Getting to the truth about UK-Gaddafi ties

Some say we should put Britain's complicity in torture and human rights abuse in Libya behind us. We cannot do so. Lessons have not been learned, victims still await justice, while the 'secret courts bill' would help ensure future abuses remain hidden.

The UK government’s decision last month to pay £2.3 million in compensation to Sami al-Saadi - following allegations of UK complicity in his rendition to Libya in 2004 and subsequent torture at the hands of Gaddafi’s regime -  made the pre-Christmas headlines.  But few of the news and comment pieces properly situated this case in its wider context - the Blair government’s active courting of Muammar Gaddafi during this period, linked to anti-terrorism and counter-proliferation interests, and the apparent willingness of some working for the UK government not just to overlook rights abuses committed by Gaddafi’s thugs, but to facilitate them. While investigative journalists and organisations like Human Rights Watch have uncovered important cases of abuse, many facts surrounding UK relations with Gaddafi’s Libya have yet to be revealed. Key figures within the UK government and the intelligence services are determined they never will be.

Based on our research and that of others, this much we know.  Throughout Gaddafi’s 42 years as the leader of Libya, including the period of close UK-Libyan relations in the 1990s, the country had an extremely poor record on human rights.  From 1969, when Gaddafi came to power, to the late 90s, the UK and other Western governments focused their criticism largely on Libya’s very extensive support for violence and terrorism overseas. These actions included the arming of the IRA, the shooting of the UK policewoman Yvonne Fletcher in 1986 and, most spectacularly, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, with the loss of hundreds of lives, on December 21, 1988. 

But alongside Libyan support for violence beyond its borders, Gaddafi’s regime was responsible for large-scale domestic repression. The worst single instance was the Abu Salim prison massacre of June 1996, in which 1,270 men were gunned down following a protest about prison conditions. However, many other critics and opponents of Gaddafi were tortured and mistreated throughout this period.

After three decades in which Gaddafi was ostracised and denounced by Western governments, the long road back to Libya’s public rehabilitation began in the late 1990s. This story is well told by Channel 4 News’ International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum, in her excellent book on Libya, Sandstorm. On the Libyan side, Gaddafi and those around him began to recognise that the country’s pariah status was harming it economically and that they needed to improve their image to get sanctions lifted and attract foreign investment. Gaddafi’s second son, Seif al Islam, was a particularly strong advocate for changes in Libyan policy to end its isolation, including handing over the Lockerbie suspects for trial, expelling Abu Nidal’s organisation and ending support for Hamas and Hezbollah, steps that helped secure the suspension of UN sanctions in 1999.

The 9/11 attacks were also highly significant in triggering a reassessment of UK policy toward Libya. Gaddafi moved quickly to condemn the terrorist attacks on the US and exploited the moment to assert that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was not just a serious threat to him but to the world, emphasising its links to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. 

While there were links between the LIFG and Al-Qaeda, the former was focused, first and foremost, on the overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime.  But post 9/11, and in the context of the oversimplified “war on terror”, there was a tendency on the part of the UK and other western governments to treat groups like the LIFG as if they were part of a unified, global jihadi movement.  Operating with this mindset the UK saw the benefits of substantive intelligence cooperation with the Libyans as part of their effort to combat Al Qaeda. So they began to countenance and then initiate joint actions with the Libyans, despite the Gaddafi regime’s continuing and well-known repression of its opponents, including systemic torture in its detention centres. 

The dialogue quickly intensified. In 2002 the Libyans agreed to pay compensation to the Lockerbie victims, and a year later Seif al-Islam Gaddafi approached MI6 with a still more dramatic offer - to end Libya’s chemical and nuclear weapons programme.  Extensive negotiations ensued, involving Mark Allen of MI6, the CIA and the Libyans, including Gaddafi himself.  UK, US and Libyan officials also firmed up proposals for practical cooperation around intelligence, including how the Libyans could help tackle the Al-Qaeda threat, and how the UK could assist Gaddafi in dealing with his domestic opponents. After much back and forth, agreements were reached and documents signed, allowing Tony Blair to announce publicly that Gaddafi was no longer viewed as an enemy.

While these efforts to bring an end to Libya’s nuclear and chemical weapons programme might seem like a reasonable justification for bringing Gaddafi in from the cold and for negotiation, the trade-offs that the UK and others appear to have made in respect of counter-terrorism and human rights were indefensible, contravening their obligations under international human rights law.  The most unconscionable aspect of this cooperation involved extraordinary rendition, the practice of kidnapping Libyan opposition figures and returning them to Libya, in exchange for Libyan intelligence on other global terrorist suspects. The evidence also suggests that the UK provided intelligence to Gaddafi’s regime on Libyan opposition figures living in the UK, even though some of Gaddafi’s opponents living in the UK had previously been murdered, almost certainly at the hands of Gaddafi’s agents.

On the basis of a cache of unclassified documents discovered by Human Rights Watch researchers in Libya in 2011 and other information, we know that al-Saadi, his pregnant wife and his four children were forced onto a plane in Hong Kong, in a joint UK/US/Libyan operation in 2004.  They were handcuffed, hoods were placed over their heads and their legs were tied up with wire. His wife and children were imprisoned for two months in Libya, but then released. Sami al-Saadi was held for 6 years and says he was repeatedly beaten, subjected to electric shocks and threatened that he would be killed.  On his release, he reportedly weighed just 44kg and was close to death.  While the UK government said that last month’s £2.3 million compensation payment for Sami al-Saadi was not an admission of liability in the case, the amount paid underscores the UK’s moral culpability.

