[Ppnews] United States: trade in torture
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PPnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Apr 13 19:55:14 EDT 2005
Le Monde diplomatique
THE SECURITY AND INTELLIGENCE DOSSIER
United States: trade in torture
This is a story of private jets flying out of Germany, of
kidnappings on European streets, and of torture. It has a cast
of lawyers, spies, suspected terrorists, innocent bystanders and
an ex-CIA boss who believes that human rights is a very flexible
by Stephen Grey
ASWEDISH immigration lawyer, Kjell Jönsson, was on the phone
to a client, asylum seeker Mohamed al-Zery from Egypt, on the
afternoon of 18 December 2001. "Suddenly there was a voice
coming in, saying to al-Zery to end the telephone
conversation," Jönsson recalls. "It was the Swedish police,
who had arrested him."
Jönsson had requested the Swedish government to promise that
there would be no quick decision on Zery's application for
refugee status: he feared that Zery would be tortured if sent
back to Cairo. But Zery was expelled in the shortest time
that Jönsson had encountered in 30 years of asylum work.
Five hours after the arrest of Zery and another Egyptian,
Ahmed Agiza, both were deported from Stockholm's Brömma
airport. It was not revealed for another two years that there
had been a US plane at the airport, plus a team of US agents
who, it has been claimed, picked up the suspects, manacled
their wrists and ankles, dressed them in orange overalls,
drugged them, and bundled them into the plane.
Jönsson said the US team "were wearing black hoods and they
had no uniforms; they were wearing jeans. The Swedish
security police described them as very professional." The
whole operation took less than 10 minutes. "It was obvious
that they have done things like this before."
The events, including the presence of the US agents, were
kept quiet for months. But in response to concern in Sweden,
its parliament has set up an inquiry and already released
documents that confirm what happened. In one, the head of the
deportation operation with the Swedish security agency, Arne
Andersson, said they had problems obtaining a plane that
night and turned to the CIA: "In the end we accepted an offer
from our American friends . . . in getting access to a plane
that had direct over-flight permits over all of Europe and
could do the deportation in a very quick way."
When agreeing to the transfer of the prisoners to Egypt, the
Swedish government had sought and obtained diplomatic
assurances that both men would not be tortured and would
receive regular consular visits from Swedish diplomats in
Cairo. They received such visits in jail. The authorities
told the Swedish parliament and a United Nations committee
that the prisoners had made no complaints. But they had -
right from the first visit, they protested that they had been
severely tortured. Jönsson says Zery was tortured repeatedly
for almost two months. "He was kept in a very cold, very
small cell and he was beaten; the most painful torture was .
. . where electrodes were put to all sensitive parts of his
body many times, under surveillance by a medical doctor."
Zery has now been freed, and has not been charged with any
crime. But he is banned from leaving Egypt or from speaking
openly about his time in prison. Agiza remains in an Egyptian
prison. His mother, Hamida Shalibai, who has visited him many
times, said in Cairo: "When he arrived in Egypt, they took
him, hooded and handcuffed, to a building. He was led to an
underground facility, going down a staircase. Then, they
started interrogation, and torture. As soon as he was asked a
question and he replied, I don't know', they would apply
electric shocks to his body, and beat him . . . During the
first month of interrogation, he was naked, and not given any
clothes. He almost froze to death."
The confirmation that US agents were involved in the Swedish
case provided the first concrete evidence that since 9/11 the
US has been involved in organising a worldwide traffic in
prisoners. Official and journalistic investigations show that
the US has systematically organised the repatriation of
Islamic militants to countries in the Arab world and East
Asia where they can be imprisoned and interrogated using
methods forbidden to US agents. Some call it torture by
proxy. Prisoners have been captured and transported by the US
not only from Afghanistan and Iraq, but from Bosnia, Croatia,
Macedonia, Albania, Libya, Sudan, Kenya, Zambia, Gambia,
Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The official term, coined by the CIA, is "extraordinary
rendition". No serving US official will discuss it in public.
But a former senior official of the CIA, who left the agency
last November, has provided a detailed and candid
explanation. Michael Scheuer, who in the late 1990s headed
the unit tasked with hunting down Osama bin Laden, was
interviewed for a BBC Radio programme, File on Four. He
confirmed the Swedish case was part of a much wider system.
