against the UK government for its part in their ordeal.
We believe that the couple’s rendition to Libya is part of the dark underside of the so-called “deal in the desert” struck between former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Gaddafi in 2004. That infamous meeting – when Blair embraced Gaddafi in a tent – happened the same month as this operation. In January 2012, the Crown Prosecution Service and Metropolitan Police launched a criminal inquiry into the torture and rendition of Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and fellow Libyan Sami al Saadi. Abdul-Hakim and Fatima refused to settle the case without an unequivocal admission of liability from the British government. Instead, they asked for a token £1 each from Sir Mark Allen (former head of MI6), Jack Straw (former foreign secretary) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In December 2013, the High Court found that the couple had a “potentially well-founded claim” that the UK was “directly implicated” in their abuse, but ruled that the case should not be heard because it could damage UK-U.S. relations.
Reprieve took the case to the Court of Appeal, and won.
In October 2014, Reprieve filed a related claim in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), and a rare public hearing was held. The IPT is a highly secretive body responsible for hearing claims brought against the security and intelligence services. We feared that the security services had been eavesdropping on our confidential communications with Abdul-Hakim and Fatima, which would be a serious breach of their right to a fair trial. The government conceded that the intelligence services did indeed have policies relating to the interception of private calls between lawyers and their clients. However, when asked to give greater detail, the government refused, as the information might “be damaging to public interest or prejudicial to national security.” As things stand now, Abdul-Hakim and Fatima will get their day in court.