Just two days before Tony Blair flew to Libya for his infamous embracing of Gaddafi, the Al-Saadi family were abducted by British government forces and sent to the dictator's torture chambers.
24 October 2011
The daughter of a Libyan dissident who was imprisoned by Muammar Gaddafi following a rendition operation mounted with the help of MI6 has told how her family was flown across the world and held for months while her father was being tortured nearby.
The wife and children of Sami al-Saadi have launched legal proceedings against the British government and its intelligence agencies.
They are also planning to lodge a complaint with Scotland Yard over the role that the British authorities played in their abduction and detention.
Saadi's entire family were bundled aboard an aircraft in Hong Kong and flown to Tripoli in March 2004. His wife Karima al-Saadi and her four children, aged between six and 12, were held for months at one of Gaddafi's prisons.
The eldest child, Khadija, now 19, spoke the horror of being separated from her parents and forced on to the plane before being told that they were all being taken to Libya, where she knew her father would be tortured, and where she feared they would all be killed.
"The British government speak of human rights and justice – why were they involved with Gaddafi?" she asked. "The British knew too well that we would be mistreated and could be killed. The people who put us through this should be held accountable. I want an apology: they stole my childhood."
The Guardian also reveals the secret documents that show British intelligence officials believe the capture and rendition of Saadi and his associate, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), boosted al-Qaida and undermined Britain's mission in Iraq.
Saadi, who is also known as Abu Munthir al-Saadi, learned last month of the key role that MI6 played in his family's rendition when Human Rights Watch, the New York-based NGO, discovered a batch of documents in the abandoned office of Gaddafi's former intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa. Among the papers is a fax that the CIA sent to Koussa in March 2004, which shows that the agency was eager to join in the Saadi rendition operation after learning that MI6 and Gaddafi's government were about to embark upon it. Other papers show that an MI6 tipoff led to Belhaj being rendered to Tripoli the same month, along with his pregnant wife.
Two days before Saadi and his family were flown to Tripoli, Tony Blair arrived in the country for his first meeting with Gaddafi, embracing the dictator and announcing a new era of counter-terrorism co-operation.
Saadi embarked on his own legal action earlier this month, and like his family is suing MI6, MI5, the Foreign Office and the Home Office. His case and that of his family join the list of 30 cases that Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, said last week were being brought by people alleging British complicity in their torture or rendition. Clarke has unveiled plans for legislation that will establish secret court hearings when the UK's intelligence agencies are sued, a proposal that has been welcomed by MI5 and MI6, but criticised by civil rights groups.
The courtroom secrecy would prevent claimants and the general public from learning more about the degree of ministerial approval for the UK/Libyan rendition operations. Last month Blair and Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary at the time, sought to distance themselves from the matter. Shortly afterwards Sir Richard Dearlove, who was head of MI6, said ministers had authorised the UK's links with Gaddafi. Blair and Straw have both declined to say whether they knew which ministers were being referred to by Dearlove.
The Foreign Office said the government had not received notification of intended proceedings, and added: "The government stands firmly against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. We do not condone it, nor do we ask others to do it on our behalf."
The Saadi family had been living in exile in China, and travelled to Hong Kong after approaching MI5 via an intermediary to ask whether they would be allowed to return to London, where they lived for a number of years in the 1990s. They were under the impression they were to be interviewed by British diplomats in Hong Kong. Instead they were detained by border guards, held for several days, and then forced aboard an Egyptian airliner.
Khadija al-Saadi told how she and her two younger brothers, Mostapha and Anes, then aged 11 and nine, and six-year-old sister Arowa, were separated from their parents before being put on board the aircraft, which was empty but for a number of Libyan intelligence officers. "I wasn't allowed to talk to my brothers or sister, and my brothers weren't allowed to play games, because they thought they might be using sign language," she said.
"After a while I was allowed to go into the next compartment and see my mother. She was crying. She told me they were taking us to Libya. Initially, I didn't believe it. Then I realised it was true, and I was very scared. I thought that my mother and father were going to be tortured and that we would all be killed. Then I was told to go and say goodbye to my father. He was handcuffed to a seat in another compartment and had a drip in his arm. One of the Libyan intelligence officers was laughing at me. I fainted."
Khadija came to shortly after the aircraft landed in Tripoli. Her mother and father were taken off, hooded and their legs bound with wire. Mostapha and Anes were blindfolded. The entire family was then driven in a convoy of vehicles to a prison at Tajoura, east of Tripoli.
"We were separated from my father, but he was later brought back to see us by Moussa Koussa before being taken away again. My mother was also taken away and interrogated for a whole day."
Khadija says she knew her father was being tortured. Every few days he was brought to see his family for a few minutes before being taken away again. "I think they were doing it to increase the pressure on my father." At one point, when they had not seen their father for some time, the children decided to mount a hunger strike: "But they didn't care whether we ate anything or not."
Saadi's wife and children were released after two and a half months and cared for by relatives. The children were eventually allowed to enrol in school, Khadija going on to win a number of Libya-wide children's poetry contests.
Their father remained imprisoned for six years.
After the revolution that led to Gaddafi being killed, he described how he was beaten and subjected to electric shocks, interrogated about Libyans living in the UK and, on one occasion he alleges, interrogated by British intelligence officers, who he alleges took no steps to try to help him after he told them he was being tortured. Moussa Koussa, he says, had boasted to him that MI6 and the CIA were helping him to round up Gaddafi's opponents around the world.
The family's solicitor, Richard Stein, of the London law firm Leigh Day, said on Monday: "At a time when Cameron was invoking Gaddafi's victims it is important to remember the Al-Saadi family. They were only victims of Gaddafi because of the complicity of the Blair government. At this time it is particularly important that the British government deals with it own role in these events and apologises immediately and unreservedly to Khadija and the rest of her family."
Cori Crider, of the legal charity Reprieve, which is also advising the family, added: "The bitter irony is that the very week Libya threw off dictatorship and the yoke of the secret police, Ken Clarke proposed to shroud British justice in secrecy. How would he explain to Khadija that her fate should be discussed behind closed doors? The UK must not mimic this toxic US practice."