Scheuer said the CIA invented rendition because it was
ordered by the White House to deal with al-Qaida but had few
options on what to do with terrorists it captured. "The
practice of capturing people and taking them to third
countries arose because the executive branch assigned to us
the task of dismantling and disrupting and detaining
terrorist cells and terrorist individuals," he said. "And
basically, when the CIA came back and said to the
policymaker, where do you want to take them, the answer was -
that's your job. And so we developed this system of assisting
countries to capture individuals overseas and bring them back
to the particular country where they are wanted by the legal
Among those at the centre of investigations into rendition is
a lawyer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights, Barbara
Olshansky. She is examining modern cases and how rendition is
being justified legally. She believes the US is not only
using third countries to interrogate prisoners but also its
own offshore jail facilities run and operated by the CIA. She
says that for more than 100 years the US seized fugitives
outside its jurisdiction to bring them back to the US to face
justice. General Manuel Noriega, the former president of
Panama, was one high-profile example (1). That was ordinary
After the CIA began to fight al-Qaida, and especially since
9/11, extraordinary rendition emerged; the prisoner was
captured, not for return to the US, but for transfer
elsewhere. "Rendition started in the 1880s," Olshansky says.
"The US would always use any measure to get an individual
back to be tried in front of a court here . . . Now this
entire idea has been turned on its head. We now have
extraordinary rendition, which means the US is capturing
people and sending them to countries for interrogation under
torture: rendering people for the purpose of extracting
information. There is no planned justice at the end."
Surprisingly, the CIA and other US agencies often use private
executive jets to transfer prisoners. I obtained the
confidential flight logs of a long-range Gulfstream V jet at
the centre of the traffic. Since 2001 the plane has been to
49 destinations outside the US and has criss-crossed the
world. It made frequent visits to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, Morocco and Uzbekistan, all destinations from where
the US has been repatriating prisoners.
The white jet, which has been photographed by plane spotters,
has no marking except its US civilian registration number,
until recently N379P. I have seen documentary evidence that
it was the plane used to fly the Egyptians from Sweden. In
October 2001 witnesses saw it in Karachi, Pakistan, when a
group of masked men deported a terrorist suspect to Jordan.
According to a former covert officer with the CIA, Robert
Baer, who has seen the flight logs, the jet is definitely
involved in renditions. "The ultimate destinations of these
flights are places that are involved in torture," he says.
Baer, who worked for the CIA in the Middle East for 21 years
until he left in the mid-1990s, said such civilian jets were
useful to the CIA because there were no military markings.
"You can run these things out of shelf companies. You can set
them up quickly, dismantle them when they are exposed; you
can do it overnight - change the airplane if you have to.
It's fairly standard practice."
Baer says rendition is about more than sending terrorists to
be locked up in prison. Each country has its own value. "If
you send a prisoner to Jordan you get a better interrogation.
If you send a prisoner to Egypt you will probably never see
him again; the same with Syria." Countries such as Syria
might seem to be US enemies but remain allies in the secret
war against Islamic militancy. Baer says: "The simple rule in
the Middle East is my enemy's enemy is my friend . . . that's
the way it works. All of these countries are suffering in one
way or another from Islamic fundamentalism, militant Islam."
For years the Syrians have offered to work with the US
against Islamic militancy. "So at least until 11 September
these offers were turned down. We generally avoided the
Egyptians and the Syrians because they were so brutal."
Baer believes the CIA has been carrying out renditions for
years, but they became bigger and more systematic after 9/11.
He says hundreds of prisoners, more than were sent to
Guantánamo, may have been sent by the US to Middle Eastern
prisons and that 9/11 had "justified scrapping the Geneva
Convention" and was the end of "our rule of law as we knew it
in the West".
Some defenders of rendition inside the US administration view
its purpose as the removal of terrorists from the streets.
After a terrorist suspect has been sent back to Egypt, the US
takes no interest in what happens. But the case of an
Australian suspect, Mamdouh Habib, indicates that renditions
are also aimed at collecting intelligence, which can be
extracted with torture, forbidden to US agents. Habib, a
former coffee shop manager from Sydney, was arrested in
Pakistan, close to the Afghan border, a month after 9/11.
He was handed over to US agents, who flew him to Cairo, where
he was tortured for six months, according to his US lawyer,
Professor Joe Margulies, of the MacArthur Justice Centre of
the University of Chicago. Margulies says: "Mr Habib
describes routine beatings. He was taken into a room and
handcuffed and the room was gradually filled with water until
the water was just beneath his chin. Can you imagine the
terror of knowing you can't escape?" On another occasion, he
was suspended from a wall. "His feet rested on a drum with a
metal bar through it. And when they passed an electric
current on the drum he got a jolt of electricity and he had
to move his feet, and he was left suspended by his hands. And
it went on until he fainted."
Under this interrogation, Margulies, says, Habib confessed to
his involvement with al-Qaida and readily signed "every
document they put in front of him".
He was transferred back to US custody, sent to Afghanistan
and then to Guantánamo. The confessions he signed in Egypt
were used against him in military tribunals. According to
Margulies: "Those combatant status review tribunals relied on
the evidence secured in Egypt as a basis to detain Mr Habib."
