Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Fatima Bouchar
Photo: Human Rights Watch
Abdel Hakim Belhadj
Date of Birth: 1 May 1966
Aliases: Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq
Capture: 7 March 2004, Bangkok, Thailand
Detentions: Bangkok, Thailand; Tajoura Prison, Libya; Abu Salim Prison, Libya
Current Status: Released, 23 March 2010
Date of Birth: 13 April 1974
Capture: 7 March 2004, Bangkok, Thailand
Detentions: Bangkok, Thailand; Tajoura Prison, Libya
Current Status: Released, 21 June 2004.
Timeline of Key Events
7 March 2004
Captured and detained overnight, Bangkok, Thailand
8 or 9 March 2004
Rendition to Libya, via Diego Garcia
From 9 March 2004
Detention, Tajoura prison, Libya
21 June 2004
Belhadj transferred to Abu Salim prison
23 March 2010
The analysis of the cases described in these pages is drawn largely from the Human Rights Watch investigation, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya. We are grateful to Human Rights Watch for granting permission for us to use this information here.
Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Fatima Bouchar were one of two families rendered to Libya in March 2004, in a deal between the CIA and MI6 on the one hand, and the Gaddafi regime on the other (the other being Sami al-Saadi and his family). As Richard Dearlove, head of MI6 at the time, later made clear, the rendition of Gaddafi opponents to Libya was part of an overall diplomatic package at the time: ‘It was a political decision, having very significantly disarmed Libya, for the government to cooperate with Libya on Islamist terrorism. The whole relationship was one of serious calculation about where the overall balance of our national interests stood’.
Abdel Hakim Belhadj left Libya in 1988 and during the 1990s became leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LFIG), aimed at overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. Throughout the 1990s, the LFIG was involved in an ongoing insurgency in Libya, although by 2001 this had been crushed and Belhadj was based in Afghanistan. After 9/11, Belhadj fled Afghanistan, marrying Fatima Bouchar in 2003 and settling first in Malaysia before moving to China.
In early 2004, shortly after Fatima became pregnant, they suspected they were being monitored by the authorities, and decided they should seek asylum in the UK. On 21 February 2004 they were detained at Beijing airport, detained for a couple of days, and then deported back to Malaysia. Afraid of being deported to Libya, on arrival at Kuala Lumpur Belhadj claimed that he was an Iraqi refugee and wished to claim refugee status. The couple were then detained and interrogated in Kuala Lumpur for two weeks.
Documents found in a government security building in Libya after the overthrow of Gaddafi – the so-called Tripoli Documents – show that British Security Services knew of their detention in Malaysia and arranged with the Libyan and American services to render Belhadj and Bouchar back to Libya. On 1 March, a week after the two had been sent to Malaysia, MI6 sent a fax to the office of al-Sadiq Karima, Head of Libyan International Relations Department, informing them of Belhadj’s detention. The Americans also were clearly aware of Belhadj’s whereabouts, perhaps tipped off by the British, and arranged for him and Bouchar to be rendered back to Libya. On 4 March, the CIA sent two memos to the Libyan security services. The first memo, Urgent Request Regarding the Extradition of Abdullah al-Sadiq from Malaysia, stated that the Americans were ‘working energetically with the Malaysian government to effect the extradition of Abdullah al-Sadiq [Belhadj] from Malaysia’, and that ‘of course, once we have Sadiq in custody, we will be very happy to service your debriefing requirements and we will share the information with you’. The memo went on to request that the Libyans refrain from exerting pressure on the Malay authorities ‘until we have custody of Sadiq’. To read the original memo, click here.
The second memo from 4 March, Clarification Regarding the Rendition of Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq, made it clear that ‘our service [the CIA] is committed to rendering the terrorist Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq to your custody’, and that they were ‘very hopeful for a (sic) expeditious resolution to this matter’. To read the original memo, click here.
Two follow-up memos were then sent from the CIA to Libyan intelligence on 6 March. The first, Planning for the Capture and Rendition of Abdullah al-Sadiq, informed the Libyans that the Malay authorities were planning to put Belhadj and Bouchar on a commercial flight from Kuala Lumpur to London via Bangkok the next day, on 7 March. It went on to state that ‘we are planning to arrange to take control of the pair in Bangkok and place them on our aircraft for a flight to your country’. It also requested the presence of Libyan intelligence officers during the rendition. To read the original memo, click here.
