[Ppnews] United States: trade in torture

PPnews at freedomarchives.org PPnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Apr 13 19:55:14 EDT 2005

    Le Monde diplomatique


    April 2005


                    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
      we did."

      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
      worthwhile activity."

      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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