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Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Why Abdel Hakim Belhaj was never going to get an apology

Charley Utton

Abdel Hakim 300x225 Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Why Abdel Hakim Belhaj was never going to get an apology

Abdel Hakim Belhaj the former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighter Group (Getty Images)

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.

david cameron getty 300x225 Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Why Abdel Hakim Belhaj was never going to get an apology

David Cameron has been the master of apology since he took office (Getty Images)

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.

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  • ram2009

    These very same miscreants (our politicians) are good at advising the rest of the world re human rights.

  • smartmind

    If Cameron et al refuse to apologise for a pittance of £1 then they should be indicted for wasting public money – but nothing new there – tax payers money, easy come, easy go.

  • Dr_Paul_1955

    The article states: ‘Belhaj offered to settle the case for £3 and an apology.’ I’m sure No 10 can have a whip-round to raise the three nicker, or maybe someone will raid the petty-cash tin.

  • Dr_Paul_1955

    I can’t help thinking of the twists and turns by which Mr Belhadj — who is no political innocent, by the way — ended up where he is today. When Colonel Gaddafi was considered as the devil incarnate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, of which Mr Belhadj was a prominent member, was hired by the British to assassinate him. Mr Belhadj was presumably seen as an asset here, if one not exactly to crow about openly. When the Colonel was allowed into the hallowed portals of the International Community, taking the rap for the Lockerbie bombing as the price, Mr Belhadj found himself kidnapped and sent to Libya, where he was imprisoned and cruelly interrogated. By now, he was presumably a liability. When the Colonel found himself in a bit of local difficulty, his new-found friends in the International Community very ungraciously dumped him and indeed gave support to friends of Mr Belhadj to help overthrow him, and Mr Belhadj becomes a member of the new, internationally approved government. Such are the ways of diplomacy…

  • cwmiforphill

    Have you ever thought that perhaps he wants to see Straw, Blair et al answer for their seeming duplicity. Why should Cameron apologise for the the potentially criminal activity of others. Blair especially prances around the World as if he’s some sort of Messiah, let the World know in an open court if he’s innocent or guilty rather than some back street pay off . If anything, let Blair pay the £3, he’s become mega-rich through his duplicity.

  • How_delightful

    At least we know why the UK is determined to crush any hope of retaining Human Rights for its own people or foreigners. Its because the British are heading back into the dark ages.

  • Susan G.

    If they apologised that would be tantamount to admitting culpability. They simply cannot afford to apologise for this because they are denying it happened with their knowledge. We are dealing with some of the most corrupt politicians ( allegedly) we’ve ever been privy to being so close to uncovering. I hope that justice is served and all of those complicit in the illegal rendition for certain torture of quondam friends of Britain ( and, who were offered sanctuary here) are exposed and held to account. Meanwhile, cynicism reigns supreme and we must understand and try to prevent this egregious circumvention of law ever happening again.

  • Laars

    A simple apology would be anything but since it would form the basis for any number of other such trials. I agree they should but the reality is that it is also surrendering other trials so the economic benefit argument doesn’t hold.

    Now, if we could concentrate on morals, ethics and (shhh!) truth, we might just expect an apology. Or maybe not…

  • bogwart

    Stuff him. I do not in any way condone us aiding the american practices of rendition and torture, and the people responsible for that here should suffer the penalties of the law. Having said that, Belhaj is a committed terrorist who has operated in Afghanistan and Libya, is suspected of complicity in the 2004 Madrid train bombing, and was in the vanguard of the ragtag mob who left Benghazi and eventually (with help from NATO including ourselves) sacked Tripoli.

    Since then he has continued to stir the pot in Libya but it is worthy of note that he has also been in Syria interfering with the assorted terrorists causing mayhem there, and is also reported to have been involved in the recent Algerian kidnappings. He is now barred from Algeria.

    The information which enabled his arrest with his wife at Kuala Lumpur in 2004 was gained by MI6 who passed it from informants in this country to the CIA. So our dealings were at best second- or third-hand.
    I repeat, I don’t believe that anything can justify the illegal rendition of suspects, let alone their subsequent torture. The practices are reprehensible and should be stamped on with great force. Having said that, I do not believe that MI6 sharing intelligence with the CIA in the matter of a proven actively dangerous individual is a matter for which we need to apologise. Live by the sword, die by the sword. It would have been better for all concerned if someone had put a couple in the back of his head a few years ago, before he had the chance to lead a terrorist grouping responsible for the deaths of thousands.


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