Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Why Abdel Hakim Belhaj was never going to get an apology
Given the history of political apologies, the chances of Abdel Hakim Belhaj ever getting an apology for his extraordinary rendition and torture were slim
Last week, an interesting revelation in an ongoing legal case against the UK government for assistance in the extraordinary rendition of Abdul Hakim Belhaj, and his wife Fatima Bouchar, was widely reported; Belhaj offered to settle the case for £3 and an apology. What were the chances that the accused would accept? Given the history of political apologies, I’d say very slim.
In March 2004, Belhaj, former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighter Group, a significant influence in the recent civil war, was en route to the UK with Bouchar when they underwent an allegedly UK informed and US perpetrated extraordinary rendition. After apparently having been told that they would be granted passage to the UK without passport or visa, the two had embarked on a flight from Malaysia due to stop off in Bangkok. When it did stop in Bangkok, they were kidnapped, questioned and severely beaten by CIA personnel before being taken to Libya where, under Gaddafi’s regime, they were imprisoned for over six years and apparently tortured regularly.
Since the fall of Gaddafi, documents have surfaced that, according to Belhaj and his supporters, plainly outline assistance and complicity on the part of former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and then head of MI6’s counter-terrorism unit, Sir Mark Allen. Last week, Belhaj, who launched legal proceedings against the two men and the British government last year, offered in a letter addressed to Cameron, Straw and Allen to settle the case for a token £1 from each, and a formal apology within a week.
A remarkably similar case, that of Sami al-Saadi’s extraordinary rendition, concluded last year with the UK government shelling out a £2.2m settlement, but not accepting liability. Belhaj, unlike al-Saadi, gave the government a unique opportunity to save potentially millions of pounds by just admitting liability. If the government has any difficulty proving that they are not liable and need to go to the expense of a trial to do so, and given that we see politicians apologising in news reports fairly regularly, would it be reasonable to presume that given the chance to, the accused would apologise in this case? After all, it could save potentially millions of taxpayers’ money. A closer look into what our beloved elected representatives tend to apologise for would say that such a presumption would be ill-informed.
I can’t have been the first person to notice that senior politicians jump at the opportunity to apologise for events that are long since passed, and that they personally had no hand or involvement in whatsoever; but when opportunities to apologise for events in which it could be argued that they hold some responsibility present themselves, it seems as though they are simply ignored.
There are myriad examples. David Cameron has been the master of apology since he took office. His most significant apologies have been for the 1972 ‘Bloody Sunday’ shootings, the 1989 murder of Pat Finucane and the Hillsborough Disaster of the same year. Gordon Brown in 2010 made an unreserved apology for the deportation of poor children to former colonies from the 1920s to 1960s; and Tony Blair, in 2000, apologised to the ‘Guildford Four’ – four men who were wrongly convicted of being involved with IRA bomb attacks in 1974, whose convictions were eventually overturned and who were consequently released in 1989.
I am not for one minute saying that these apologies shouldn’t have been made. Even though David Cameron was only five years old when the Bloody Sunday shootings occurred, he is now the top representative of the UK government and thus has the responsibility to speak for both its past and present actions. The same, I believe, is true of anyone in an elected position; for instance, William Hague must currently speak for the UK’s past and present foreign activity. However, this is not to say that elected representatives should be allowed to pass responsibility of their past actions onto those who follow them in office.
Indeed, in the pursuit of democracy accountability is key, and engaging in this sort of ‘pass-the-buck’ activity undermines this fundamental democratic value. The responsibility not to pass the buck is woefully neglected by some politicians who cynically put their own interests above those of the electorate, and sometimes, justice. Take Blair’s refusal to apologise for the Iraq War, take the absence of apology from the UK government over any number of Guantanamo Bay cases, take the apprehension of politicians to admit collusion with Murdoch’s media empire.
Under this light, should anyone have expected that Belhaj would get an apology in place of potentially millions of tax payers’ money? I’d say not. Perhaps in 30 or 40 years someone who is currently learning to tie their shoelaces will apologise.Tagged in: Abdel Hakim Belhaj
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