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Discovered Files Show U.S., Britain Had Extensive Ties with Gaddafi Regime on Rendition, Torture

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Human Rights Watch has uncovered hundreds of letters in the Libyan foreign ministry proving the Gaddafi government directly aided the extraordinary rendition program carried out by the CIA and the MI6 in Britain after the 9/11 attacks. The documents expose how the CIA rendered suspects to Libyan authorities knowing they would be tortured. One of the most prominent suspects rendered to Libya was an Islamic militant named Abdelhakim Belhaj, who is now the military commander for the Libyan rebels. At the time of his capture in 2004, Belhaj was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group that had ties to al-Qaeda. We speak to Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who helped find the documents in Tripoli, and Gareth Peirce, a well-known British human rights attorney who has represented numerous Guantánamo prisoners as well as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the line in Tripoli with Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch. He’s the emergencies director. He’s in the capital of Libya. Let’s talk about these latest revelations, Peter. How did you uncover these hundreds of letters in the Libyan foreign ministry proving the Gaddafi regime has been working for years with the CIA in the United States, with MI6, British intelligence, in Britain?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, we were going around about four, five days ago to the different intelligence headquarters in Tripoli to see what the state of their archives was and to make sure that they were not destroyed or looted, as had happened in other cities, because they do contain a lot of important evidence. So I went to the Libyan spy agency, the external intelligence building. I was the first foreigner to arrive there, and spent about five or six hours going through their archives, looking for information about the rendition program. And we stumbled upon a set of several files in a room relating to the CIA renditions and the U.K. relationship, as well, with Musa Kusa, the spy chief. There were many, many more documents there, but we focused mostly on those, just because once we started reading them, we were stunned by the closeness of the relationship between Musa Kusa and both the CIA and the MI6, the heads of clandestine services.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain everything, or as much as you can, of what you saw. Start with the CIA and exactly the relationship and how far back it went, that you could see in these documents, with Gaddafi.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, the documents that we found date mostly from a period in 2003 and 2004, when the CIA and MI6 were dismantling Gaddafi’s weapons of mass destruction program and reestablishing their intelligence relationship with the Libyan government. But we found many documents relating to the rendition and—to the capture and rendition of Islamist suspects abroad. The CIA was offering to capture and render Libyan Islamists to the Gaddafi government. And then they were sending the questions they wanted to be asked to the Gaddafi government.

We also found many documents which just show how close their relationship was. And one of the documents I found is a fax dated Christmas Day 2003, in which the head of MI6 clandestine services—it starts, “Dear Musa,” and then expresses regret that Musa is not joining him for Christmas lunch. And it’s signed, “Your friend,” and then the name of this person. It just shows a relationship which went way beyond the professional into the intimate, really, with a man who is known for his brutality and his direct role in repression, a man who probably knows a lot more about the Lockerbie bombing and other dark chapters in Libyan history than anybody else.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why was it—is it the case, Peter, that in Libya it was more shocking, this extraordinary rendition program, than, for example, elsewhere in the region?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, the Libyan government is known for its brutality, and the people who were rendered, we went to visit many of them in 2008 in Abu Salim. And they talked about the torture they have suffered. But we should remember that the United States continues to remain in close touch with similar abuses by agencies. They certainly have a similarly close relationship with the Egyptians, with the Yemens, with the Jordanians, and for many years with the Uzbeks, using them to debrief people that they have captured and rendered, under torture. So it’s not a unique situation in Libya. It’s just that because of the fall of Tripoli, we were able to gain access to documents that the CIA and the MI6 certainly would rather keep in the dark, where they belong.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, before we turn to Gareth Peirce, I wanted to ask you specifically about Abdullah Kanchil, the rebel negotiator, head of the [NTC], the National Transition Committee negotiating team. How did he end up being brought back to Libya?

PETER BOUCKAERT: I’m not—are you talking about [Abdelhakim] Belhaj, the Tripoli chief?

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, yes, yes.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes. So, Belhaj became the commander of the fighters in Tripoli and is now the chief of the fighters in Tripoli because of the important role he played in the fighting. He is a person who, in the past, has received military training in Afghanistan. So he and his fighters led the battle for Tripoli.

I think it is important to note that he and many other members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group have renounced terrorism a long time ago and have renounced their previous relationship with al-Qaeda. I met Belhaj a few days ago, after we found his own rendition document. And he expressed, in what is in my opinion, a sincere commitment to a new Libya which is democratic and respectful of human rights. And it is important that we try to incorporate people who make that commitment into the new Libya and only exclude those who really have blood on their hands or who have been involved in terrorist activities, not people who just have a conservative Islamist belief.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, thank you very much for being with us, speaking to us from Tripoli. He’s Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director.

