18 Apr 2012

'The world has become small since 9/11'

Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum recalls a conversation with the man at the centre of Libyan rendition claims on how close the CIA and MI6 became with Libyan intelligence.

Two Libyan families are sueing the former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, after they underwent “extraordinary rendition” to Libya in 2004. Sami al Saadi, known as Abu Munthir (pictured below), and Abdel Hakim Belhadj, known as Abu Abdullah al Sadiq, were leading members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, pledged to wage jihad against Colonel Gaddafi and his regime. Based in Afghanistan, they knew Osama bin Laden, but were never part of Al Qaeda. Sami al Saadi, who was arrested in Hong Kong and then “rendered” to Libya told me his story for my book Sandstorm.

Here is an extract, from Sandstorm, Libya in the Time of Revolution:

Sami al Saadi also went by the name of Abu Munthir. On 24 March, 2004, the CIA sent a cable to Libyan Intelligence entitled: “Secret // US only// Except Libya. Rendition of LIFG Deputy Abu Munthir”. They were offering to help the Libyans get Sami back.

“We are aware that your service had been co-operating with the British to effect Abu Munthir’s removal to Tripoli,” read the cable. The Hong Kong authorities had denied the Libyans permission to land their plane, for fear of breaching sanctions, so the CIA offered to pay for a non-Libyan plane. “If we pursue that option,” they said, “we must have assurances that Abu Munthir and his family will be treated humanely and his human rights will be respected.”

The policy of “extraordinary rendition” was one of the most controversial aspects of George Bush and Tony Blair’s war on terror. The practice dated back to the 1990s but after 9/11 it was stepped up, and hundreds of people from a variety of nationalities were arrested – sometimes kidnapped – and either deported back to their home countries from which they had fled persecution, or to other countries that did not have Britain and America’s strictures against torture and coercive interro

Picture: Reprieve

It was a way of farming out the dirty work to dirty regimes, so the US and British governments could say their hands were clean. The programme was highly secret, and illegal under international law. Given the Libyan government’s human rights record, it is hard to know what kind of human rights assurances they might have convincingly provided. Colonel Gaddafi had, after all, said in 1999, just three years after the slaughter at Abu Salim, “Libya is the only country in the world that has no political prisoners.”

By 2004 there were fewer hangings but Amnesty International, which was allowed to send a delegation to Libya for the first time that year, reported the continued use of torture to extract confessions, as well as unfair trials and prolonged detention without access to the outside world.

Sami was taken to a plane and told he would be sent back to China. The plane never took off and he was returned to the terminal for a few more days.

“The night before I was finally taken, I could hear the guards talking Chinese as I lay on the chairs,” he recalled. “I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I heard them mention ‘CIA’ four or five times.”

Karima and the children were brought to the airport. The Hong Kong police again told the family that they were being flown back to China, but when they reached the tarmac they found an Egyptian plane and four Libyan security officers, easily recognised by their accents. Sami began to shout, and the police handcuffed him and Karima together and bundled them on to the aircraft. “My wife was crying, my children were crying,” he recalls. “The officers seemed worried about my health, because I’m a diabetic, but that wasn’t for humanitarian reasons, it was because they wanted me alive.”

As they landed in Tripoli, they were hooded. Karima thought they were going to be executed, but they were taken to the External Security headquarters in the Tripoli suburb of Tajoura, and put in separate cells. It was not long before Moussa Koussa arrived. Sami said he introduced himself and said, “Sami, the world has become very small since 9/11. Before, we couldn’t arrest you in many countries, but now I can call the CIA or MI6 directly and get all the most recent information on you and your group.”

At first Sami’s treatment was good, but after a month it deteriorated. “They used electric shocks with a baton, and beat me on my hands, legs and the soles of my feet with a wooden stick. They insulted me and threatened to hang me.” Karima was also detained, but in a separate room. “They insinuated that my wife was not safe.”

They asked him about LIFG members in Libya and, when he did not cooperate, beat him more.