EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Libyan politician Abdel Hakim Belhaj
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a prominent opponent of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, was tortured for six years after he and his then-pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, and their four children were seized and transferred to Libya in a joint MI6-CIA operation in 2004.
On 17 January, the UK Supreme Court ruled that he was entitled to take legal action against the British government for its role in his kidnapping, false imprisonment and torture. The court rejected claims by former British foreign secretary Jack Straw and former head of MI6 Mark Allen that the case should be dismissed.
In an exclusive interview with Middle East Eye, Belhaj speaks about his case against the British government and the political crisis in Libya which he says can only be resolved if the rival political factions engage in a dialogue.
Middle East Eye: How did you react to the UK Supreme Court decision allowing you take legal action against the British government?
Abdel Hakim Belhaj: There is no doubt that the Supreme Court’s decision was welcome news. It was a just decision. I undoubtedly have strong evidence against individuals who have inflicted a great deal of suffering and pain upon me and my wife. I hope we continue to move in a positive direction toward a just decision on the case.
MEE: Who exactly are you suing? Is it Tony Blair’s government as a whole? Or is your suit particularly against former head of MI6, Mark Allen, and former British foreign minister Jack Straw?
AB: The case I am pursuing is built on documents found in the archives of the Libyan intelligence building. These documents clearly pointed towards the direct involvement of certain individuals in handing me and my wife over [to Gaddafi] and our subsequent physical and psychological torture. This experience has deeply harmed me and my family.
The lawsuit is against the individuals whose names appeared in the documents; they include Mark Allen, head of the MI6, Jack Straw, the British foreign minister at the time, and others. I am not sure however who among these individuals will potentially strand trial.
MEE: Were you offered any amount of money to back down from this case? If so, did you ever consider taking it?
AB: This experience inflicted a lot of pain and harm upon me and my family and caused us much suffering, the effects of which continued for many years, and which especially my wife, still suffer. I cannot accept to overlook this incident or just turn the page over without the court process taking its due course and making a final decision.
I have therefore reiterated that if the British government or those involved admit to and apologise for what has happened, I would be happy to end it at that.
I am not interested in revenge but only for those responsible to apologise. I would, at that point, be happy to close this chapter and move on.
At the same time, I will not allow this issue to stand as an obstacle in the way of a strong relationship with the UK government based on mutual trust and respect.
MEE: Is it likely you will win this case? Do you have strong enough evidence?
AB: This question can be answered by judges working on this case, they are more aware of its intricacies. For me however, the uncovered documents present very strong and tangible evidence, and these documents are many.
I honestly felt a deep sense of pain and disappointment when these documents were uncovered. I was completely shocked to find evidence indicating the complicity of the British intelligence with an establishment [Libyan intelligence] that is known for disregarding the most basic of human rights.
The man I was handed over to and the man heading the Libyan intelligence services at the time [Moussa Koussa] was wanted by the British justice system. He was suspect of assassinating the British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher in 1984. It is ironic and sad that I was handed over to him. Gaddafi's acts of aggression and terrorism included operations across Berlin’s cafes and the Pan-Am flight that fell over Lockerbie in Scotland and the French UTA which was downed over the Sahara.
I was sacrificed for the sake of a deal agreed. Tony Blair literally stepped all over the values and principles which I had thought the West and the UK in particular upheld and fought.
MEE: What does your case say about UK-Libya relations at the time?
AB: I don’t understand the rationale or justification behind my torture and that of my wife. I was not wanted by any justice system, not by the British judiciary nor the American. When I was kidnapped in Bangkok, I told them ‘If I am wanted by the American justice system, take me there so that I can stand trial. But I was clearly told, that I was not.
MEE: You claim that your rendition to Libya was part of a deal between the UK and Libya. What in your opinion did this deal involve?
AB: I was tortured in Gaddafi’s prisons and was sacrificed for a deal. When Tony Blair visited Gaddafi in 2005, I was being tortured in prison. I later found out that this visit was an attempt by the British government to secure some deals for British Petroleum or maybe Tony Blair was given a position as an advisor to the company. But how is it acceptable that values and principles we claim to uphold are compromised for the sake of material gains? This is the question Tony Blair should ask himself and which his own conscience should judge him for.
MEE: You were in charge of security during David Cameron's visit to Libya in 2011. Did you meet him? If so, what did you talk about?
I did not meet him during that visit. Many delegations came to Tripoli after the fall of Gaddafi. I was responsible for the military council in Tripoli during the time. He landed in Tripoli airport which was under the council’s responsibility and so we were naturally responsible for securing his visit. I frankly wasn’t interested in meeting him or saying anything to him.
MEE: It has been nearly six years since the 2011 uprisings in Libya. How is the situation in the country now?