The second memo from 6 March, headed Schedule for the Rendition of Abdullah al-Sadiq, provided ‘important information with regard to the upcoming rendition of LIFG leave Abdulla al-Sadiq and his wife to your custody’. The memo listed the flight plans for the rendition circuit, including for an overnight in the Seychelles for which the Libyan officers accompanying the American team were advised to ‘have the proper documentation’. The flight plans also included a refuelling stopover in Diego Garcia on return from Thailand, with the detainees on board. The memo was clear that ‘the US officers will exercise control over this operation until the detainees are remanded to your government in Tripoli’, and that ‘our regulations stipulate that your officers refrain from bringing weapons of any type, cameras, cell phones or recording devices on board the aircraft’. To read the original memo, click here.
The rendition of Belhadj and Bouchar appears to have followed the broad plan laid out in the CIA’s memos to Libyan intelligence, although the precise dates may have varied (see below). They were released from detention in Malaysia at some point in the first week of March, and told they could travel to the UK. The flight they were placed on, however, stopped in Bangkok on the way to London, and they were both detained again in the airport’s waiting room. At that point, they were handed over to US agents and detained in what they believe was a secret prison in or near to the airport. The exact location of the facility is unclear. In legal papers filed against the British Government, Bouchar has testified that she was driven ‘for about 30 minutes’ in a truck to the prison. However, in an interview with a Human Rights Watch researcher, Belhadj described his detention site as ‘a special room in the airport in Bangkok’, and according to an interview with The Guardian, they both arrived there ‘within minutes of being detained, suggesting that it was located within the perimeter of Don Muang international airport’.
Regardless of the location of the detention site (or indeed sites), Belhadj and Bouchar were separated. Belhadj describes being stripped and hung by his wrists from hooks in his cell wall, with his legs together. He was blindfolded, hooded, made to wear ear defenders, and subjected to extremely loud music and to vicious beatings. He thinks he was drugged and at one point felt needles being inserted into his back. He was interrogated, mostly in English, and describes losing consciousness on many occasions.
Bouchar describes being blindfolded and made to wear ear defenders. She had a plastic tie wound around her legs from her ankles to her knees and her wrists cuffed. She was transported in a truck for some 30 minutes and then carried on a stretcher to a cell where her restraints were removed. She describes personnel being dressed in black with balaclavas on, speaking English with American accents. Despite being several months pregnant, she was chained to the wall in her cell by her wrist and opposite ankle. She could just about sit or lie on the floor but this was painful. She was not given any food and describes extreme fluctuations of temperature.
Both detainees report being held, interrogated and tortured in Bangkok for five to six days. However, this appears to be inconsistent with, on the one hand, the 6 March CIA memo to Libyan intelligence which claimed that they were being moved from Malaysia to Thailand on 7 March and, on the other hand, known flight data for the aircraft which rendered the two from Thailand to Libya (which landed in Libya with the detainees on board at some point before or on 9 March). These flight movements would suggest a detention in Thailand of only 1-2 days. It may be that Belhadj and Bouchar were confused about the length of time they were kept in Thailand. Or, perhaps more likely, the CIA may have provided the Libyans with misinformation on 6 March, with Belhadj and Bouchar being moved several days earlier to allow for a longer period of American interrogation before being returned to Libya. Indeed, Belhadj has told Human Rights Watch that they were moved to Thailand on 3 March.
On either 8 or 9 March, Belhadj and Bouchar were rendered to Libya. Bouchar was forced onto a stretcher and had tape wound around her body from her feet to the top of head, with one of her hands pressed tightly against her womb. As the tape was wound around her face, her right eye was taped open and kept that way for the duration of the 17-hour flight, which she describes as agony. On arrival at the airport in Bangkok, the tape was cut from her body but left on her eyes, her clothes were cut off and someone pressed their finger sharply into her belly button, which she describes as excruciating. She was injected in her arm, and re-taped to a stretcher from her feet to her neck. Belhadj says that he was handcuffed and blindfolded for the flight, and that his hands were tied to his legs in such a way that he had to crouch for entire journey, unable to stand up or lie down.
