People & Power

Renditions: Inside Libya’s Prisons

An exclusive investigation into how intelligence was extracted by torture in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison.

Filmmakers: Dom Rotheroe and Juliana Ruhfus

On May 10th 2018 Libyan politician Abdul Hakeem Belhaj received an unreserved apology from British Prime Minister Theresa May for the role the British government and intelligence services played in his abduction and rendition into Gaddafi’s torture camps. 

Belhaj’s extraordinary case was explored in an original People & Power investigation five years earlier. Filmmaker Dom Rotheroe and reporter Juliana Ruhfus also traced how intelligence extracted in prisons in Libya has been linked to the arrests of Libyan dissidents in the UK.

Belhaj’s led a six year legal struggle to receive not money, but an apology from the British government. 

Following Ms May’s apology, his wife, Boudchar who was pregnant when the couple was kidnapped, is set to receive compensation of £500,000 for the UK’s role in her treatment. 


By Juliana Ruhfus

State intelligence is secret by its very nature but every now and then extraordinary historical circumstances shed light on the hidden world of secret services.

When Muammar Gaddafi’s regime fell and rebels ransacked government offices, they discovered a treasure trove of classified correspondence between Libya and the West. It revealed in stunning detail the interaction between the dictator and British and American intelligence services, and has since then been used to bring a number of court cases against the British government.

In September 2013, we joined British lawyer Sapna Malik and Cori Crider from the human rights NGO Reprieve on a journey to Libya. They had allowed us access to film meetings with their clients who – based on the secret documents – allege that the British government provided intelligence which landed them on CIA-organised flights to Libya where it was foreseeable that they would be tortured or worse – be caught up in a process known as ‘extraordinary rendition’.

At the centre of the lawsuits are member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Their story goes back to the early 1990s, a time when Islamists were persecuted in Libya and fled to Afghanistan to join the fight against the Soviet occupation.

Following the defeat of the Russians and with military experience under their belts, the Libyans shifted their focus back on their own country: under the leadership of their Emir Abdulhakim Belhaj and the spiritual guidance of Sami al-Saadi, LIFG began to plot the overthrow of Gaddafi.

It was a time when Gaddafi was an international pariah and Libyan dissidents and LIFG members such as al-Saadi found an easy foothold in the UK. But the rise of al-Qaeda attacks landed the LIFG on the wrong side of history. Crider says that following the 9/11 attacks, Gaddafi understood that by tarring his opponents with the brush of affiliation with al-Qaeda, he could get significant help with oppressing dissidents. He seized the chance to rehabilitate himself by offering to destroy whatever weapons of mass destruction he had. In return, the West saw a chance to get involved with Libya’s immense oil reserves.

Belhaj and al-Saadi insist that the LIFG had never agreed with al-Qaeda intellectually and condemned the killing of civilians. Both say that the LIFG only had one goal, which was the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.

But by 2004, when the ‘war on terror’ was in full swing, most LIFG members were in hiding in countries around the world. Belhaj and al-Saadi were living in China, together with another LIFG member, Ziad Hashem. Here, too, they started to feel unsafe and all three were liaising with contacts in the UK who seemed to think that they could receive asylum.

It was Belhaj and his pregnant wife Fatima who were the first to leave for Britain, travelling via Malaysia where they were detained for having false passports. Their legal claim details their journey from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand, where the couple alleges they were abducted by the CIA, detained in a secret base and severely mistreated over a period of days. Eventually, they were put on a flight to Libya where they were imprisoned.

Crucially, says Sapna Malik, the couple’s lawyer, it was a fax from Britain’s MI6 which provided Libyan intelligence with information about the couple’s whereabouts. A subsequent fax from Sir Mark Allen, who was head of MI6 at the time, sheds even more light. In it he congratulates Moussa Koussa, the head of Libyan intelligence, on the safe arrival of the pair saying “this is the least we could do for you and for Libya”, before continuing to make arrangements for Tony Blair’s forthcoming visit.

Desert embrace

On March 25, 2004, Blair became the first British prime minister to arrive in Libya since 1943. After embracing Gaddafi, he declared that Libya had recognised “a common cause, with us, in the fight against al-Qaeda extremism and terrorism”. On the very same day, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell announced a $1bn deal for gas exploration rights.

Crider claims this was all part of a secret deal. Al-Saadi, his wife and four young children were detained around the same time after flying to Hong Kong. They too were put on a flight to Libya and imprisoned on arrival. Al-Saadi’s wife and children were released after two months but he was held for six years – these are the only known renditions where wives and even young children were involved.

In Tripoli, Belhaj and al-Saadi agreed to take us back to Abu Salim prison where they showed us their cells. They told us how Koussa, Libya’s intelligence chief, boasted of his close relations with the MI6 and the CIA, and that British agents came to question them. Many interrogations, they said, tried to extract information about Libyans living in the UK. The instructions were clear: link these men to al-Qaeda. Torture was a common occurrence and sometimes they were simply given blank papers to sign.

One of the names Belhaj says he was forced to give up under duress was Ziad Hashem, who had also lived in China in 2004. Hashem, it seems, had managed to slip the net and arrived in the UK where he claimed asylum. Today, he is back in Libya where he manages the office of the president.

When we met Hashem, we heard how he may have avoided Gaddafi’s prisons but that within a year, he was inside a British one. He told us how, together with a group of Libyans, he was arrested without any charges on the basis that they were a threat to national security. After 18 months, he was released but tagged for another three years and confined to his home. As he spoke about the way the police’s late night visits affected his family, one of his little girls started crying. Hashem is positive that the information about his alleged terrorist activities came from Libya, and says he could see Libyan paperwork at Paddington police station .

The British government turned down all invitations for interviews. A foreign office email stated that it is “committed to ensuring that serious allegations about alleged UK involvement in mistreatment and rendition of detainees by other countries are examined carefully”.

But if Hashem’s testimony is added to the claims of Belhaj and al-Saadi, the British government did not just help render people into torture, but also acted on information obtained that way.

In response, the foreign office emphasises that “the Government has been clear that it stands firmly against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. We do not condone it, nor do we ask others to do it on our behalf”.

But this is a case that won’t go away so easily. In December 2012, al-Saadi settled his case and received a £2.2m ($3.5m) payout from the British government. Belhaj and his wife Fatima, the remaining plaintiffs, say they are not interested in money but would accept a symbolic payment of £1 ($1.63) in compensation together with an official apology.

Yet an apology has not been forthcoming. Maybe, says Crider, because of a criminal investigation which has been opened by Scotland Yard which might treat this as an admission of guilt.

Hashem told us that he too is looking to bringing a legal case against the British government. And with rumours of stashes of secret documents in Libya yet to be released, there may well be more revelations to come.