Wednesday, June 30, 2004


Feedback to:

By William Fisher

Saudi Arabia has finally been compelled to hear the terrorists’ wake-up call. But the task it faces is far more daunting than that of the United States or any other Western country. The reason is that, for the Kingdom, defeating terrorism means reversing powerful and deeply ingrained jihadist ideas that Saudis learn from childhood onward. Moreover, these ideas find their way into school textbooks, into the largely government-controlled press, and into the everyday conversations of ‘the Arab Street’.

Long before the recent beheadings, the Kingdom had begun to take some baby steps toward curbing extreme Islamic fundamentalism. For example, it identified some 3,000 clerics it judged to be ‘extreme’, called for ‘moderation in all things’, removed or arrested some clerics, and sent others for ‘re-education’. Currently the Kingdom claims to be reorganizing its educational system. Yet it has only just begun. For example, it has not shut down the many Islamist websites that provide the Muslim clergy with the language of jihad that can be heard at Friday prayers throughout the Kingdom – and throughout the Arab Middle East.

One such website, known as Al Minbar (the pulpit) is visited weekly by thousands of Muslim clerics from all over the Middle East, to whom it provides ‘off-the-shelf’ sermons. These are a few examples of its texts.

“O young Muslim men! …Embark upon training… small numbers can overcome large numbers regardless of their force and power…Jihad is the language of power even if it means small stones and rocks…Use military arms which utilize state-of-the-art technology.”

Christianity is a “false faith…that deviates from the path of righteousness… (a) distorted and deformed religion….[Only] Islam is worthy of delivering the human race from its misery and despair. Only Islam is capable of bringing happiness to the human race.”

“How long are we going to be made forcibly subservient? When are we going to rise up against the evil of the enemy? …Who can believe that a small number of these ‘brothers of monkeys and pigs’ (Jews) are making the entire Muslim nation suffer?”

The Arab-Israeli peace process, one sermon concludes, “is nothing but a change to the Zionist plan to control the world and especially the Islamic regions.” It cautions against any dialog with the Israelis: “Negotiations are the introduction to submission…The last hour will not come until the Muslims fight against the Jews…”

These are only snippets of what is being said week after week by the fundamentalist clergy; the full texts make Pat Robertson sound like Teddy Kennedy. While there are more moderate voices to be heard in some Saudi mosques, those cited above still represent the norm.

Against this background, it undoubtedly took considerable courage for Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, to put forward his two-state Israel-Palestinian peace plan last year. And, last week, for the Saudi Government to ‘declare war’ on terrorism.

These and other modest reforms may be baby steps, but optimists see them as part of a process former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt Edward S. Walker, calls “The Quiet Revolution”. Writing in the Middle East Times, Walker -- now head of the Middle East Institute, and a former Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration -- said: “There is a quiet revolution going on in Saudi Arabia. No one knows its depth, its breadth, or its ultimate impact, but the reform effort is very real and probably unstoppable.”

The House of Saud, divided by disagreements among family members, now finds itself walking a dangerous tightrope. Will it find the political will to go full-bore after the terrorists and thus risk alienating a powerful fundamentalist clergy and its millions of followers? Given the gruesome events of the past month, the world can only hope that Ambassador Walker is right about the Kingdom’s ‘quiet revolution’. But time is certainly not on the side of the Saudis.


Feedback to:

By William Fisher

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, writing in the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal last May, called attention to “Omar, one of the new Iraqi ‘bloggers’."

For the cybernetically challenged, a blog is a kind of website originally known as a web log. It is a usually free, often interactive way for almost anyone to post his/her thoughts on the Internet and have others respond with their own thoughts and messages. Blogging has been around since 1997 and has grown exponentially ever since. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of web logs originating from virtually every country in the world, and being read and often contributed to by millions of other people from virtually every country in the world.
Wolfowitz quoted from an entry Omar posted to his blog after a suicide car bombing killed Iraqi Interim Governing Council President Izzedine Salim last May. Omar’s entry: “We cannot . . . protect every single person, including our leaders and the higher officials who make favorite targets for the terrorists -- but we can make their attempts go in vain by making our leadership replaceable.”

