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Britain to probe whether its spies turned over pair to Libya

January 12, 2012 | 12:22 pm

Libya-belhaj
REPORTING FROM LONDON -- Scotland Yard will investigate whether British spies facilitated the abduction of two Libyan men who were allegedly shipped back to their homeland and tortured there by the late dictator Moammar Kadafi’s regime, authorities announced Thursday.

One of the men, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, is now head of the Tripoli Military Council in the Libyan capital. The other, Sami al-Saadi, is also a former anti-Kadafi activist.

The pair allege that they were the targets of “extraordinary renditions” in 2004, in which Belhaj was detained in Thailand and al-Saadi in Hong Kong in covert operations and spirited back to Libya to face interrogation by Kadafi’s security apparatus. Both men say British intelligence agents assisted in the kidnappings; Belhaj accuses the CIA of involvement as well.

Police and prosecutors in London said Thursday that the allegations of British complicity in rendition and torture were “so serious that it is in the public interest for them to be investigated now,” rather than waiting for the conclusion of a separate public inquiry into such alleged practices.

The two men’s accusations have been bolstered by documents found after the fall of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to anti-Kadafi fighters last year. Files discovered by the organization Human Rights Watch in the office of former Libyan intelligence chief Musa Kusa pointed to close cooperation between Libyan spies and their American and British counterparts.

Kadafi’s intelligence agency, the CIA and Britain’s MI6 began working together after the Libyan strongman agreed in 2003 to abandon weapons of mass destruction, which touched off a rapprochement between Libya and Western countries.

Belhaj, former leader of the anti-Kadafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, says that he and his then-pregnant wife were transferred from Bangkok to Libya, where Kadafi forces allegedly strung him up by his limbs and beat him under questioning. Belhaj has also alleged that CIA agents were present at his interrogation and quizzed him about possible ties to Al Qaeda, which he denied. He then spent years locked up in a notorious Libyan prison.

Al-Saadi was snatched from Hong Kong along with his wife and their children, his lawyers say. He too was allegedly tortured by Kadafi’s henchmen and languished in custody in Libya for several years.

Clive Stafford Smith, director of the human rights law firm Reprieve, said evidence of British complicity was “so blatant” that Scotland Yard decided to mount an investigation before a larger inquiry into anti-terrorism practices was finished.

The head of MI6, John Sawers, said in a statement that the intelligence service would “be cooperating fully” with the investigation.

“It is in the service’s interest to deal with the allegations being made as swiftly as possible so we can draw a line under them and focus on the crucial work we face now and in the future,” he said.
Separately, authorities announced that they would not be bringing charges against unnamed British intelligence agents accused of complicity in the alleged torture of terrorist suspects who eventually wound up at the U.S. military’s detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Police and prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to show the agents knew with certainty that mistreatment was happening when they participated in the questioning of the suspects.

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-- Henry Chu

Photo: Abdel-Hakim Belhaj addresses a rally in Tripoli, Libya, on Sept. 9. Scotland Yard will investigate accusations that Britain was involved in his abduction and torture during the rule of Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi. Credit: Agence France-Press / Getty Images

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