As we turn now to Gareth Peirce, one of Britain’s best-known human rights attorneys. She has represented numerous Guantánamo prisoners. As well, currently she is representing Julian Assange. She is author of a new book, Dispatches from the Dark Side: On Torture and the Death of Justice.

As you investigate and hear about these hundreds of documents that show the very close relationship between the CIA, MI6 and extraordinary rendition to Libya under Gaddafi, who is well known for torture, what comments do you have, Gareth Peirce? Welcome.

GARETH PEIRCE: It’s not a surprise that they exist. It’s important that they’ve been found, and it’s extremely important that they be preserved. They confirm what’s always been known, that the government of this country and these intelligence services, from the beginning, after 9/11, had an intention to present a picture, a narrative, that there was an Islamic worldwide conspiracy—and sadly, a false narrative—that brought in every resistance movement, every legitimate resistance movement suffering under dictators such as Gaddafi. And part of that narrative, in relation to Libya, has in fact come to fruition now to show its falsity, which is that Gaddafi was indeed a brutal dictator. There was indeed a right and a duty for dissidents to resist. And amongst those dissidents, there were—there was a group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

What is perhaps the logical conclusion of that is the hypocrisy that we now discover, to find that, on the one hand, we were saying here, officially, there is no possibility of deporting dissidents to Libya who have been given sanctuary in the U.K., because it’s a regime that will torture, at the same time attempting to present a narrative that all those dissidents were linked to al-Qaeda and unlawfully reintroduce internment to lock them up indefinitely without trial, yet, we now discover, simultaneously engineering the rendition of one of the members of that group, Belhaj, to go to Libya to be tortured, which we knew—we knew; it was our state policy that we knew Libya did that to its dissidents—and then to facilitate members of the intelligence services going here to interrogate him, specifically, as I read in yesterday’s newspaper, he says, to confirm for them that there were links which were always denied between the LIFG and al-Qaeda. And therefore, it looks like a complete construct to achieve evidence for a narrative that the government was determined existed, whether or not it did.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Gareth, in response to Belhaj’s request or demand for an apology, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Britain was interested—that this was an accusation against the previous government and that Britain was now, in fact, focused on the future of Libya. Could you comment on that?

GARETH PEIRCE: All, sadly, that the coalition government, the new government, has done is to appoint an inquiry into British complicity into torture in the past, but that inquiry isn’t an open, independent inquiry with an independent judge-led panel. It’s a Cabinet Office review, which gives the Cabinet Office the ultimate say-so in the evidence produced. It’s been—it’s been determined it will be almost entirely in secret, in relation to intelligence services activity. And those who have been tortured, the detainees—it’s called the Detainee Inquiry—will not have any role to play in it.

It is absolutely critical that this not be put to rest. It’s critical that, if it’s investigated, it be done publicly. Every organization in the world that has experience in how to eradicate torture insists upon two essential ingredients: first, that all the data that reveals torture is publicly known and understood; and secondly, that those on whose watch it happened, who were responsible, be brought to account. And neither of those preconditions is in existence in the construct that is present in Britain at the moment for investigating complicity, and therefore, what happened to Belhaj is central to understanding. Every bit of it should be made known, for his sake and for the sake of the rest of the world, and for the sake of the future, if we are going to stop this.

And be sure, we’re still continuing. Even if we are inhibited now in such direct complicity in torture, we are nevertheless, day to day, in contact with, feeding questions to intelligence services, so-called, around the world that are at the behest of regimes whose major interrogation device is torture. This is what we do as part of our daily diplomatic bread and butter for our perceived strategic and economic interests. And we haven’t stopped. And people are held daily, including British citizens, in arbitrary detention, without access to lawyers. And we do not object. We put our noses in the trough, and we feed from it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Gareth Peirce, unlike the Cameron administration, the Obama administration says they are unlikely to conduct their own public inquiry. This is from the New York Times , saying that, “Early in his presidency, [President] Obama rejected the idea of a broad inquiry into rendition, torture, secret detention and other reported practices in the American campaign against terrorism, saying he wanted to look forward.” So I wanted to go to one of the British citizens you’re talking about, your own client, Gareth Peirce, Moazzam Begg, who was held at Guantánamo for more than seven years, a British citizen born and raised in Birmingham. He was seized in February of 2002 by the CIA in Islamabad. We went to London to talk to Moazzam Begg when he was finally released, five years later. He talked about his experience.

