Friday, June 26, 2009


By William Fisher

Human rights groups are asking United Nations officials to investigate the case of an Italian citizen and victim of the "extraordinary rendition" program of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency who is currently being held in a Moroccan prison based on a confession coerced from him through torture.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Geneva-based Alkarama for Human Rights have requested that two U.N. Special Rapporteurs investigate the circumstances of Abou Elkassim Britel's forced disappearance, rendition, detention and torture, and raise his case with the governments of the United States, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy.

The requests were made to the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Torture and the on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism.
"Victims of the 'extraordinary rendition' program detained at Guantánamo and other prisons around the world are being ignored by the U.S. government, whose unlawful program landed them there in the first place," Steven Watt, staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program, told us.

He said, "The U.S. has failed to take responsibility for its most egregious actions, leaving Mr. Britel and countless other victims of the 'extraordinary rendition' program with no choice but to turn to the international community for justice."

Britel, who is also a plaintiff in the ACLU's lawsuit against Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen DataPlan for its role in the rendition program, is one of the few victims of the program whose identity is known, and who is still detained outside of Guantánamo Bay.

Britel was initially apprehended and detained in Pakistan by Pakistani authorities on alleged immigration violations in February 2002. After a period of detention and interrogation there, he was handed over to U.S. officials.

The ACLU charges that in May 2002, U.S. officials stripped and beat Britel before dressing him in a diaper and overalls, shackling and blindfolding him and flying him to Morocco for detention and interrogation. Once in Morocco, they say U.S. officials handed him over to Moroccan intelligence officials who detained him incommunicado at the Temara detention center, where he was interrogated, beaten, deprived of sleep and food and threatened with sexual torture.

Britel was released from custody by Moroccan authorities in February 2003, but was again arrested and detained in May 2003 as he attempted to leave Morocco for his home in Italy. While detained incommunicado in the same detention facility where he had been tortured months earlier, Britel falsely confessed under torture to his involvement in terrorism. He was later tried and convicted by a Moroccan court on terrorism-related charges and is currently serving a nine-year sentence in a Moroccan prison.

In 2006, an Italian investigating judge dismissed a six-year long investigation into Britel's alleged involvement in terrorism after the judge found a complete lack of evidence linking him with any terrorist-related or criminal activity.

In a related development, the U.N.'s top human rights advocate, Navanethem Pillay, this week called on the Obama administration to release Guantanamo Bay inmates or try them in a court of law.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said that officials who authorized the use of torture must be held accountable for their crimes. She called for a probe into officials who participated in torture sessions or provided its legal justification.

The South African lawyer was also critical of President Obama's decision to hold some suspected terrorists in detention indefinitely without trial.

"People who order or inflict torture cannot be exonerated, and the roles of certain lawyers, as well as doctors who have attended torture sessions, should also be scrutinized," she said.

While praising the Obama administration for banning many of the harshest interrogation techniques, she said it needed to go further, providing victims of U.S. abuses with an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

"I believe we are finally starting to turn the page on this extremely
unfortunate chapter of recent history, with counter-terrorism measures starting to move back in to line with international human rights standards," Pillay said.

"But there is still much to do before the Guantanamo chapter is truly brought to a close."

Pillay’s remarks challenged Obama's decision to limit investigation into past abuses and to continue to hold some detainees who have not been charged with a crime. In May, Obama said some detainees deemed too dangerous to release might have to be held indefinitely.

"There should be no half-measures, or new creative ways to treat people as criminals when they have not been found guilty of any crime," Pillay said.

"Guantanamo showed that torture and unlawful forms of detention can all too easily creep back in to practice during times of stress, and there is still a long way to go before the moral high ground lost since 9/11 can be fully reclaimed."

But Pillay did not address the Obama administration's decision to use reformed military commissions to try suspected terrorists. Human rights groups have criticized the commissions, particularly that terror suspects could be convicted and executed based on evidence obtained by torture.

Pillay said that detainees who are not prosecuted and potentially face torture if they are sent back to their own countries "must be given a new home, where they can start to build a new life, in the United States or elsewhere. I welcome the fact that in recent weeks a number of countries have agreed to take in a few people in this position, and urge others to follow suit, including first and foremost the United States itself."

Earlier this month, the first Guantanamo detainee, Ahmed Ghailani, was flown to the United States to face death-pentalty charges for his alleged role in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. He is in custody in New York City.

But huge majorities of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have resisted allowing any more of the remaining 229 detainees at Guantanamo into the United States. Republicans, in particular, have said they do not want GITMO detainees “wandering around in their neighborhgoods.”