Omar happens to be gung-ho pro-Coalition. But his blog – entitled ‘Iraq The Model’ -- is only one of hundreds that have sprung up in Iraq since the US invasion -- and they are not all pro-Coalition. They are communist, monarchist, Kurdish, Assyrian, Islamist, Shia, Sunni, nationalist, and secularist. Their political positions range from full support for the US invasion and occupation to calls for jihad against the Americans. They discuss – in Arabic or often-broken English -- religion, women’s issues, job loss and unemployment, and – most often – their sense of insecurity about the safety of their families and the future of their country.

The beginning of the blogging craze in Iraq probably dates from September 2002, when a 29-year old Iraqi living in Baghdad and calling himself 'Salam Pax' started posting descriptions of daily life on the internet. Incisive and recklessly irreverent, Salam's weblog describes his passion for music and pop culture, and his fear of death by allied bombs and Saddam's secret police. In the build-up to the invasion, thousands of people visited Salam's website every day, attracted by his accounts of the slide into war and the end of a dictatorship.

Salam has also been a rich source of blog intelligence for his audience. For example, last March he wrote: “I recently stumbled across this very unusual blog (in Arabic) apparently run by an Iraqi called Fadhil. He regularly posts periodic official statements by the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party'.. .He…hails the daily explosions and bombings in Baghdad and throws the title of 'traitor' or 'agent' at every official currently employed in government positions including former Ba'athists, he praises the 'resistance' for assassinating them and he laments failed assassination attempts. …”

The ‘awe and shock’ arrival of the Coalition last March generated torrents of blog invective. For example, a blog called Riverbend, run by a 24-year-old woman computer programmer. wrote: “Occuption Day, April 9, 2003: Day faded into night… the longest day of my life. The day we sensed that the struggle in Baghdad was over and the fear of war was nothing compared to the new fear we were currently facing. It was the day I saw my first American tank roll grotesquely down the streets of Baghdad -- through a residential neighborhood. And that was April 9 for me and millions of others. There are thousands who weren't so lucky- they lost loved ones on April 9… to guns, and tanks and Apaches… and the current Governing Council want us to remember April 9 fondly and hail it our "National Day"… a day of victory… but whose victory?”

Salam Pax wrote of the invasion: “What annoyed me most in the whole build up to the war was the act the US administration put on, the way they seemed almost surprised at how much of a baddy Saddam has been…The various documents that were produced to show how much of a bully he has been…were treated as if they were so new and startling… What the US administration didn’t put in those records and documents was the extent of its own involvement in building up this monster and now that he has grown bigger than they thought he could they thought it was time to get rid of him…”

Another blog, “A family in Baghdad” writes of the perception of American culture: “I don't understand why anyone would want to have this so-called American freedom…(which) means …that you can move out at the age of 18 from your parents' home and you will never have to speak to them ever again if you don't want to…you can say and do whatever you want to anyone without many consequences…you have the right to have sex at the age of 12, get pregnant, have a baby; live with someone you are not married to...all legally…you can do drugs and get a slap on the wrist…you never have to work a day and have as many children as you want, because the government will pay for everything! …is this all the freedom Iraqis want? I pray to god it will never be! “

Later, many bloggers wrote about the Iraqi prisoner abuses. “Riverbend” summed it up. “People are seething with anger- the pictures of Abu Ghraib and the Brits in Basrah are everywhere. Every newspaper you pick up in Baghdad has pictures of some American or British atrocity or another…Everyone knew this was happening in Abu Ghraib and other places… seeing the pictures simply made it all more real and tangible somehow.. There are thousands of innocent people detained. Some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, while others were detained 'under suspicion'. In the New Iraq, it's "guilty until proven innocent by some miracle of God". . People would rather be dead than sexually abused and degraded by the animals running Abu Ghraib prison “.

