Belhaj – who was seized with his then-pregnant wife Fatima Boudchar and four children while on their way to the UK – has said that a tip-off from MI6, the British foreign intelligence agency, led to their capture.
“The UK government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering … On behalf of Her Majesty’s government, I apologise to you unreservedly,” Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, said in a letter to Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar, which was read out in parliament on Thursday by Jeremy Wright, the attorney general.
Wright said the settlement with the couple included a £500,000 payment to Boudchar.
Speaking in Istanbul, Turkey, after the settlement was announced, Belhaj said: “I welcome and accept the prime minister’s apology, and I extend to her and the attorney general my thanks and goodwill.
“For more than six years I have made clear that I had a single goal in bringing this case: justice. Now, at last, justice has been done.
“Britain has made a wrong right today, and set an example for other nations to follow.”
Belhaj’s case, and that of another Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi, whose family was also abducted and rendered to Libya, had been investigated by British police who accumulated nearly 30,000 pages of evidence over a five-year period.
While the Saadi family received a £2m ($2.5m) settlement two years ago, Belhaj insisted he only wanted an apology and a symbolic £1 ($1.24) payment from each of the defendants.
Following the announcement, which Boudchar attended with her son in London, she thanked the British government for their apology.
“I thank the British government for its apology … I accept the government’s apology,” Boudchar said.
“By today’s settlement, I look forward to rebuilding my life with dignity and honour, and living free from the weight of these events with my husband and our five beautiful children.”
For Cori Crider, a lawyer and the strategic director of Reprieve’s Abuses in Counter-Terrorism Team, who has been working as a lawyer and counsel to the family for many years, the settlement is a victory.
“This is not just Abdul-Hakim and Fatima’s victory. It is a victory for everyone who opposes injustice, secret detention, and torture,” said Crider in a written statement following the announcement.
“Britain lost its way when it got mixed up in rendition, but today, by apologising for its part in that dark story, the UK has stood on the right side of history.”
A former fighter with the anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), Belhaj was imprisoned in Libya for six years after his capture.
During that time he says he was routinely tortured and mistreated.
The case came to light after the fall of Tripoli in 2011, when faxes from Mark Allen, MI6’s then-counterterrorism director, describing the rendition flights were found in the ransacked office of Moussa Koussa, Libya’s head of intelligence.
The US deemed the anti-Gaddafi LIFG to be a “terrorist” group allied with al-Qaeda.
Belhaj denied that any links between the group and al-Qaeda existed and said he believed his rendition to Libya was part of a covert deal between former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, who was overthrown and killed in a popular uprising in 2011.
Belhaj and Saadi were released from jail in Tripoli in 2010 under a reconciliation deal arranged by Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam.
British officials, including Jack Straw, then the foreign secretary and responsible for MI6, repeatedly denied that they had anything to do with the rendering of “terror” suspects, a practice more widely undertaken by the CIA.
However, in 2011, documents revealed when NATO aircraft destroyed the Tripoli offices of Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, implicated the UK government.
In a letter to Koussa, dated 18 March 2004, Mark Allen, MI6’s counterterrorism chief, congratulated him on Belhaj’s “safe arrival” in Tripoli, adding that British involvement in the operation was “the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years”.