CIA 'Shocked' Prisoners They Sent To Libya Were Tortured

September 8, 2011

Abdel Hakim Belhaj ©Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

This past weekend has provided a few new insights into what Dick Cheney’s policy of ‘working the dark side’ actually entailed and offered a piquant example of the law of unintended consequences.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) was able to gain access to the headquarters of Libyan Intelligence after the organization’s building in Tripoli fell to rebel control. HRW’s researcher found files detailing the relationship that developed between the CIA and Gadhafi’s external intelligence service in the years after September 11th.

It is worth recalling that Libyan Intelligence had been behind (among other crimes) the murder of a British policewoman in London in 1984, two US servicemen in Berlin in 1986, and the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, which resulted in 270 fatalities.

Libya also supplied the Provisional IRA with major arms shipments, including AK 47s, heavy machine guns and Semtex explosives, for over two decades.

While Libya’s relationship with the West certainly improved in the 2000s, there was no suggestion that Gadhafi’s dismissive attitude towards human rights had similarly evolved.

President Bush’s Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledged as much in this April 2003 comment on the composition of the UN Human Rights Commission:

“[The] Commission cannot expect to have Libya be its chair, to reelect Cuba, and not have people wonder if they really do stand for human rights.”

Yet, at the same time that Fleischer was criticizing the UN, the CIA was arranging to render terrorism suspects to Libya where they could be jointly interrogated by Libyan and US intelligence officers.

In one memo discovered by HRW, the CIA’s former Deputy Director of Operations Stephen Kappes wrote to the Head of Libyan Intelligence, Moussa Koussa:

“We are eager to work with you in the questioning of the terrorist we recently rendered to your country.”

Seeking to head off criticism at the weekend, US officials claimed that they sought assurances that the human rights of rendered individuals would be protected, and indeed communications between the CIA and Libyan intelligence have language seeking to indemnify the Agency from subsequent allegations of mistreatment.

In essence, the US got lawyered up and is now channeling Claude Rains’ Vichy police chief in the movie Casablanca who closed Bogart’s nightclub for unlicensed gambling, even as he pocketed his winnings from the roulette table, with the immortally cynical line:

“I am shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on here.”

Unfortunately for the US government, a victim of the extraordinary rendition program, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, also went public last weekend with a graphic account of his own experiences, which demonstrate all too vividly just how empty the charade of diplomatic assurances actually was.

And here comes the twist: Belhaj is now head of the Libyan rebels’ military committee for restoring order in Tripoli, a position he holds courtesy of US and NATO airstrikes to oust Colonel Gadhafi from power.

Belhaj is a former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which waged a low-level insurgency campaign against Gadhafi in the 1990s. The LIFG was defeated by Gadhafi in 1998 and its leadership fled to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. There are reported connections between LIFG and Al Qaeda in this period. Now, he’s family.

Belhaj claims that in 2004 he was abducted in Malaysia, tortured in a CIA ‘black site’ in Thailand and then rendered to Colonel Gadhafi’s Libya where was held in solitary confinement for 6 years and repeatedly tortured by Libyan officials.

Amazingly, Belhaj doesn’t want revenge – he wants justice:

“If one day there is a legal way, I would like to see my torturers brought to court.”

He may yet get his wish. A British public inquiry into the treatment of ‘suspected terrorists’ overseas has already announced that it will examine Belhaj’s case.

And the CIA might have got away with it too, if hadn’t been for those meddling rebels…