Did US, UK help Gaddafi persecute dissidents?

Human Rights Watch reports of documents pointing to such assistance having been found in toppled Libyan leader's Tripoli office.

September 4, 2011 05:48
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's location unknown

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Max Rossi/Files)

Documents found in the abandoned Tripoli office of Muammar Gaddafi’s intelligence chief indicate US and British spy agencies helped the fallen strongman persecute Libyan dissidents, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday.

The documents were uncovered by HRW in the offices of former spy chief and foreign minister, Moussa Koussa.

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The group said it uncovered hundreds of letters between the CIA, MI6 and Koussa, who is now in exile in London. Letters from the CIA began, “Dear Moussa,” and were signed informally with first names only by CIA officials.

Meanwhile, the head of Libya’s National Transitional Council on Saturday gave Libyan cities that are still controlled by forces loyal to Gaddafi a week to surrender.

“We have given one week’s notice to Sirte, Bani Walid, Jufrah and Sabha,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil said at a news conference in Benghazi.

Bani Walid, along with Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha deep in the Sahara, are the main pockets not under the control of NTC forces, which drove Gaddafi from his Tripoli headquarters two weeks ago.

According to the documents discovered by HRW, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, the current military commander for Tripoli of Libya’s provisional government, was among those captured and sent to Libya by the CIA.

“Among the files we discovered at Moussa Koussa’s office is a fax from the CIA dated 2004 in which the CIA informs the Libyan government that they are in a position to capture and render Belhadj,” HRW’s Peter Bouckaert, who was part of the group that found the stash, told Reuters. “That operation actually took place. He was captured by the CIA in Asia and put on a secret flight back to Libya where he was interrogated and tortured by the Libyan security services.”

Earlier, Bouckaert told The New York Times, “The rendition program was all about handing over these significant figures related to al-Qaida so they could torture them and get the information they wanted.”

Belhadj has claimed he was tortured by CIA agents before being transferred to Libya, where he says he was then tortured at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison.

The CIA has not commented directly on the HRW report. A British government spokesman said the UK did “not comment on intelligence matters.”

Western intelligence services began cooperating with Libya after Gaddafi abandoned his program to build nonconventional weapons in 2004. But the files show his cooperation with the CIA and MI6 may have been more extensive than previously thought, analysts say.

The depth of the ties could anger NTC officials – many of whom are long-term opponents of Gaddafi who are now responsible for charting a new path for Libya’s foreign relations.

Bouckaert showed Reuters photos of several documents on his computer and also photos of letters he said were from the CIA to Koussa and were signed, “Steve.” He also displayed photographs he said were of letters from MI6 giving Libyan intelligence information on Libyan dissidents in Britain.

“Our concern is that when these people were handed over to the Libyan security they were tortured and the CIA knew what would happen when they sent people like Abdel Hakim into the hands of the Libyan security services,” Bouckaert said.

More recent documents showed that after the civil war broke out six months ago, Libya reached out to a former rebel group in the breakaway Somali state of Puntland, the Somali Salvation Front, asking them to send 10,000 fighters to Tripoli to help defend Gaddafi.

On the diplomatic front, Libya’s new leadership on Friday reaffirmed its commitment to democracy and worked on its priorities for spending billions of dollars released from Gaddafi’s frozen assets overseas.

A day after international powers met in Paris at a “Friends of Libya” conference and agreed to hand over more than $15 billion to the rebels who overthrew Gaddafi, the European Union rescinded a range of sanctions and officials from the NTC explained their rebuilding plans.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, headquarters of the uprising, an NTC official said the release of the funds meant the NTC now had to show Libyans it was capable of governing.

“Before we had the excuse that we didn’t have money when things went wrong,” he said. “Now we don’t have the excuse.”

On Saturday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said a second “Friends of Libya” conference will be held in New York on September 20, to help reconstruct the war-ravaged country.

The NTC representative in London said that work on putting right the damage of 42 years of eccentric one-man rule and of six months of civil war should not wait until Gaddafi is found and the last bastions of armed support for him are defeated.

“As long as Tripoli, the capital, is stabilized and secure and safe, which it almost is now, and the overwhelming majority of other cities and towns [are], then Libyans can get on with the process of transition and stabilization and the new political process,” Guma El-Gamaty told the BBC.

Gamaty reaffirmed the council’s commitment to a “clear road map” to democracy, including a constitution to be drafted within eight months, a referendum and then full elections in 2013.

As the rebels hunt Gaddafi, a spokesman for his son Saif al-Islam said he has been traveling around close to Tripoli, meeting tribal leaders and preparing to retake the capital.

In a telephone call to Reuters in Tunisia from what he said was a “southern suburb of Tripoli,” Moussa Ibrahim derided the ability of the NTC to run the country and said its Western backers should negotiate with the ousted leader.

Echoing comments made by Gaddafi and his son in recent broadcasts from hiding, Ibrahim said: “Our army still controls many regions of Libya. We will be able to capture Tripoli back and many other cities in the near future. The fight is very, very far from over. Within even a few weeks, a few months, even a couple of years, we will have Libya back.”

NTC commanders say they think he is hiding in Bani Walid, a tribal bastion 150 km. southeast of Tripoli.

There are also suggestions he may be in his hometown of Sirte on the coast or elsewhere.

They also say they are taking their time trying to cajole pro-Gaddafi holdouts into surrender in the interest of sparing further bloodshed.

NATO said it had carried out air strikes Thursday in the vicinity of Bani Walid and Sirte.

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