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Theresa May apologises to Libyan dissident in settlement of rendition case

The Prime Minister said Britain accepts Abdul Hakim Belhaj’s account that UK agents were involved in his kidnap for six years of torture.

Britain has reached a “full and final” settlement with former Libyan dissident Abdul Hakim Belhaj over his rendition to the regime of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Attorney General Jeremy Wright told the House of Commons that Prime Minister Theresa May has written to Mr Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar to apologise for the “appalling” treatment they received.

Ms Boudchar is to receive £500,000 in compensation, said Mr Wright. But Mr Belhaj, 52, always made clear that he was not seeking monetary compensation and will not receive any.

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Fatima Boudchar and her son Abderrahim Belhaj, 14 outside the Palace of Westminster (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

The couple have fought a long legal battle over their claim that they were kidnapped and returned to Libya in 2004 in a joint M16-CIA operation linked to Tony Blair’s infamous “deal in the desert” with Gaddafi.

They said that after three years evading Gaddafi’s agents after fleeing Libya, they were seized in Malaysia and sent to Thailand for rendition to the north Africa country as a result of a tip-off from UK intelligence.

Ms Boudchar, who was five months pregnant at the time, was released shortly before giving birth, but her husband was held in prison and tortured for six years. He said that during his incarceration, he was questioned by British agents.

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The settlement includes the withdrawal of claims against the British government, former foreign secretary Jack Straw, and former MI6 head of counter-terrorism Sir Mark Allen, said Mr Wright. But he stressed that there was no admission of liability from any of the defendants.

In her letter, Mrs May said that the UK Government believes their account of the events and told them: “Neither of you should have been treated in this way.”

The Prime Minister wrote: “The UK Government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering. The UK Government shared information about you with its international partners.

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Ms Boudchar holding a letter outside the Palace of Westminster (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

“We should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated. We accept this was a failing on our part.

“Later, during your detention in Libya, we sought information about and from you. We wrongly missed opportunities to alleviate your plight: this should not have happened.

“On behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, I apologise unreservedly. We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it.”

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Libyan dissident legal battle

In a statement released by his lawyers, Mr Belhaj welcomed and accepted Mrs May’s apology and said he extended his “thanks and sincere goodwill” to the Prime Minister and Mr Wright.

“For more than six years I have made clear that I had a single goal in bringing this case: justice,” he said. “Now, at last, justice has been done.

“Today is a historic day, not just for myself and my wife. We hope our case will serve as a marker for future generations.

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Fatima Boudchar (left) and her son Abderrahim Belhaj, 14, with lawyer Sapna Malik (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

“A great society does not torture; does not help others to torture; and, when it makes mistakes, it accepts them and apologises. Britain has made a wrong right today, and set an example for other nations to follow.”

Ms Boudchar said: “I accept the Government’s apology.

“This case has forced me to relive the lowest moments in my life for many years, and at times it has been a real struggle to keep going. But by today’s settlement I look forward to rebuilding my life with dignity and honour, and living free from the weight of these events with my husband and our five beautiful children.”

Sapna Malik from law firm Leigh Day, who represented Mr Belhaj and Ms Bouchar, said: “Today’s candid apology from the Government helps restore the humanity and dignity so brutally denied to my clients during their ordeal and is warmly welcomed.”

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Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi

Mr Belhaj was leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, part of the Islamist opposition to Gaddafi who were branded terrorists by the dictator. He fled the country in 2001.

His kidnap took place two weeks before then-prime minister Tony Blair visited the north African state to meet Gaddafi.

The meeting, in Gaddafi’s desert tent, marked a dramatic restoration of ties with the former pariah state following Tripoli’s announcement that it was giving up its weapons of mass destruction programmes and joining the fight against al-Qaida. Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell simultaneously announced a deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.

Documents found in the abandoned British embassy and regime offices following the violent overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011 revealed details of UK intelligence links with Libya.

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Labour Summer Party

They included a faxed letter from Sir Mark in which he congratulated Gaddafi’s intelligence chief Moussa Koussa on the “safe arrival” of Mr Belhaj, saying that it was “the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years”.

Another Libyan dissident, Sami al-Saadi, who was returned to Tripoli from Hong Kong in a joint British-Libyan operation and jailed for six years, accepted a settlement of £2.2 million in 2012 from the UK Government.

But Mr Belhaj always said that he would drop his case in return for an apology and an admission of liability by the British government and the nominal sum of £3 – amounting to £1 from each of the defendants in the civil action.

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