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By William Fisher
Despite the more than two dozen current investigations into the US torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, an even more chilling practice is being virtually ignored by both Congress and the US mainstream media – even though it was uncovered and made public almost two years ago.
This practice is called ‘extreme rendering’. What that means is that the CIA or some other US intelligence service purposefully sends or takes a suspect to country known to inflict torture on detainees. That allows the US intelligence service to skirt any troublesome due process considerations, keeps its hands appearing clean, and provides it with ‘plausible deniability’. It is seen by some as a means of ‘outsourcing’ the interrogation process.
An anonymous US official told the Washington Post in December 2002, “We don’t kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them.” But since the Post reported the story 18 months ago, mainstream media outlets in the US have barely even mentioned it. One exception is Newsweek, which devoted a paragraph to the practice as part of a longer investigation of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. The Newsweek story was based on classified testimony to Congress by CIA Director George Tenet.
Before and after 9/11, seizure and deportation by US agents of terrorist suspects to third countries with track records of torture has become increasingly common. Its basis is a secret presidential "finding" authorizing the CIA to place suspects in foreign hands without due process. According to Human Rights Watch, suspects have been ‘rendered’ to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Morocco. These countries are cited in successive US State Department annual Human Rights Reports as states suspected of torturing prisoners.
Now Sweden, long a champion of human rights, has become complicit in helping the CIA facilitate two such ‘extreme renditions’. That’s how Ahmed Agiza, 39, and Muhammad Al Zery, 33, found themselves back in Egypt, a country with a long history of torture and death in detention, from which they had fled seeking political asylum in Sweden. And, according to Human Rights Watch, US intelligence played a central role.
According to a Swedish TV4 documentary, Agiza and Al Zery were seized by Swedish state security forces in December 2001. The men were then handed over to US agents at Bromma airport near Stockholm. Sweden’s TV4 said the plane was a Gulfstream ‘executive jet’, later identified by its tail number as being under exclusive lease to the US government.
In a room at the airport, a group of men from the newly arrived plane, in plain clothes, were waiting. They wore balaclavas to hide their faces. They cut the clothes from the two detainees with a scissors, without their handcuffs and foot shackles being loosened. The naked and chained prisoners then had a suppository inserted into their anus, and diapers put on them. They were then forcibly dressed in dark overalls, their hands and feet chained to a specially designed harness in the aircraft. On the plane, both men were blindfolded and hooded. The plane took off for Egypt, where they were handed over to Egyptian state security.
Egyptian authorities held the men incommunicado for five weeks. When Swedish diplomats eventually began visiting the men, they were never allowed to meet with them in private — at some visits as many as ten prison officials were present.
Al Zery was released without charge after ten months in prison. Agiza, who had been previously convicted in absentia for terror-related activities, was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment by a military tribunal. Although Agiza testified in his second military court proceeding that he had been tortured in prison, the court permitted him to be examined only by a prison doctor. The doctor’s report confirmed that Agiza had sustained physical injuries while in prison, but the court denied the defense’s request for a forensic examination to establish their cause, and failed to approve an investigation into the torture allegations.
The Swedish government has confirmed the US involvement, but says the ‘rendition’ was made only after Sweden received ‘diplomatic assurances’ from Egypt that the men would not be tortured and would receive a fair trial. The Swedes are conducting an investigation into the affair. Human Rights Watch, which monitored the Agiza trial, has called for a United Nations investigation into the case. Said HRW’s Rachel Denber, “Governments have to find a way to tackle terrorism in a manner that doesn’t …expose people to a risk of torture…The Swedish government never should have returned Agiza to a country where torture is routine and where suspected militants simply don’t get fair trials.”
US officials who defend the rendition practice say prisoners are sent to third countries not because of their coercive questioning techniques, but because of their cultural affinity with the captives. Besides being illegal, they said, torture produces unreliable information from people who are desperate to stop the pain. They look to foreign allies more because their intelligence services can develop a culture of intimacy that Americans cannot. They may use interrogators who speak the captive's Arabic dialect and often use the prospects of shame and the reputation of the captive's family to goad the captive into talking. In view of what we now know about Abu Ghraib and other US detention facilities, most knowledgeable observers are highly skeptical.
How widespread is the practice? According to Newsweek, “By 2004, the United States was running a covert charter airline moving CIA prisoners from one secret facility to another, sources say. The reason? It was judged impolitic (and too traceable) to use the US Air Force.” Human Rights Watch says, “thousands have been arrested and held with US assistance in countries known for brutal treatment of prisoners.” About 625 are at the US military's confinement facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some officials estimate that approximately 100 US captives have been ‘rendered’ to third countries. Director Tenet told the Washington Post the number was 70.
For example, US operatives led the capture and transfer to Syria of an al Qaeda suspect with dual German-Syrian citizenship. Syria has for years been near the top of US lists of human rights violators and sponsors of terrorism. The German government strongly protested the move. Another suspect was seized by US agents in Jakarta, handed over to Egyptian security forces, and flown to Egypt in chains. His current fate is unknown. And a Canadian citizen was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as a suspected terrorist, secretly deported under US guard to Syria, and subjected to ten months of torture in a Syrian prison. US officials said he was deported because he had been put on a terrorist watch list after information from "multiple international intelligence agencies" linked him to terrorist groups. He was released without charge.
Extraordinary rendition was a product of the Clinton administration following the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But it claims to have pressed foreign intelligence services to respect lawful boundaries in interrogations. The Bush administration maintains a legal distance from any mistreatment that occurs overseas, officials say, by denying that torture is the intended result of its rendition policy. American teams, officials said, do no more than assist in the transfer of suspects who are wanted on criminal charges by friendly countries. But five officials told the Washington Post, as one of them put it, "that sometimes a friendly country can be invited to 'want' someone we grab." Then, other officials said, the foreign government will charge him with a crime of some sort.
At a joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees, Cofer Black, then head of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, spoke cryptically about the agency's new forms of "operational flexibility" in dealing with suspected terrorists. "This is a very highly classified area, but I have to say that all you need to know: There was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11," Black said. "After 9/11 the gloves come off."
There is ample evidence that Abu-Ghraib-type prisoner abuses were known or suspected by many in Congress and some in the US media long before the photos made the story real. The same is true of ‘extreme rendition’. The intelligence committees of Congress need to conduct an independent investigation of US prisoner treatment, and it needs to include extreme rendition. Or will Congress really require another set of photos?