Special report UK: Rendition ordeal that raises new questions about secret trials

In 2004, Fatima Bouchar and her husband, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, were detained en route to the UK, and rendered to Libya. This is the story of their imprisonment, and the trail of evidence that reveals the involvement of the British government

Just when Fatima Bouchar thought it couldn’t get any worse, the Americans forced her to lie on a stretcher and began wrapping tape around her feet. They moved upwards, she says, along her legs, winding the tape around and around, binding her to the stretcher. They taped her stomach, her arms and then her chest. She was bound tight, unable to move.(they knew she was 4 1/2 months pregnant)

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  • Tuardian UK

    Ian Cobain, October 2011

    The Saadi family had been living in exile in China, and travelled to Hong Kong after approaching MI5 via an intermediary to ask whether they would be allowed to return to London, where they lived for a number of years in the 1990s. They were under the impression they were to be interviewed by British diplomats in Hong Kong. Instead they were detained by border guards, held for several days, and then forced aboard an Egyptian airliner.

    Khadija al-Saadi (then 12 years old) told how she and her two younger brothers, Mostapha and Anes, then aged 11 and nine, and six-year-old sister Arowa, were separated from their parents before being put on board the aircraft, which was empty but for a number of Libyan intelligence officers. “I wasn’t allowed to talk to my brothers or sister, and my brothers weren’t allowed to play games, because they thought they might be using sign language,” she said.

    “After a while I was allowed to go into the next compartment and see my mother. She was crying. She told me they were taking us to Libya. Initially, I didn’t believe it. Then I realised it was true, and I was very scared. I thought that my mother and father were going to be tortured and that we would all be killed. Then I was told to go and say goodbye to my father. He was handcuffed to a seat in another compartment and had a drip in his arm. One of the Libyan intelligence officers was laughing at me. I fainted.”

    Khadija came to shortly after the aircraft landed in Tripoli. Her mother and father were taken off, hooded and their legs bound with wire. Mostapha and Anes were blindfolded. The entire family was then driven in a convoy of vehicles to a prison at Tajoura, east of Tripoli.

    Khadija says she knew her father was being tortured. Every few days he was brought to see his family for a few minutes before being taken away again. “I think they were doing it to increase the pressure on my father.” At one point, when they had not seen their father for some time, the children decided to mount a hunger strike: “But they didn’t care whether we ate anything or not.”

    Saadi’s wife and children were released after two and a half months and cared for by relatives. The children were eventually allowed to enrol in school, Khadija going on to win a number of Libya-wide children’s poetry contests.

  • Blair, who was PM when Abdel Hakim Belhaj was handed to Gaddafi’s regime, defends Britain’s co-operation with Libya

    Richard Norton-Taylor
    guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 11 April 2012 09.28 EDT

    Tony Blair said he was sure the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj to Libya would be investigated. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
    Tony Blair, prime minister at the time MI6 rendered Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a prominent Libyan dissident, to the Gaddafi regime in 2004, has said he had “no recollection” of the incident.

    But he said he was sure the operation would be investigated “as it should be”.

    Interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, Blair added that it should be remembered that “people in the Middle East were also trying to fight terrorism and extremism”. Britain’s co-operation with Libya at the time was important, the former prime minister said.

    He referred to comments made by the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, who said the government had been opposed to unlawful rendition. “As far as I know [the government] kept to that position,” Blair said.

    Straw has said: “We were opposed to unlawful rendition. We were opposed to any use of torture. Not only did we not agree with it; we were not complicit in it and nor did we turn a blind eye to it.”

    However, Straw has added: “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time.”

    Blair told the World at One: “Our security services do a very difficult job in very difficult circumstances. I’m sure the matter will be investigated as it should be.”

    The US is preventing MPs from seeing evidence of British involvement in the CIA’s practice of secretly sending terror suspects to prisons where they faced torture.

    A federal judge in Washington has used a particular section of the US Freedom of Information Act to block a request from the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, chaired by the senior Conservative backbencher Andrew Tyrie.

    The judge, Ricardo Urbina, ruled that the information must be withheld on the grounds that the parliamentary body was part of a “foreign government entity”. Tony Lloyd, a deputy chair of the committee and Labour MP for Manchester Central, described the ruling as “odd”. He said it seemed as though the US was looking for an excuse to withhold the information.

    It would have been more understandable had the US blocked the request on national security grounds, Lloyd said. “It’s an abuse of the spirit of freedom of information,” he said. To claim that a parliamentary body was part of the British state was “not acceptable”, Lloyd added.

    Defending the position of the CIA, which did not want the relevant documents disclosed, the judge ruled: “Because the court concludes that the plaintiffs are representatives or subdivisions of a foreign government entity, the court grants the defendants’ motion and denies the plaintiffs’ motion.”

    The parliamentary group requested records that would determine Britain’s role in assisting the US by “facilitating such practices, including allowing over-flight or refuelling of planes through or on UK territory or airspace, or by allowing UK territories to be used to hold detainees”.

    The group referred to statements by the former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband saying Diego Garcia, the US base on Britain’s Indian Ocean territory, was used for extraordinary renditions.

    The judge rejected the group’s argument that its members acted as individuals and not public officials. By that logic any foreign leader, including the late Kim Jong-il, could submit Freedom of Information Act requests under their individual capacity, the judge said.

    The CIA’s approach echoes that adopted by MI6 and MI5, which have fought to prevent the disclosure in British courts of evidence relating to the US practice of extraordinary rendition.

    The parliamentary group, meanwhile, is fighting a refusal by the British government to disclose papers that, it says, would reveal UK complicity in the secret flights and subsequent abuse of individual suspects. The information tribunal in London is expected to give a ruling on the request soon.

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