Most Iraqi bloggers seem to share a common hatred of extreme Islamists. Sarmad Zangna wrote on June 27: “Today (I was on) a web site for ‘Al-Zarqawi’ and I was shocked by the images I saw. Those are our real enemy and we will take them down….”

For some Iraqis, blogging is a family affair. Faiza, the mother of a blogger known as “raed in the middle”, wrote: “Nobody understands the trend of the terrorist organizations which appeared these days…No Arab or Muslim approves of them…They are merely criminal organizations…”

“Road Of A Nation”, like many other Iraqi blogs, expresses outrage about the death and destruction that accompanied the occupation. One entry: “People… told me the story of an Iraqi man who was killed two days ago while driving at Al-Saidiia... he was surprised by the convoy, and found himself suddenly, accidentally, among them, so they shot him. He died instantly. The traffic stopped, all the Iraqis were silent, and the convoy went triumphantly on its way…Then I would get letters from some Americans, asking me why I do not like America??? And my answer would be: this is the ugly face of America, which I do not like…”

The June 28 handover of sovereignty triggered an outpouring of blogging. One blog, called “Hammorabi”, echoed sentiments expressed on many other web logs. “The Iraqi interim government was just sworn now while writing this! Good luck and cut the sources of the terrorists. The good thing is Paul Bremer directed his letter ending the occupation to the Head of the Justice in Iraq and not to the PM. The law is above every one!” Another, “Road Of A Nation”, wrote: “Great moments, great time, here in Iraq. The transfer of power to Iraq sovereignty has been completed 2 days in advance. This was great news for the Iraqis. From this moment we started to celebrate, and people all over here conciliation each other…”

The benefits of Iraq’s newfound technology are trumpeted on many weblogs. On “Road of a Nation”, a link posted by Sarmad Zangna said: “I (knew) a lot of people with different opinions (but) they didn’t speak about what’s happening… some of them (were) thinking that things never will be good, others were afraid to speak, others were supporting ‘Saddam’, others with USA, and I was trying to run a conversation with all sides, trying to let them share together what they think about, how they can cooperate with each other…But I am so happy now after one year to see those people beginning to understand things better.”

Regardless of the outcome of the Iraq situation, it seems clear that blogging will continue to provide a powerful vehicle to allow Iraqis to express themselves. As one blogger put it, “You will be surprised of the number of bright and intelligent young people in Iraq who are willing to start their own blogs and express their ideas and opinions freely, especially that they have nothing to fear from doing so any more…”

About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other areas for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration


Saturday, June 19, 2004


Feedback to:

By William Fisher

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan famously exclaimed back in 1987.

Thankfully, that wall came down.

But today, another kind of wall is rising inside the former ‘evil empire’. It is a wall constructed by Vladimir Putin to separate the Russian people from their basic human rights. Over the past few years, Mr. Putin has been taking his country backward to a time reminiscent of the Czars. His increasingly authoritarian rule – known as ‘managed democracy’ -- has resulted in limitations on press and religious freedom, selective prosecutions, and a new wave of what Human Rights Watch calls ‘spy-mania’.

Current examples:

This week, a Moscow court upheld a ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses. The ruling arose from a Russian law that allows courts to ban religious groups that are considered to be inciting hatred or intolerant behavior. A Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman said the decision will prevent the group from renting space for worship, holding bank accounts or otherwise supporting its religious activities. "Religious freedom has just turned back to where it was in Soviet times," said the organization's lawyer. There are about 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow and 133,000 nationwide, according to the group. Russia's 1997 religion law enshrines Orthodox Christianity as the country's predominant religion and pledges respect for Buddhism, Islam and Judaism -- called traditional religions -- but places restrictions on other groups.

Also this week, the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos oil company and reportedly Russia’s wealthiest man, opened in Moscow. With another shareholder, he faces charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement and a 10-year prison sentence. Many believe Khodorkovsky is an oligarch who pilfered the country to create his oil company, and welcome the case as a display of President Putin’s resolve to tackle economic crime. Others see Khodorkovsky as one of the rare Russian entrepreneurs to establish a transparent and socially responsible business, and are convinced that his case is a politically motivated show trial.

