THE Libyan rebel commander at the centre of the storm over Britain’s collusion with the Gaddafi regime accused UK intelligence agents of ignoring his claims that he was being tortured.
“I have no doubt, not a single doubt, they knew,” Abdel Hakim Belhadj, an Islamist who led last month’s rebel assault on Tripoli, told The Times yesterday.
He added that he clearly signalled his suffering and distress during questioning by British agents while he was imprisoned at the infamous Abu Salim prison.
Mr Belhadj, who now heads the Tripoli Military Council, demanded the truth about Britain’s involvement with the CIA in his forcible repatriation to Libya, where the regime locked him up and tortured him for seven years.
“Britain has things to answer,” he said as David Cameron announced in the House of Commons that the allegations would be investigated.
“A full inquiry must be set up there to see if MI6 and MI5 are ruled by UK law or not,” he added.
Mr Belhadj, 45, a bearded, soft-spoken man who dresses in military fatigues, spoke mostly about how British intelligence agents flew to Tripoli to question him for two hours a few months after his repatriation.
Talking at the Radisson hotel in Tripoli, he said that guards ordered him to change out of his filthy prison uniform and dress in traditional Libyan robes for a “family visit”. He was instead taken from Abu Salim to an external security office in Tajoura, an eastern suburb of Tripoli.
He was questioned there by three British agents who he assumed were MI5 and MI6. They were a woman and two men, one very fat. He said that they were experts in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an anti-Gaddafi movement, and knew all its members and their codenames.
Mr Belhadj said that his Libyan captors had told him: “If you want your freedom, you have to say that members of the LIFG based in Europe are linked to al-Qaeda and support terrorism so they will be sent back to Libya”.
He continued: “I resisted the pressure and told the British we never had any links with foreigners, and our only goal was changing the regime in Libya.”
Mr Belhadj said that the British agents appeared to accept that. He added that at one point the Libyan guard left the room, probably to trick him into speaking indiscreetly.
Despite the risk of being caught on hidden cameras he seized the chance to indicate through sign language that he was being tortured. He showed the chopping motions and crossed-wrist gestures that he made. “They moved their heads and agreed … They got my message.” But the torture continued, he said. “Nothing changed after that. The situation never changed.”
He said he was “very, very angry” with Britain and America and was considering suing both governments.
A Whitehall source yesterday put a different complexion on the meeting. The source said that the British intelligence officials visited Mr Belhadj in prison to ensure that he was not being mistreated. The fact that he was co-operating with the Libyan authorities was seen as evidence that he was not being tortured.
Mr Belhadj fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and later became the leader of the LIFG. The organisation was crushed in the late 1990s and he fled abroad.
Security documents discovered in the newly liberated Tripoli show that by 2004 MI6 and the CIA were working hand-in-hand with Libya’s intelligence service in their efforts to combat Islamic terrorism.
Early that year Mr Belhadj tried to fly from Malaysia to London via Beijing using a French passport but was turned back at Beijing airport and returned to a detention centre in Kuala Lumpur. When someone approached the British Embassy, seeking help or asylum on his behalf, British agents revealed his true identity to the Malaysian Government and the CIA.
He was released from the detention centre, and on March 7, when he tried to fly to London a second time, he was seized by the CIA during a stopover at Bangkok airport. He says that he was tortured by the CIA then dispatched in a private plane to Tripoli where he was locked in solitary confinement, hung up, beaten, denied a shower for three years and daylight for one.
Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary in 2004, said that he had never endorsed any programme of rendition or torture by the security services.
But he added: “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what intelligence agencies are doing at any one time.” That was why it was important that the claims were investigated by the Gibson inquiry into torture and rendition, he said.