A Libyan rebel leader who was secretly rendered to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime with the assistance of MI6 has said that he told British intelligence officers he was being tortured but they did nothing to help him.
In a claim that will increase the pressure for further disclosure about the United Kingdom’s role in torture and rendition since 9/11, Abdul Hakim Belhaj said that a team of British interrogators used hand signals to indicate they understood his complaints of torture.
Belhaj, now commander of Tripoli’s military council, spearheaded the attack on Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Aziziya last month.
A cache of secret MI6 and CIA documents discovered last week at an abandoned government office building in Tripoli detail the UK’s role in his rendition, shedding startling new light on the collaboration between British and Libyan intelligence in the “war on terror”.
The papers also detail the UK’s role in the rendition of a second man, known as Abu Munthir. This operation appears to have been planned by British and Libyan intelligence officers without any CIA involvement.
There are signs that the discovery of the documents has triggered panic in some parts of the British government.
Belhaj was detained by the CIA in Thailand in 2004 following an MI6 tipoff, allegedly tortured, then flown to Tripoli, where he says he suffered years of abuse in one of Gaddafi’s prisons.
It emerged yesterday that MI6 was able to inform the CIA of Belhaj’s whereabouts after his associates told British diplomats in Malaysia that he wished to claim asylum in the UK. Belhaj was then allowed to board a flight for London and abducted when the plane stopped at Bangkok.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the disclosures would be investigated by the Gibson inquiry, set up last year to examine the UK’s role in torture and rendition.
It is unclear whether MI6 or MI5 disclosed anything to the inquiry before the new documents came to light. Inquiry staff first indicated they knew nothing about the Libyan operations. Later, they said they had “received material relating to these issues”, but declined to be more specific.
Similarly, Conservative MP Richard Ottaway, a former member of the intelligence and security committee, a Westminster body supposed to provide oversight of MI5 and MI6, indicated that the committee knew nothing about the UK-Libya operations before giving the agencies a clean bill of health in a 2007 report on rendition, but then said he could say nothing about the matter.
Describing the lead-up to his rendition on March 6 2004, Belhaj said his associates had approached the British embassy in Kuala Lumpur after he had been detained by Malaysian immigration officials. He advised embassy officials of his intention to seek political asylum in Britain, and shortly afterwards was freed from the detention centre and allowed to buy a plane ticket to London via Bangkok.
He was travelling on a Moroccan passport, meaning that he should have presented a pre-issued visa to enter the UK. However, he was allowed to board without one, a highly unusual practice.
The revelation raises fresh questions about the extent of the government’s role in Belhaj’s rendition. Documents discovered in Tripoli last Friday reveal that a senior MI6 officer, Mark Allen, wrote to Libyan spy chief Moussa Koussa congratulating him on receiving Belhaj and acknowledging that “the intelligence was British”.
Belhaj was captured by CIA officers, in co-operation with Thai authorities, inside Bangkok airport. He says he was tortured at a site in the airport grounds and then sent to Libya, where Gaddafi had long seen him as one of the biggest threats to his tyrannical four-decade rule.
“The British were the second team to visit me,” he said.
“They came about a month after I was returned to Libya and they were very well briefed about LIFG [Libyan Islamic Fighting Group] members in the UK. They knew everything, even their code names. They wanted to know more details about the LIFG and also about the general environment elsewhere, al-Qaeda, that sort of thing. There was a woman who was leading the team, a big man and a third person who was translating. They only came once.”
Belhaj said intelligence officers from other European countries, including France, Germany and Italy, also travelled to Tripoli to speak to him inside the infamous Abu Selim prison in the south of the capital.
Before each visit he was told by Libyan officers — and sometimes by Koussa — to “tell the British and others that the people they are asking about are al-Qaeda”.
“The Libyans told me that if I told them that, I would be treated better.”
He said Koussa, who fled the Gaddafi regime in March with MI6 help, would often taunt him in prison, with threats that he would die there.
On one occasion Koussa ordered guards to put a shade over half of Belhaj’s cell window, to reduce what little sunlight he was getting.
Files seen by the Guardian inside the now ransacked offices of the external security service reveal that Libyan spies remained in close co-operation with the CIA and MI6 as late as November last year.
The files reveal that the Americans, in particular, regularly requested information about the identities of Libyan cellphone users.
One document showed that the CIA had responded to a Libyan request about the user of a satellite phone by giving GPS references for every call made. —