Show trial or not, if it’s anything like most trials in Russia, it is unlikely to showcase the judiciary’s independence. More likely, defense arguments will be downplayed, most of its motions overturned, and the outcome will have little to do with the hearing and a lot with executive will.

Press freedom has also been a victim of President Putin’s ‘managed democracy’. Under different pretexts, all of Russia’s nationwide television channels—ORT, NTV, TV6 and TVS were either shut down or effectively taken over by the state. After the newly compliant media played its part in the run-ups to parliamentary and presidential elections, Russian authorities moved forward in taming the press and disposing of intractable journalists. A heavy blow was the sacking of NTV’s most famous show host Leonid Parfenov and the cancellation of his popular analytical program. Parfenov was fired for making public an overt act of censorship — his NTV bosses, at the request of the security services, ordered him not to broadcast an interview with the widow of a Chechen separatist killed in Qatar.

Russian non-governmental organizations and human rights groups have also been frequent targets. In his last state-of-the-union address in May President Putin launched an attack on human rights groups, accusing them of “receiving financing from influential foreign foundations and serving dubious groups and commercial interests,” and of forgetting “about some of the most acute problems of the country and citizens.”

Just days after the address, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused humanitarian organizations in Chechnya of using their missions as a cover for anti-Russian activities. One of the central TV channels, TVC, devoted an hour-long primetime program to denouncing the work of human rights groups, accusing them of what the presenter called their “hatred” for Russia. Along the same lines, a Kremlin political adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, rebuked rights activists for being "engrossed" in Western ideals. Masked intruders ransacked and smashed the office of the Human Rights Center in the city of Kazan in central Russia. According to the center’s leader, the intruders were citing the President’s state-of-the-nation address.

Nor has freedom of assembly gone unchallenged. Over the last two months police and security guards have violently dispersed at least three public rallies. For example, on June 2, police broke up a rally organized by the political party, Yabloko, and Communist Party members, to protest new laws on referendums and rallies, and arrested three Yabloko activists.

Spy-mania has become the latest source of abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia’s security service has tried to reassert its dominion over certain spheres of sensitive information. In doing so, it has, among other things, pressed dubious espionage charges against about a dozen scientists, journalists, and environmentalists—a phenomenon dubbed “spy mania” by rights activists.” Academics have been accused of working with foreign contacts on issues that, in Soviet times, were under the security service’s exclusive control, such as nuclear waste dumping, environmental degradation, and military technology.

The case of arms researcher Igor Sutyagin is an example. As of April 2004, Sutyagin had spent over four years in detention while his case was investigated and tried. That month, after a trial marred by violations of fair trial standards, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the longest prison term for high treason since Soviet times. The case served as a clear warning to other academics, journalists and other specialists doing research on sensitive issues.

Nor have Russia’s worst ingrained human rights problems improved under “managed democracy.” Police torture, coerced confessions and convictions on trumped-up charges remain rampant. The conscript army is corroded by violent hazing, ill-treatment, poor nutrition and lack of medical care. And xenophobia, extremism and discrimination against ethnic minorities are growing at an alarming rate.

Putin’s team presents all these developments as a reasonable price to pay for restoring order and stability. But the Russian people deserve better – an independent media, an end to selective prosecutions, accountability for abuse, and transparency in governance.

Moreover, Russia’s backsliding from democracy in domestic affairs will ultimately affect its foreign policy. So Russia’s partners need to send an unequivocal signal that they will not be “managed” by the Kremlin.


Feedback to:

By William Fisher

The ‘good news’ from Iraq – which George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld accuse the Western media of not reporting – is usually about schools opened, hospitals and clinics running, oil flowing, and suchlike. But there is little discussion of what is arguably a far more significant development: the emergence of a censor-free, vigorous and lively press.