After Margulies and others lodged public protests over his
torture, Habib was freed from Guantánamo in January and flown
to Australia, where the government said he would not be
charged with any crime, although intelligence officials there
continue to accuse him of involvement with al-Qaida.
Most prisoners sent by the US to jails in the Middle East are
not free to reveal their treatment. But a Canadian citizen,
Maher Arar, a mobile phone technician rendered to a Syrian
jail by the US, is now free to speak. His story supports the
assertion that prisoners are sent abroad to be questioned. In
September 2002 Arar, returning home from a holiday in
Tunisia, was changing planes at JFK airport in New York. He
had often visited and worked in the US, so he expected no
problems. But he was taken to an interrogation room and
eventually an immigration holding centre, the Metropolitan
Detention Centre in Brooklyn.
It became clear that the reason for his arrest was
information passed from Canada to the US. Canada was secretly
investigating a terrorist suspect in Ottawa, and Arar had
used the suspect's name as an emergency contact when he
signed a lease on a flat. Although he is a Syrian national by
birth, Arar is a citizen of Canada and has lived there for 17
years. He was surprised to be asked questions in New York
that could easily be dealt with in Ottawa.
Twelve days after his arrest, Arar was woken at 3am to be
told he was being removed from the US. He was driven to New
Jersey and, in chains, put aboard an executive jet. "I
thought when they put me on this private jet with its leather
seats, who am I for them to do that? What kind of information
could I offer them? So when they fed me this nice dinner, I
thought of the tradition in the Muslim world called Eid,
where they slaughter an animal, and before they slaughter the
animal they feed him. That's exactly what I thought when I
was in the plane. I was always thinking how I could avoid
torture, because at that point I realised that the only
reason why they were sending me somewhere was to be tortured
for them to get information. I was 100% sure about that."
After two stops for fuel, the plane arrived in Amman, Jordan,
and Arar was taken by road to Damascus, to the headquarters
of the Syrian secret police. He says he was placed in a cell
little bigger than a coffin and was kept there for more than
10 months. His fears of torture were realised. "The
interrogator said: Do you know what this is?'. I said: Yes,
it's a cable' and he told me: Open your right hand.' I opened
my right hand and he hit me like crazy. And the pain was so
painful, and of course I started crying and then he told me
to open my left hand, and I opened it and he missed, then hit
my wrist. And then he asked me questions. If he does not
think you are telling the truth, then he hits again. An hour
or two later he put me in this room where sometimes I could
hear people being tortured."
After three days short of a year in Syrian custody, Arar was
released and flown home to Ottawa. No charges have ever been
laid against him by Canada or Syria. In Canada his case has
caused a political outcry and there is a public inquiry. Like
many modern torture victims, Arar has no physical scars.
Professional interrogators are too clever. His scars are
But the head of Amnesty International in Canada, Alex Neve,
is convinced that Arar is telling the truth: "I believe it
for a number of reasons. I interviewed him in considerable
detail, and in the course of my many years of work with
Amnesty International I have interviewed torture survivors
here in Canada, in refugee camps, individuals who have just
been released from jail cells; and I found his experience to
be consistent and credible with what I have known and learned
and experienced at other interviews."
Who is responsible for this system of rendition, and who in
Washington authorised it? At the Fall's Church, Virginia,
home of Michael Scheuer, we spoke about the tactics of the
war on terror and about why, when he headed the Osama bin
Laden unit at the CIA, they developed rendition as a tactic
against al-Qaida. Scheuer is outspoken - while at the CIA he
wrote two critical books (published anonymously) about
anti-terror activities. But he has never before been so
candid about such a sensitive matter.
Scheuer insists that every rendition operation was approved
by lawyers: "There is a large legal department within the
CIA, and there is a section of the department of justice that
is involved in legal interpretations for intelligence work,
and there is a team of lawyers at the national security
council. And on all of these things those lawyers are
involved in one way or another and have signed off on the
procedure. The idea that somehow this is a rogue operation
that someone has dreamed up is just absurd." Scheuer recalls
that when he organised such operations, the authority had to
come from director of central intelligence or his assistant
director. "So basically the number one and two men in the
intelligence community are the ones who sign off."
Scheuer says that with each rendition, he is convinced that
"these people deserved to be off the street". But mistakes
would happen, as they always did, and innocents might be
captured. "It is impossible not to have a mistake in the
business of espionage and intelligence," he says. "There was
never anything flip or blasé about the way this was
approached. It was a deadly serious business, and if we were
wrong, we were wrong. But the evidence pointed us toward what
Scheuer has few qualms about the danger that such men might
be tortured: "The bottom line is getting anyone off the
street who you're confident has been involved or is planning
to be involved in operations that could kill Americans is a
Even if he might be tortured? "It wouldn't be us torturing
them. And I also think that there is a lot of Hollywood
involved in our portrayal of torture in Egypt and in Saudi
Arabia. It's rather hypocritical to worry about what the
Egyptians do to people who are terrorists and not condemn the
Israelis for what they do to people they deem terrorists.