MOAZZAM BEGG: So that when I was eventually given into American custody and taken over to Kandahar, the treatment that I received through the processing was probably the most dehumanizing process, I think, that anybody has ever endured in recent times, which included having soldiers sit on me and then many other detainees, several of them pushing down on my head and my legs and my back, ripping open my clothes with a knife, which I could feel slicing, the cold blade against the back of my legs and back, and then photographs being taken of me naked, being shackled, being spat at, photographs of me shaven and unshaven, photographs of soldiers abusing me and other detainees, and derisive remarks about being a terrorist, being a murderer, being Muslim scum, things like this, dogs barking, and then eventually being taken over to an FBI agent who looked rather strange with his FBI cap on, while I’m shivering there naked, and him asking me when was the last time I saw Mullah Omar, when was the last time I saw Osama bin Laden, which was a standard question they asked of every detainee.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg was held in U.S. detention for, oh, around seven years, held at Guantánamo for years. Can you talk about what happened to him when he came out, Gareth Peirce—he was never charged with a crime—and why he was taken, what you understood? He said he underwent more than 300 interrogations, not to mention death threats and torture.

GARETH PEIRCE: He’s one casualty out of, sadly, thousands, tens of thousands, who were viewed in that—what Edward Said rightly condemned as a cartoon-like depiction of the world, of good and evil, the West against Islam, in which there has been, and to a large extent still is not, any comprehension of the plurality, the variety, the richness, the depth of each other’s entities, either national or as individuals or as groups. And that has persisted, that simplistic view of the world in which the enemy has to be eliminated, the enemy has to be gotten. And if this does just keep going in the way it is, then we will be in perpetual war, not in the quest of perpetual peace, but in terms of hatred and elimination.

And Libya—I don’t know precisely the reaction in the United States, but in Britain, as with the other uprisings in the Arab world, has been one of surprise as each has happened, and that each has somehow been lit by an unexpected spark in an unexpected tinderbox, without any comprehension that the history of those nations has been one of the worst kind of oppression in which we, as governments, yours and mine, have constantly not just backed the wrong horse—it isn’t that simplistic a choice—we have backed and encouraged leaders of those countries who have been monsters, who have oppressed their people, and we have categorized the resistance, the dissent, as the enemy, as Islamic extremism, radicalism, that has to be eliminated.

If ever there was a moment for a revolution in our thinking, this is it. We have not understood, for 10 years, much of what the world has been about. We have waged war, and we are continuing to wage endless war in simplistic terms, domestically against our own Muslim citizens, against others, and against huge swaths of countries, now moving, for instance, to the Horn of Africa. We cannot continue in this permanence of combative aggression in our thinking, let alone our actions. And this is an opportunity, I would have thought, that Libya, in what’s being found there, which is essential historic documentation of how we arrived at this pass—it’s essential it be grappled with. And if Obama has said no to an inquiry so far, then this is the moment for at least other worldwide organizations—the U.N. Committee Against Torture, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture—all of those organizations to say, “If you, you countries, are not going to have your own inquiries, we are going to have an inquiry, and we are going to investigate. And those countries which have endorsed the right for us to enter and investigate, we’re going to do so.”

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth, how would taking on Julian Assange, in these last months, his newest attorney, fit into the work that you’ve been doing, your human rights work? Can you talk about the latest in his case, as he awaits a judicial decision about whether he will be extradited to Sweden?

GARETH PEIRCE: I’m sure, as you know, that the element of the case that exists in the English courts, and for which I was asked to represent him, relates to a narrow issue: a request from Sweden to the U.K. I think, in relation to the bigger picture, in fact, just as a personal comment, one could say that WikiLeaks, the whole policy or potential of the right to the world to know, in fact, becomes not irrelevant, but when you can go to the British embassy in Tripoli and find the data, if you can go to Musa Kusa’s office in Tripoli and find the data, and that that is put out into the open, and we regard it as essential to know, and the world isn’t falling apart at these revelations, in that sense—embarrassment extreme, I’m sure—but does anyone contest that having more information isn’t essential for us to put the world in a better state? I don’t make an equivalency between every revelation of everything intended to remain secret. I don’t do that. But I do say knowledge and understanding is essential for the world we inhabit.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Peirce, we will leave it there. We thank you so much for being with us, author of Dispatches from the Dark Side: On Torture and the Death of Justice. She is one of Britain’s most well-known human rights attorneys, has represented numerous Guantánamo prisoners, as well as Julian Assange. She was speaking to us from London.

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