Before the US-led invasion, Iraq had four daily newspapers, and a few state-run TV and radio outlets, all owned or tightly controlled by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday. Today there are about 100 often highly politicized newspapers and magazines, and a number of independent radio and international satellite TV stations. Print media ranges from slick-looking and professionally produced to amateurish and rudimentary. And political views cover every conceivable position from full support for the US invasion and occupation to calls for jihad against the Americans.

The widely respected Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has collected recent editorials from the Iraqi press. These illustrate the diverse points of view of the new media. For example:

Al-'Adala (published by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq) asks, "When will the Iraqis get the chance to realize their security?" The paper maintains that the American Civil Administration "is dealing with the situation in Iraq as if it is dealing with a 'Banana Republic.' It postpones what does not serve its interests and promotes what does." The paper says one of Paul Bremer's highest priorities since his arrival in Baghdad has been "to sign contracts with American companies that contribute to President Bush's re-election fund…”

An editorial in the weekly Al-Muwatin Al-Hur ("The Free Citizen,"), official organ of the Free Iraqi Society, urges Iraqis to serve their country and contribute to its reconstruction, stating that Iraqis should… participate actively and voluntarily in the country's re-construction… and not become a spectator expecting foreigners or even friends to support our country financially and morally…"

According to the independent Al-Yawm Al-Aakher there has been a proliferation of Western and Asian prostitution rings in Iraq, especially women who are infected with AIDS. The paper reports, "This is exactly what young Israeli women have done in the past in Sharm Al-Sheikh, Egypt. Young men of Iraq, beware."

Commenting on the security situation, the independent weekly Nidaa Al-Umma asks, "Where do we start? It is a question that we have to face ourselves if we want to come up with solutions…" One of the main causes of instability is the problem of unemployment and declining standards of living. If these problems are not resolved, the security problem will persist…"

The Iraqi daily Al-Shira', an independent daily, says that "the main covert battle in Iraq now, in which domestic and regional elements are taking part, aims at undermining the unofficial vital alliance that exists between the Americans and the Shi'ite leadership, and to turn the overt and covert cooperation between them into an armed confrontation which will lead to the eruption of widespread Shi'ite resistance in Iraq…"

On the significance of the new transitional Iraqi government, the daily Al-Manar (independent) says "the new government represents all political and religious affiliations and will operate until the anticipated general elections, when our nation will express its will…although the government is new… it has the capacity and competence to realize the aspirations of the Iraqi masses in this new era of democracy, freedom, justice, and equality in all walks of life…"

Addustour, an independent daily, writes: “The announcement issued by the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warning about the resolution to be issued by the Security Council is an intelligent step, for he paid heed to a mean attempt to pass an unfair plan which aims…to partition Iraq…The Security Council is determining our destiny according to their own way.”

Al-Taakhi, a daily published by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, writes, “The people of Iraq need to understand the Kurdish call for getting a constitutional guarantee, and one which is necessary for the Arabs as well…Successive Iraqi governments did not keep their promises to the Kurds, in addition to the explicit call made by Shia religious circles rejecting any guarantee for the Kurds…If there were the least amount of trust and reliability in Iraqi society, the Kurds would not have needed an international guarantee.”

Al-Mashriq, a daily published by the Al-Mashriq Institution for Media and Cultural Investments, writes, “We now have two dissolved bodies: the Ba’ath party and the Governing Council. And it seems both will be equal regarding what is going on in Iraq. The proof lies in the Governing Councilors, who were excluded from the new government and who attacked it with accusations of illegitimacy due to being appointed by the Americans…What is the difference then between the GC and the government? In their view the two are the same. The GC and the government both are foreign-made.”