Sami al Saadi. Image: Demotix / Amine Landoulsi Sami al Saadi. Image: Demotix / Amine Landoulsi

In a similar case, another prominent Libyan opposition figure, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, was rendered to Libya with the involvement of the UK.  A 2004 fax from Allen, MI6’s head of counter-terrorism, to the Libyan intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, was found by Human Rights Watch researchers after the fall of Tripoli. In it Allen says, “I congratulate you on the safe arrival of (Mr Belhaj). This was the least we could do for you and for Libya. I know I did not pay for the air cargo (but) the intelligence (on him) was British.”  Like al-Saadi, Belhaj was imprisoned by the Libyan authorities and routinely mistreated and tortured. Belhaj’s civil suit against the UK for its role in his rendition and torture is ongoing.

A year later, in October 2005, in an act of great cynicism, the UK government drafted and agreed on a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Libya. Designed to help expedite the return of opponents of the Gaddafi regime to Libya, the MoU asked the Libyans to give an undertaking that those returned would not be tortured.  To their credit, the UK courts blocked any returns to Libya, saying that assurances from Gaddafi’s regime were not reliable. 

Eight years after these events and following the change of government in the UK and, more dramatically, the overthrow of Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya in 2011, some might suggest that we should put this period behind us and “move on”. Not so. Some extremely important issues relating to this whole period have yet to be resolved, as well as lessons for current and future UK government policy.

First, the victims have still to see justice.  The compensation payment offered by the UK and accepted by al-Saadi does not absolve the UK government and the UK criminal justice system of the responsibility to investigate what happened and for those involved in their abuse to be held accountable.  Belhaj has said that he won’t accept compensation, and the criminal cases relating to both men are ongoing.

Second, there has been no proper investigation of the policy framework and the political and diplomatic decisions that led to these abuses during these years.  The Cameron government set up the Detainee Inquiry under retired judge Peter Gibson in 2010, to look into these matters.  But it was established with insufficient powers and without adequate independence. Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations argued that it would not get to the truth and we declined to participate in the process.

In the face of opposition from human rights organisations and those representing torture victims, the UK government dissolved the Gibson Inquiry last year. However, it has promised to initiate a fresh inquiry once the criminal investigations linked to the Al-Saadi and Belhaj cases are concluded.  It is critical for an inquiry be established and for it to be given sufficient powers and the requisite independence. 

Although not a focus of Human Rights Watch's research, others have suggested that there may also have been an economic factor in UK decision-making towards Libya at that time, something which an independent inquiry could potentially throw fresh light on.  It is certainly the case that the UK moved quickly to secure new deals with the Libyans on oil once Gaddafi's regime was brought in from the cold.

The UK’s involvement in the torture and mistreatment of Libyans is not in doubt. But what remains unclear is whether Ministers at that time formally or tacitly sanctioned the involvement of UK officials and intelligence officers in actions that contravened international standards and involved complicity in ill-treatment and torture (something which those Ministers very strongly reject), or whether conversely, these officials acted independently, without the knowledge and approval of their political masters.  Both scenarios are profoundly troubling and only an independent inquiry can establish the truth.

Third, despite some breaks with the policy of its predecessor, the current UK government is proposing new legislation that would make the discovery of these kinds of abuses much harder. The government is pressing ahead with its controversial Justice and Security Bill, which would widen the use of so-called “secret hearings” in the civil courts whenever national security grounds are invoked. (See Tim Otty QC's detailed analysis, and Yvonne Ridley's piece on the bill and its relevance to UK-Libya relations.

The effect of the proposals would be to exclude the applicants and their lawyers from the courtroom, contravening a basic principle of justice – the ability to know the case against you.  Parts of the judgement would also be kept secret, meaning that someone could lose a case without being told why.  Another part of the government’s bill would prevent the disclosure of material that reveals UK involvement in wrongdoing by other countries. If the bill passes, it is most unlikely that any further documents on the intimacy between UK and Libyan intelligence will ever come to light. The UN special rapporteur on torture has raised concern that the new law will undermine accountability for abuses in which the UK is complicit.

The UK’s relationship with Gaddafi’s Libya in the early to mid-90s, and the abuses that arose from it, demonstrate why greater transparency and accountability are essential.  If the UK government gets its way with this bill, future Libya-type cases will be held behind closed doors, with the victims and their lawyers, journalists and the public excluded.  Far from drawing a line under the UK’s involvement in rendition and torture - David Cameron’s stated purpose when setting up the Detainee Inquiry – the Justice and Security Bill makes it more likely that further abuses will occur and less likely that they will be discovered and those responsible will be held accountable.   

About the author

David Mepham has been UK director of Human Rights Watch since April 2011. Before then he was a senior policy adviser in the UK's Department for International Development; associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the head of its international programme; and head of policy and advocacy for Save the Children UK. He is co-editor of Progressive Foreign Policy - new directions for the UK (Polity, 2007) and author of many articles in the media