Analysis of flight data demonstrates that the couple were rendered on board the CIA-owned Boeing 737 with registration number N313P. Eurocontrol and Federal Aviation Administration data shows that this aircraft had flown from the US to Libya on 7 March, and was back in the country on 9 March, from where it continued onwards to conduct a second rendition (of Yunus Rahmatullah and Amanatullah Ali from Iraq to Afghanistan). The CIA memo headed Schedule for the Rendition of Abdullah al-Sadiq, both confirms the other sources of data and also provides details for the aircraft’s movements between 7-9 March. According to this memo, the aircraft picked up the detainees from Bangkok and departed at 23:30 GMT. It then flew to the British island of Diego Garcia, landing after four hours. At this stopover, the aircraft took on 10,000 gallons of fuel, before departing again at 05:30 GMT and landing in Tripoli 11 hours later. Click here for a full analysis of the flight data and documentation associated with Belhadj and Bouchar’s rendition from Thailand to Libya.
On arrival in Tripoli, Belhadj and Bouchar were driven to Musa Kusa’s ‘external security’ prison in Tajoura (Kusa was Gaddafi’s Head of Libyan Intelligence). Bouchar was kept blindfolded and bound for several more hours on arrival at the prison. Within four days, her interrogations began, twice per day for 2-3 hours at a time. She was psychologically tortured and refused a medical examination for 2 months. The doctor explained that she and the baby were very weak and that her womb was too dry to allow proper movement for the baby. She was finally released on 21 June 2004, although was not permitted to leave the country, and gave birth to her son on 14 July.
Belhadj remained in Tajoura for four years. He was tortured repeatedly, including beatings, sleep deprivation to the point of delirium, being hung from walls and subjected to psychological torture. He was held in solitary confinement, in a tiny dark cell, and refused permission to bathe for three years. Moreover, he says that he was interrogated by American and British agents, and those from other European countries. In an interview with The Independent, Belhadj described being interrogated by three British agents over two sessions. The two men and a woman would question him for two hours at a time, and would focus on members of the LIFG based in the UK and their links with al Qaeda, which he denied. He describes trying to alert them to his torture at the hands of the Libyans:
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 were taping what was going on. When the Libyan guards left I made sign movements with me 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 involvement of British and American intelligence in the interrogations of Belhadj is corroborated by the Tripoli Documents. Indeed, one of the 6 March memos discussing the upcoming rendition, headed Planning for the Capture and Rendition of Abdullah al-Sadiq, is clear that providing American access to the detainee was to be a quid pro quo for the CIA effecting his rendition, stating that ‘we also appreciate your allowing our service direct access to al-Sadiq for debriefing purposes once he is in your custody’.
Once Belhadj and Bouchar were detained in Tajoura, the CIA sent two memos seeking to arrange access for American agents. One memo from the CIA to Libyan intelligence, undated and untitled, discusses a proposal for the two services to build on their ‘nascent intelligence cooperation’ by taking ‘an additional step in cooperation with the establishment of a permanent CIA presence in Libya’. It also states that:
We are also eager to work with you in the questioning of the terrorist we recently rendered to your country. I would like to send to Libya an additional two officers, and I would appreciate if they could have direct access to question this individual. Should you agree, I would like to send these two officers to Libya on 25 March.
In a separate memo, dated 17 March and headed Travel to Libya, the CIA made arrangements for the two agents to travel to the country on 25 March to ‘discuss the recent rendition’. Although the individual is not named in either memo, the dates discussed strongly suggest that they are referring to the rendition and interrogation of Belhadj.
Likewise, the Tripoli Documents include a memo from Mark Allen, who was then Director of Counterterrorism at MI6, to his counterpart in Libya, Musa Kusa. Dated 18 March, it primarily discusses the upcoming visit by Prime Minister Tony Blair to Libya. However, it also explicitly congratulates Kusa on the ‘safe arrival’ of Belhadj and discusses securing direct British access to the detainee’s interrogations:
Most importantly, I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Belhadj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad. I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week. Abu ‘Abd Allah’s information on the situation in this country is of urgent importance to us. Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from Abu ‘Abd Allah through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence on Abu ‘Abd Allah was British. I know I did not pay for the air cargo. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful for the help you are giving us.
