In 2004, Fatima Boudchar was heavily pregnant and trapped inside one of Gaddafi’s dungeons, after British officials helped arrange her rendition. She had already endured an American ‘black site’, where CIA agents chained her to the wall, punched her (and her baby) in the stomach, and assaulted her dignity in ways she still will not discuss. A gang of masked men in balaclavas taped her to a stretcher, with one eye taped open, and left her that way for the entire flight to Libya.
Fatima’s husband was a long-time Gaddafi opponent, and when she realised they had landed in Libya, she recalled that “I never felt such terror. I felt weak, defeated and unable to protect my unborn baby. I thought we were going to be murdered.”
Fatima and her baby lived, but only just. In prison her weight, at around eight months of pregnancy, dropped to 54 kilos. She feared her baby was lost. Gaddafi’s jailers prepared for her to give birth in the dungeon, at one point dragging a crib into her cell. But someone thought better of it, and Fatima was released shortly before the birth.
Abdul Raheem was born weighing just four pounds. His father Abdul-Hakim would remain in prison for nearly six years. He was brutally tortured, and sentenced in a secret sham ‘trial’ to death. British officials came to interrogate him and passed questions to their Libyan counterparts—sliding them, in effect, under the torture chamber door.
As of last week, we know that Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of MI5 at the time, penned a furious letter to Tony Blair when she learned of the abductions, and threw MI6 staff out of Thames House. These were extraordinary steps by the head of MI5. She would not have taken them had, in her judgment, the law not been broken.
Yet no one in Britain is to be charged. Fatima cannot quite believe this, and why should she? She has seen the documents. However grey the shades we may be prepared to accept from our security services, the abduction of a pregnant woman is surely a matter of black and white.
“Our reputation as a country that believes in human rights, fairness and the rule of law - indeed for much of what the services exist to protect - risks being tarnished.” That was David Cameron in 2010, pledging to hold a judge-led inquiry into the involvement of British intelligence agencies in CIA torture.
Times, it seems, have changed, after the CPS decided this week not to prosecute senior British officials for plotting the abduction of entire families and delivering them to a dictator.
The case of Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima has become a byword for British hypocrisy on torture. Another family, the al-Saadis—including four children, the youngest just six—were bundled onto their rendition plane just weeks later.
You might doubt British officials would organise such a thing had the proof not been found, in black and white, fluttering about in Libya after the revolution. An enormous cache of files revealed that Sir Mark Allen, then head of counter terror at MI6, took credit for the operation. “I know I did not pay for the air cargo,” went Sir Mark’s fax to Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, “but the intelligence [on Belhaj and his wife] was British."
The CPS decision is moral failure on an epic scale, and follows the Cameron government’s refusal to apologise and ensure that a similar mistake would never be repeated. Their responses to this case were a test of the government’s moral fibre. It was an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that in Britain even the most powerful are subject to the rule of law.
Instead, yesterday the Crown Prosecution Service decided that no one is to be held criminally responsible. They did so despite acknowledging for the first time in this sad history, after years of hot denials and then “neither confirm nor denials"—that senior British officials were indeed implicated in rendition.
What remains is a near-total black hole of accountability. The prime minister has gone back on his promise to have a judge-led inquiry. His government sought to have Abdul-Hakim and Fatima’s civil case thrown out of court, using the flimsy excuse that it would anger the US. (That lawsuit is pending before our Supreme Court; it is still not known whether the families will even be given their day in a civil court.) Hundreds of thousands were spent on a police investigation - and prosecutorial decision - that, in the end, showed the long arm of the law may not reach the corridors of power after all.
The CPS has made a spineless decision. But Fatima and Abdul-Hakim hoped for better from British justice and will challenge it. They will do it for their children’s sake, and for the sake of all the untold dozens of innocents swept up and delivered to torturers in the misguided “war on terror.”
Crucial questions remain. We now know for certain from the CPS that Sir Mark sought some form of political approval for the rendition. But who specifically in the British establishment knew children and women, one pregnant, would be put on those rendition planes? Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw? Tony Blair? Or, in this sense, had Britain’s agent gone rogue? A trial would have told us. Today we are left to guess.
Cori Crider is a lawyer with human rights charity Reprieve who represented Abdul-Hakim and Fatima
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