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Human Rights Watch discovered in Tripoli tens of thousands of archived documents containing evidence of crimes – such as the US and UK governments’ complicity in torture – committed during Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s rule.

The documents were found in the office of Musa Kusa, Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief. We viewed several hundred documents and photographed about 300, but didn’t remove any. We have been working with Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) to secure the building, keeping the documents safe so they can be used as evidence in court. We continue to scour Tripoli for more documents, trying to ensure that archives are secure.

Among the files were documents confirming that both the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the United Kingdom’s MI6 sent terrorism suspects to Libya for detention – despite Libya’s notorious record for torturing prisoners.

The CIA communications that we saw were drafted while George W. Bush was president and included information like flight schedules and lists of questions to be asked of suspects. They also established that the CIA sent agents to interrogate suspects in Libyan custody.

This confirms Human Rights Watch’s earlier findings of US and UK complicity in the torture of suspects in foreign countries, published in 2004. The US says it has not transferred any detainees to Libya since 2007.

CIA renditions

The files we reviewed included details of at least four renditions, including that of Abdul Hakim Belhaj, former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and now rebel military commander in Tripoli. The group sought to overthrow Gaddafi in the 1990s and played a major role in the current revolt.

During a mission to Libya in 2009, Human Rights Watch interviewed Belhaj. At the time, he was in Abu Salim prison, where Gaddafi locked away political prisoners and the site of a notorious 1996 prison massacre. It was also where Libya detained many of the prisoners transferred by the CIA. Belhaj said that he and his pregnant wife were detained in Malaysia in 2004, then rendered to Libya. He said CIA agents interrogated him about alleged ties to al-Qaeda – ties he denied – and beat and hung him by his limbs on a wall.

Diplomatic assurances and the UK "Detainee Inquiry"

An analysis of the documents viewed by Human Rights Watch reinforces the need to end the policy of relying upon “diplomatic assurances” by governments that torture that they will treat prisoners transferred to them humanely. At least two of the documents – one involving Belhaj – show that the US sought assurances that Libya would respect the rights of rendered suspects. But it is inconceivable, given the Gaddafi regime’s record of torture – acknowledged by the State Department – that the US government took these assurances seriously.

Before these documents were discovered, the British government had announced an inquiry into whether the UK security services was involved in the rendition and torture of detainees, held in other countries, in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The “Detainee Inquiry” will look at known allegations of British complicity, including in Guantanamo and Pakistan, as documented by Human Rights Watch. After the discovery of the Libya documents, the Detainee Inquiry said it would examine the allegations on Libya.

Human Rights Watch had long called for such an inquiry. But the UK government has forced the inquiry to accept restrictions on publication of documents and witness participation that make an effective inquiry almost impossible. The final decision to release secret intelligence documents to the public will be made by the government, not an independent judge, and the security services will give evidence behind closed doors with no chance for real questioning by victims or human rights groups.

It is highly unlikely the government would ever have agreed to the publication of the deeply embarrassing documents found in Tripoli. Victims and human rights groups that are best placed to help identify missing documents for the inquiry will have no idea what the gaps are and will be unable to effectively to challenge the official version of events. And without full public knowledge of what transpired, it will harder to prevent these abuses from happening again.

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