As well as directly interrogating Belhadj, documents unearthed by The Mail on Sunday from the abandoned British Embassy in Tripoli and marked UK Secret include ‘long lists of questions and background intelligence that MI5 and MI6 asked Libyan interrogators to put to Mr Belhadj during sessions where he claims he was being tortured’.
After about four years in Tajoura, Belhadj was convicted in court for armed insurrection against the regime, in a trial where the only evidence allowed was a report from the Libyan security services, and where he did not have a chance to talk with a lawyer. Although he was sentenced to death, and fully expected that this would be carried out, he was in fact transferred to the Abu Salim prison. Here he was held in isolation and in the dark, and continued to be beaten. When he agreed to participate in a ‘de-radicalisation and reconciliation process’, his conditions improved. He was finally released on 23 March 2010, six years after his initial capture.
Investigations and Accountability
Belhadj had testified about his rendition and torture to a Human Rights Watch researcher who interviewed him in Abu Salim prison in April 2009. However, it wasn’t until the discovery of the Tripoli Documents by Human Rights Watch’s Peter Bouckaert and released in September 2011 – with the significant documentary evidence of American and British complicity – that attempts to seek accountability have gathered pace.
Three days after news broke of the discovery of the documents, British Prime Minister David Cameron stated in the House of Commons that the allegations of British involvement would be examined by the Gibson Inquiry, which had been set up to examine UK involvement in detainee abuse. The week after that speech, Richard Dearlove, who was head of MI6 during the renditions to Libya, stated that intelligence cooperation with Libya was cleared by Cabinet: ‘It was a political decision, having very significantly disarmed Libya, for the government to cooperate with Libya on Islamist terrorism’.
As a result of these developments, in November 2011 lawyers acting on behalf of Belhadj and Bouchar filed a Letter of Claim to the UK’s Treasury Solicitor, stating that their clients intended to bring claims against MI6, MI5, the Attorney-General, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, for ‘complicity in torture, conspiracy to injury and trespass to the person; misfeasance in public office; and negligence’.
Between December 2011 and April 2012, Belhadj and Bouchar’s legal team filed a series of legal notices setting out specific claims against several agencies and individuals. These included claims against Mark Allen, who was Director of Counterterrorism at MI6, and claims against the Commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory, given that there is evidence in the Tripoli Documents that Belhadj and Bouchar’s rendition flight stopped for refuelling on Diego Garcia.
After The Sunday Times reported in April 2012 that Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary during the renditions to Libya, had been confronted with evidence by MI6 that he had personally signed off the rendition of Belhadj and Bouchar, Leigh Day and Co. also served papers on Jack Straw in his personal capacity, again alleging complicity in torture and misfeasance in public office.
In October 2012, these claims were taken to the British courts, with lawyers for Belhadj, Bouchar – as well as al-Saadi and family – filing a first tranche of evidence regarding the complicity of the UK Government.
Alongside these civil claims, in January 2012 the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) declared that they would open an investigation into British involvement in the rendition and mistreatment of Belhadj, al-Saadi, and their families. According to the statement: ‘the allegations made in the two specific cases concerning the alleged rendition of named individuals to Libya are so serious that it is in the public interest for them to be investigated now rather than at the conclusion of the Detainee [Gibson] Inquiry’. As a result of the opening of these criminal investigations, the British Government disbanded the Gibson Inquiry, with the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke promising a judge-led inquiry after the close of any police work. Both Belhadj and al-Saadi were interviewed by the Metropolitan Police in July 2012.
CIA and MI6, March 2004
Libyan Rebel Leader Says MI6 Knew he was Tortured
The Independent, September 2011
Letter of Claim Against UK Government
Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Fatima Bouchar (Leigh Day & Co.), November 2011
Letter of Claim Against Sir Mark Allen
Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Fatima Bouchar (Leigh Day & Co.), January 2012
Legal Papers Served on Former Foreign Secretary
Leigh Day & Co., April 2012
Special Report: Rendition Ordeal that Raises New Questions About Secret Trials
The Guardian, April 2012
MI6 Agents Pushed 49-Point List of Questions to Tripoli Torture Victim Interrogators ‘Under Torture Chamber Door’
The Mail on Sunday, April 2012
Delivered into Enemy Hands: US Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya
Human Rights Watch, September 2012.