Profile: Libyan rebel commander Abdel Hakim Belhadj

Abdel Hakim Belhadj in Tripoli, 1 September

Abdel Hakim Belhadj is a rising star in the Libyan leadership and standing for election, but his past ties to jihadi groups have sparked controversy - along with his claims of being tortured at the behest of US and British intelligence agencies under the programme known as rendition.

In August 2011 he stood victorious inside Col Muammar Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound after fighters from his Tripoli Brigade broke through the defences of the ousted leader's fortress.

But the victory was a long time coming for the staunch anti-Gaddafi fighter, who spent seven years in the city's notorious Abu Selim prison, where he says he was regularly tortured.

He says he and his wife, Fatima Bouchar, were handed to the Gaddafi regime by the CIA after being arrested in Thailand and transported via UK-controlled Diego Garcia.

Now he is taking legal action against former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over claims that Mr Straw signed papers authorising the move.

It is thought to be the first time civil action of this kind has been taken against a former foreign secretary.

Islamist days

Mr Belhadj had fought against Col Gaddafi for many years and had been involved with an Islamist group's attempt to overthrow the Libyan leader in the late 1990s.

Start Quote

Everyone knows who Abdel Hakim Belhadj is. He is a Libyan rebel and a moderate person who commands wide respect”

End Quote Al-Amin Belhadj NTC spokesman

Mr Belhadj - known in the jihadi world as Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq - commanded the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

The group was formed in 1990 by Islamist Libyans who had fought in Afghanistan against Soviet forces in the 1980s.

The LIFG waged a three-year low-level insurgency mainly based in eastern Libya, and staged three attempts to assassinate Col Gaddafi in 1995 and 1996, according to Middle East analyst Omar Ashour of Exeter University.

By 1998, the group was crushed. Most of its leaders fled to Afghanistan and joined forces with the Taliban. There, Mr Belhadj is alleged to have developed "close relationships" with al-Qaeda leaders and Taliban chief Mullah Omar, according to an arrest warrant issued by the Libyan government in 2002.

The warrant says that he was based in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, from where he ran and financed training camps for Arab mujahideen fighters.

It notes that he was born in 1966 in the Souq al-Jumaa area of Tripoli and studied at al-Fateh University, where press reports say he earned a civil engineering degree.

The warrant says Mr Belhadj travelled widely, spending time in Sudan, Pakistan, Syria and Iran. He is also said to have visited Turkey, London and Denmark.

After the 11 September attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he and most of the LIFG leaders fled that country as well, only for Mr Belhadj to be arrested in 2004 in Thailand by the CIA and then handed over to Col Gaddafi's government.

Mr Belhadj spent time in the Abu Selim Prison, before being freed in 2010 under a "de-radicalisation" drive championed by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader.

CIA rendition

His latest incarnation as the top Libyan rebel commander, widely credited with chasing the Gaddafi family out of Tripoli, has propelled him to international attention - along with his account of being tortured under the controversial CIA interrogation programme known as rendition.

Files unearthed from Col Gaddafi's intelligence archives and seen by the BBC documented Mr Belhadj's capture by the CIA in Bangkok in 2004, and his forcible repatriation to Libya.

Abdel Hakim Belhadj told the BBC what happened to him was illegal and he wants an apology

Peter Bouckaert, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch - which originally obtained the documents - explained the circumstances of Mr Belhadj's transfer.

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I was injected with something, hung from a wall by my arms and legs and put in a container surrounded by ice”

End Quote Abdel Hakim Belhadj

"He was rendered by the CIA, he was captured, abducted together with his pregnant wife and flown on the so-called black flight to Tripoli for his interrogation," he said.

Mr Bouckaert said Mr Belhadj was one of about eight or nine suspects who were abducted and handed over to the Libyan intelligence service.

"From the files it's very clear [CIA agents] were present in some of the interrogations themselves."

In Abu Selim prison, Mr Belhadj told the Guardian newspaper, "I was injected with something, hung from a wall by my arms and legs and put in a container surrounded by ice. They did not let me sleep and there was noise all the time."

Mr Belhadj told the BBC that after the CIA and Britain's MI6 intelligence agency got him to Tripoli in March 2004, they did not witness his torture, but interrogated him afterwards.

"What happened to me was illegal and deserves an apology," he told the BBC's Jeremy Bowen in Tripoli.

In March, the BBC revealed the UK government had authorised the rendition of Mr Belhadj and his wife, though it was not clear at what level. And on 15 April the Sunday Times published an article quoting sources alleging the authorisation had come from Mr Straw.

Mr Belhadj and his wife are seeking damages from the former minister for the trauma they say they suffered.

Papers have also been issued in the High Court to sue the UK government, its security forces and senior M16 officer Sir Mark Allen for damages in the case.

UK ministers have denied any complicity in rendition or torture. Mr Straw says he cannot comment on the claims because of an ongoing police investigation into the UK's alleged role in rendition.

The CIA has previously said it should come as no surprise that the US worked with foreign governments to help protect America from terrorists.

Moderate tone

When the rendition claims first surfaced after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Mr Belhadj said they would not stop Libya's new rebel leadership - the National Transitional Council - from having "orderly relations" with the US and Britain.

Abdel Hakim Belhadj, Salahidin Badi, Mustapha Mohamed on 31 Aug Libya's new rebel commanders say they will shun extremism

The NTC has dismissed any suggestions that Abdel Hakim Belhadj is a former al-Qaeda sympathiser, following reports in the international media as well as statements attributed to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi himself.

"NTC members have stated time and again that the revolution has no links to al-Qaeda," said NTC spokesman Al-Amin Belhadj told al-Jazeera Television last year.

"Everyone knows who Abdel Hakim Belhadj is. He is a Libyan rebel and a moderate person who commands wide respect. Unfortunately, some circles in the West repeat these claims," he added.

Asked about his Islamist links, Mr Belhadj told the BBC that he was always an anti-Gaddafi fighter, but insisted that he was never an al-Qaeda member.

He is contesting the 7 July elections as a candidate of the Al-Watan (Homeland) Party in a Tripoli constituency.

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