Patrick Cockburn: The tide may be turning against systematic abuses of prisoners

The close co-operation amounted to farming out torture by the CIA and MI6 to Gaddafi and his interrogators

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Here is an account by a Libyan, who did not want to disclose his name, of what it was like to be tortured by Libyan security. He says: "I was blindfolded and taken upstairs. I was shocked with electricity and made to sit on broken glass. They were kicking and punching me until I confessed. I said 'No'." This went on for over a week.

One day the interrogators tied his hands behind his back and took him upstairs. He continues: "They opened the door and I saw my son and wife. There were five or six members of security with masks. They tied me to a chair and one of them said: 'Do you want to sign or should we torture them?'"

According to the prisoner one of the interrogators took his 10-month-old son and put a wire on his hand and "he screamed and his face turned red". The little boy appeared to stop breathing. Soon afterwards the prisoner signed the confession demanded by Libyan security.

The testimony about the baby's torture in front of his father was recorded by Human Rights Watch in Tripoli in 2005. The same year the UK signed a Memorandum of Understanding accepting Libyan diplomatic assurances that torture would not be used against Libyan exiles repatriated from the UK to Libya. Few documents agreed to by a British government exude so much hypocrisy and cynicism.

Will the close co-operation on what amounted to farming out torture by the CIA and MI6 to Muammar Gaddafi and his interrogators be forgotten in the rush of events in Libya? Western intelligence services presumably hope so. The fragile and divided Libyan authorities may think twice before quarrelling with the very organisations whose aid over the past six months enabled them to defeat Gaddafi.

I saw Abdelhakim Belhaj, the head of the military council controlling all militia brigades in Tripoli, last week and asked him about how he was arrested in Malaysia, tortured in Thailand, and sent back for more torture and imprisonment in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. Given the Libyan rebels' reliance on Nato air strikes, I thought it likely that Belhaj, a founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which had been accused of links to al-Qa'ida, would avoid talking about his rendition. Instead Belhaj showed that he was still a very angry man. He said he was considering suing those responsible.

It is good that Belhaj is not willing to cover up what happened to him, and that his story is confirmed by documents in Tripoli proving the cosy relationship between MI6, the CIA and Gaddafi. It should help to discredit the way in which the world's most disgusting and oppressive dictators have been able in the decade since 9/11 to claim that anybody opposing them was an Islamic fundamentalist linked to al-Qa'ida. By 2003 the government of Uzbekistan boiled to death two prisoners and still got a US grant for its security services.

The degradation of standards started almost immediately in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban with the denial of the status of prisoners of war being granted to captives. In northern Afghanistan General Rashid Dostum, a warlord of notorious brutality but an ally of the CIA, had hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners buried alive or packed into containers to suffocate.

It now turns out that several of the rebels who played a crucial role in overthrowing Gaddafi, and have been lauded as freedom fighters by Western leaders, were among those savagely tortured by MI6's friends in Abu Salim. This might just begin to turn the tide against the systematic mistreatment of prisoners which has become such a hallmark of the security world since 9/11.

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