UK apologizes to Libyan ex-rebel and wife over role in 2004 rendition

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has apologized to Libyan former rebel Abdul Hakim Belhadj and his wife Fatima Boudchar over the role of British spies in their 2004 rendition from Thailand to Libya, where Belhadj was then tortured by Muammar Gaddafi's henchmen.

Belhadj, who was a known opponent of Gaddafi's regime, and his pregnant wife were abducted by U.S. CIA agents in Thailand and then illegally transferred to Tripoli with the help of British spies.

"The UK government believes your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way," Prime Minister Theresa May wrote to the couple in a letter made public on Thursday.

"The UK government's actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering ... On behalf of Her Majesty's Government, I apologize unreservedly," May wrote.

Boudchar, who after her rendition was detained in Libya until shortly before giving birth, was in the public gallery in parliament in London with her son to hear Britain's attorney general make a statement about the case.

In a written statement sent by his lawyers shortly after the announcement, Belhadj thanked May for her apology.

"Today is a historic day, not just for myself and my wife," he said. "A great society does not torture, does not help others to torture, and when it makes mistakes it accepts them and apologizes."

Belhadj and Boudchar had brought legal claims against Britain's former foreign affairs minister, a senior intelligence chief and various government departments and agencies, seeking an apology and symbolic damages.

The British government tried to fight the claims in court but the Supreme Court last year gave the couple the right to sue the defendants.

Attorney General Jeremy Wright told parliament all the claims had now been withdrawn as part of a full and final out-of-court settlement.

As part of that settlement, the government agreed to give Boudchar 500,000 pounds ($676,000) in compensation for her suffering. Wright said no admissions of liability had been made by any of the defendants in the legal claims.

Belhadj, who had said all along he was seeking justice and an apology rather than a financial settlement, was detained for six years after being rendered to Libya.

He later went on to command an Islamist rebel group that helped topple Gaddafi in 2011, and is now a politician.

Under the administration of former President George W. Bush, the CIA practiced so-called "extraordinary renditions", or extra-judicial transfers of suspects from one country to another, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Other nations are alleged to have lent assistance in some cases.

The practice has been widely denounced around the world.

Belhadj says he was originally detained in China, before being transferred to Malaysia and then moved to a CIA "black site" in Thailand.

He was handed over to CIA agents, acting on a tip-off from MI6, and flown via the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Tripoli, because at the time Britain and the United States were keen to build relations with Gaddafi.

(Editing by Stephen Addison)

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