Addaaw, a daily issued by the Islamic Dawa Party, chaired by Ibrahim al-Jafari, a member of the former Governing Council, editorializes, “Despite our reservations regarding the way the new government was formed, this does not prevent us from dealing with it…We do not want to pass early judgments on it. Rather, we will keep observing and criticizing its performance. We also have the same demands which were declared by the supreme religious authority in Najaf…”

Al-Bayan, a tri-weekly, is also published by the Islamic Dawa Party. It writes, “The UN Security Council resolution has many positive points such as emphasizing Iraqi sovereignty, control of revenues, and a schedule for the withdrawal of multi-national forces... As to legitimacy, whether political, economic, or otherwise, it is that of the people of Iraq alone. Iraqis' call for help from national organizations and other friends is not a concession of their right to legitimacy…”

The London-based Azzaman, a daily published by Saad al-Bazaz, writes, “The new government deserves people's trust…The behavior of the president and prime minister indicates they have no love of power. The heavy duty they shoulder requires people's support to pass through this sensitive period. We have to distinguish between the Governing Council and the government. Azzaman and others have always called for correcting the mistake on which GC had been built. Azzaman believes the government is not an extension of the GC. Hence, it needs support to exploit the precious chance for Iraq to stand up.”

Al-Mutamar, the daily of the Iraqi National Congress, reports that “former Governing Council member and head of the Iraqi delegation to the Arab Women's Forum, Rajaa al-Kuzai, visited Abu Ghraib prison after the scandal of the abuse of the detainees there. She found only five women who spoke well of the treatment there and who said they had not been abused in contrast with what the former regime practiced against women detained there…”

Al-Sabah al-Jadeed, an independent daily, writes, “Weapons are still being handed over for money in Najaf. Thousands of people are reported to be coming daily to the weapons delivery centers, bringing different types of armaments, and waiting for hours in long queues. Al-Sabah witnessed some people with heavy guns and weapons being carried in their cars. Some smugglers buy the weapons from the people and sell them to the US forces. A police officer said they had delivered tens of mortars and more than 500 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, along with many quantities of ammunition, grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles.”

Political cartoonists also have enjoyed relatively unfettered freedom of expression. For example, a cartoon in Asharq al-Awsat, shows a man personifying "the Iraqi government" being undercut by two saws: "occupation" and "resistance". The cartoon suggests that while the resistance is trying to destroy the government, the occupation is trying to destroy the resistance, and is thus destroying the government indirectly. After all, the occupation saw is the one cutting the larger circle. In another cartoon, in Al-Mada, a swimmer, identified as Iraq, has broken free of the Ba’ath, but is still held back by terrorism.

Iraqis have also opened many Internet cafes, online chat rooms, and web logs. There is lively dialogue not only within Iraq, but also between Iraqis in Iraq and Arabs elsewhere, and between Iraq and the Iraqi Diaspora in many parts of the world.

As part of its fight to win ‘hearts and minds’, soon after the fall of the Hussein regime, the Coalition set up a media group of its own, the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), including the daily paper Al-Sabah and the radio and TV station Al-Iraqiya. These media outlets are not generally believed by Iraqis to be independent.

The Coalition Provisional Authority has been accused by some of acting with a heavy hand on press freedom. For example, it banned Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, among the most popular TV stations in Iraq and the region, for allegedly encouraging "political violence." (At the same time, CPA spokesmen regularly appeared as interviewees on these channels in their effort to reach Arab audiences inside and outside Iraq.) US forces closed the newspaper of the Iraqi Turkmen Front for inciting violence against Americans, and the offices of firebrand Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper, Al-Hawza, for publishing articles containing false information and seeking to “disturb public order and incite violence.” Many Iraqi newspapers criticized the closures. Al-Hawza is reportedly being published and circulated ‘underground’.

The bad news is that many of these newspapers, magazines and other new Iraqi media are in poor financial condition, and their prospects for survival are far from encouraging. As sovereignty returns, there is bound to be a shakeout among the media, if for no reason other than financial.

Nonetheless, the astonishingly rapid proliferation of media outlets reflects Iraqis’ strong convictions about the future of their country and their deep hunger for uncensored information. That should be encouraging to Messrs. Bush, Rumsfeld, and Blair.

Friday, June 11, 2004


Feedback to:

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?