AB: We are just around the corner from the sixth anniversary of the Libyan uprisings. I hope that the Libyan people realise justice, freedom and human rights. The 17 February uprising came about as a revolt against an unjust and hegemonic dictatorship that didn’t allow for any pluralism or diversity in opinion or expression. But six years later, the Libyan people are still trying to overcome a deep state which was deeply entrenched for more than four decades.
The visible weakness of all subsequent governments that took power since 2011 has exacerbated the chaos. We are still struggling as Libya continues to experience deep political divisions. This has resulted in us having two governments, two parliaments and two armies.
The only way to resolve this crisis is for a real dialogue to take place between these various factions. We must prioritise the interests of the people and ensure the establishment of a secure and sovereign Libya.
MEE: Do you think the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GAN) in Tripoli is capable of unifying Libya's political factions?
As head of the Watan Party, I was part of the dialogue that culminated in the signing of the Skhirat Agreement [Libyan Political Agreement] and which subsequently established the Libyan Presidential Council (PC). This council was given a year until 17 December 2016 [to resolve the situation] but it failed to do so. The council was clearly unable to engage in the real challenges facing the Libyan people. The absence of a strong leadership [in the council] has made it unable to provide the most basic of services. We have a raging war in east, militias across the country and deep divisions in leadership. The weakness of the council is the root of these failures.
Today the discussion revolves around rethinking the role of the PC in terms of its membership and structure. We are talking about potentially separating the presidency and the executive government. But the inflexibility of the Tobruk-based parliament has been an obstacle in the way of any progress.
MEE: There have been several regional initiatives launched by Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt to resolve the situation, are you hopeful about any of them?
AB: I would like to thank all those who wish to find a solution to the Libyan crisis. Without a solution, the stability of neighbouring countries will inevitably be affected. The instability in Libya has allowed the Islamic State to take hold of Sirte, which the Libyan people sacrificed a great deal to retake once again. Unless neighbouring countries provide real support for a solution, regional instability will only continue.
Unfortunately some countries in the region are getting involved in an unjust manner and frankly don’t care whether or not Libya finds peace and stability. General Haftar in Eastern Libya continues to receive military support from Egypt and the UAE, which has included weapons and aircraft striking Benghazi and destroying three-quarters of the city. The international community has meanwhile stood by and watched. We don’t want destruction nor do we want war. The stability of Libya will reflect positively on the whole region and vice versa. We are still awaiting the initiative backed by Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt and we hope that a real dialogue will ensue.
MEE: You've said that General Khalifa Haftar is being supported by the UAE and Egypt. Do you and your political partners get support from any foreign countries?
AB: No one apart from those I’ve mentioned receive military support in Libya. We even documented and presented these facts to a UN delegation. We all know that the UAE and Egypt provide military support to Haftar’s forces and militias. Saqr al-Jaroushy, who is responsible for the Tobruk-based air forces, has himself said that they've received tonnes of ammunition from Egypt. No one in the west of Libya or Tripoli receives any foreign support.
MEE: Do you see any contradiction between Egypt’s role in these initiatives and its support for Haftar?
We call on Egypt to correct its stance. Egypt is a neighbouring country and we are bound by historical, tribal and demographic ties and common interests. Egypt will inevitably be involved in rebuilding Libya. Why don’t we value and guard these ties that bring us together? This is what we call for, for these ties to be valued and harnessed to bring peace and stability.
I condemn any foreign support for one faction over the other. I am sure that a military-led government will never rule in Libya. There is absolutely no space for Haftar. This is the will and belief of the Libyan people and the coming days will attest to this.
MEE: You fought in the Afghan War and have been described as a Salafi-jihadist with ties to al-Qaeda. Today you lead the Watan Party in Libya. How did this transition happen and how do you look back at your past?
During my time in Libya in the 1980s I observed Gaddafi’s policies and injustices towards the Libyan people. I began to think of a way to oppose his regime and that was the [Libyan Islamic Fighting Group's] objective and aim.
We were never ideological nor organisationally affiliated with or tied to any other groups including AL-Qaeda. Our aim was clear – ridding Libya of the Gaddafi regime. Before we managed to do that however, the Libyan people revolted in 2011 and brought him down.
At that point, we wanted to be given the same rights and responsibilities as all other Libyans. We got involved in the political scene publicly and openly, with no hidden agendas. Just like other political parties, we saw it essential to establish political pluralism and a democratic state that respects human rights and freedoms and provides a platform for free and fair political engagement.
And so this transition was a phase, a boat if you like, which we had to board to become one with the Libyan people.
The LIFG, as an ideology and organisation, no longer exists. It was established to topple the Gaddafi regime and now that this regime has been removed at the hands of all of the Libyan people, why would there be a need for this organisation to continue?
In fact, before Gaddafi was toppled, we even began a dialogue with him.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.