Today, the British government apologized unreservedly to Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar for the United Kingdom’s role in the “harrowing experiences” and “mistreatment” they suffered during their March 2004 rendition by the CIA to Libya.
Boudchar, who was pregnant, was released from detention four months later, weeks before she gave birth, while Belhaj, the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, was not released until 2010.
The role that the UK’s overseas intelligence agency, MI6, played in facilitating their arrest in southeast Asia and subsequent rendition by the CIA to torture and detention in Libya first came to light in a trove of documents discovered by Human Rights Watch in Tripoli in September 2011, and later documented in exhaustive detail.
In one of the documents, a British official appears to take credit for the transfer of Belhaj, noting: “This was the least we could do for you […]to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years…The intelligence…was British.”
It is notable that the prime minister’s formal apology never once used the word “torture.” That is regrettable, because Belhaj, Bouchar, and others were tortured, after the UK had assisted in their kidnap and subsequent transfer to Libya.
But the British government apology should not mask the failure of accountability in other areas. UK prosecutors claimed that an extensive police investigation had failed to gather sufficient evidence to enable them to prosecute any UK government officials for their role in Belhaj’s torture or that of others.
The UK’s failure to deliver justice extends beyond the criminal courts. A 2013 inquiry into UK complicity in overseas torture was shelved. The issue was then taken up by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee which has yet to publish its findings. To be credible, its report will need to look at far more than the Libyan cases to establish what role the UK government and intelligence agencies played in torture by the CIA and other UK allies, rendition and secret detention more widely.
The UK’s apology, even if long overdue, stands in stark contrast to the US which has not apologized to Belhaj, Bouchar or the scores of others the CIA rendered to other governments and tortured. Just yesterday, during her nomination hearing to be Director of the CIA, Gina Haspel who ran a CIA black site in Thailand before Belhaj was held there refused even to acknowledge that the CIA Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program was wrong.
The UK government made a clear apology today. But without concrete guarantees that those involved in torture will be prosecuted without political interference, the government has given scant comfort that such a situation will not happen again.