Human rights is a very flexible concept. It kind of depends
on how hypocritical you want to be on a particular day."
To be fair to Scheuer, he has concerns about rendition as a
long-term tactic. He believes that dictatorial regimes such
as Egypt and Jordan cause Islamic militancy, so it makes
little strategic sense to be working closely with them. "Any
kind of a detainee capture is a technical success, but in the
strategic sense we are losing, and one of the main reasons is
because of our support for dictatorships in the Muslim
But, he says, the US has little option about what to do with
these prisoners. Politicians do not want terrorists brought
back to US soil and dealt with in US courts. "We're in a lot
of positions around the world where we don't have a lot of
options, and sometimes you have to work with the devil." As
long as US policymakers did not decide how to deal with
prisoners under the US legal system, the CIA had no choice
but "do what you can with what you have".
Scheuer estimates that there have been about 100 CIA
renditions of Sunni terrorists. Others, including Robert
Baer, think the figure is much higher and that in the
post-9/11 world the US department of defence under Donald
Rumsfeld is now in the business of moving prisoners around
the world, while the US military has shifted hundreds of
prisoners to jails in the Middle East.
The US department of defence and the CIA declined to speak
about rendition and its justification. I did speak to a
vice-president of the American Enterprise Institute, a
think-tank linked to the Bush administration. Danielle Pletka
was a former senior staffer on the Senate foreign relations
committee. "I'm not a big fan of torture," she says. She does
not endorse Syria or the way Egypt runs its prisons or
security system."Unfortunately, there are times in war when
it is necessary to do things in a way that is absolutely and
completely abhorrent to most good, decent people. While I
don't want to say that the US has engaged routinely in such
practices, because I don't think that it is routine by any
standard . . . if it is absolutely imperative to find
something out at that moment, then it is imperative to find
something out at that moment, and Club Med is not the place
to do it."
What is the legality of these operations? Pletka says that,
as a non-lawyer, she cannot answer such questions. The United
Nations convention against torture, ratified by the US and
endorsed by President Bush, states that "no state shall
expel, return or extradite a person to another state where
there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be
in danger of being subjected to torture". Every year the US
state department condemns and details human rights abuse and
torture in countries such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Last year's report on Egypt described torture as "common and
So how can rendition be legal? No one at the justice
department would comment. The US legal justification is a
state secret. Official Washington's coyness about defending
rendition may have something to do with the increased threat
of being held to account in the courts. Apart from the danger
of lawsuits in US courts, there are judicial investigations
opening into alleged CIA abductions on European soil.
Germany has been a key base for the CIA jets. The flight logs
I have seen show frequent stops of the Gulfstream jet, and a
Boeing 737 jet used for rendition, at Frankfurt airport.
There is a judicial inquiry under way in Germany into the
case of Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen from Ulm who
claimed he was kidnapped in Skopje, Macedonia, on 31 December
2003. He was flown three weeks later to Afghanistan and a US
prison facility where, he has claimed, he was repeatedly
beaten before being released four months later and dumped on
a roadside in Albania.
At first his claims seemed unbelievable, but flight logs I
obtained from aviation sources show clear evidence that the
CIA's Boeing 737 transported him to Skopje on 23 January
2004. My documents show the plane flew in from Majorca and
then took Masri to Kabul via Baghdad. Such evidence could put
the CIA in a difficult position with its German counterparts,
who may be forced to treat the case as an illegal kidnap.
In Italy there is now a judicial investigation into the
kidnapping of a suspected al-Qaida activist in Milan. It is
claimed that US agents, without legal permission, kidnapped a
suspect from the streets of a close European ally. At noon on
16 February 2003 an Egyptian, Abu Omar, disappeared in
Milan's Via Guerzona during a 10-minute walk from his home to
a local mosque. An eyewitness said he was stopped on the
street by three white men, with a van drawn up on the
pavement. He had been under surveillance by Italian
authorities but they denied any role in his disappearance.
The claim is that he was seized by US agents, taken to the US
Aviano air base and flown to Egypt.
The deputy prosecutor of Milan, Armando Spataro, who is the
magistrate investigating the case, refuses to accuse the US
but is treating the case as involuntary kidnap and is certain
that Omar is now in Egypt. If the US was involved, would it
be a crime? "If it were true, it would be a serious breach of
Italian law. It would be absolutely illegal," he says.
(1) General Noriega, Panama's strongman and former CIA agent
linked to drug trafficking, was arrested on 3 January 1990,
then extradited to Florida during the US invasion of Panama.
In a trial in dubious circumstances, he was sentenced to 40
years imprisonment in July 1992.
Original text in English
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