As a result, the Senate voted 90 to 6 in May to withhold funding for the closure of Guantanamo until the Obama Administration submits a plan for doing so.

Pillay was also highly critical of the administration of George W. Bush. She charged that the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies had undermined international efforts to end torture. "The terrorist acts that shook the world on 11 September 2001 had a devastating impact on the fight to eliminate torture," she wrote. "Some states that had previously been careful not to practice or condone torture became less scrupulous."

Pillay called for "leadership” to end “this grotesque practice." She welcomed Obama's decision to close Guantanamo by next January and to ban waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques.

"Equally importantly, victims of torture must be helped to recover from one of the worst ordeals that a human being can face. The physical and mental scars of torture are excruciating, the effect on families devastating, and there are often long-term socio-economic effects, including a stigma that can be extremely hard to erase. Victims of torture must be compensated and cared for -- for as long as it takes to enable them once again to lead a relatively normal life," she said.


By William Fisher

An investigation by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has revealed that former detainees at the U.S. Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were beaten, deprived of sleep, and threatened with dogs.

The BBC’s conclusions are based on interviews with 27 former detainees who were held at Bagram between 2002 and 2006. None of these men were ever charged with a crime. Hundreds of detainees are still being held in U.S. custody at the Afghan prison without charge or trial.

Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, told us, "The BBC investigation provides further confirmation of the United States' mistreatment of prisoners at Bagram. These abuses are the direct consequence of decisions made at the highest levels of the U.S. government to avoid the Geneva Convention and forsake the rule of law. For too long, the unlawful detention and mistreatment of prisoners at Bagram has gone on outside the public eye. Hopefully, this investigation will help change that."

"When prisoners are in American custody and under American control, no matter the location, our values and commitment to the rule of law are at stake," he said, adding:

"Torture and abuse at Bagram is further evidence that prisoner abuse in U.S. custody was systemic, not aberrational, and originated at the highest levels of government. We must learn the truth about what went wrong, hold the proper people accountable and make sure these failed policies are not continued or repeated."

In April, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records pertaining to the detention and treatment of prisoners held at Bagram, including the number of people currently detained, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention. The ACLU is also seeking records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as "enemy combatants."

"The U.S. government's detention of hundreds of prisoners at Bagram has been shrouded in complete secrecy," said Melissa Goodman, an ACLU staff attorney. "The American people have a right to know what's happening at Bagram and whether prisoners have been tortured there."

Amnesty International said it was 'shocked' by the Bagram claims. It noted that a new detention center is currently under construction at the camp.

Another prominent human rights organization, the U.K.-based Reprieve, called on the British Government to take action concerning two Pakistanis who it says the U.K. helped render there from Iraq.

“The legal black hole in Bagram underlines the British government’s moral black hole when it comes to rendering two Pakistani prisoners there in 2004,” said Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve. “These men were in British custody in Iraq, were turned over to the U.S., and have now been held for five years without any respect for their legal rights.”

In February 2009, British Defense Secretary John Hutton announced to the House of Commons that Britain had handed two anonymous Pakistani men over to the U.S., and they had subsequently been rendered to Afghanistan, where they were still being held. “We have been assured that are held in a humane, safe and secure environment, meeting international standards consistent with cultural and religious norms,” Hutton said at the time.

“As we have said all along, beating people and holding them incommunicado is not humane, safe and secure,” Stafford Smith told us. “Britain has a moral duty to identify these men, so that we can reunite them with their legal rights, yet Mr. Hutton refuses to do this.”

No prisoner in Bagram has been allowed to see a lawyer, or challenge his detention. According to the BBC, the U.S. justice department argues that because Afghanistan is an active combat zone it is not possible to conduct rigorous inquiries into individual cases and that it would divert precious military resources at a crucial time.

“These men were never in Afghanistan until the UK and the US took them there,” said Stafford Smith. “It is the height of hypocrisy to take someone to Bagram and then claim that it is too dangerous to let them see a lawyer. Even Guantánamo Bay is better than this.”

The Pentagon has denied the BBC’s charges of harsh treatment and insisted that all inmates in the facility are treated humanely.

The Bagram Airbase built by the Soviet military in the 1980s. The approximately 600 people held there are classified as "unlawful enemy combatants.' None was charged with any offence or put on trial -- some even received apologies when they were released.

Many allegations of ill-treatment appear repeatedly in the BBC interviews: physical abuse, the use of stress positions, excessive heat or cold, unbearably loud noise, being forced to remove clothes in front of female soldiers.

In four cases detainees were threatened with death at gunpoint.

"They did things that you would not do against animals let alone to humans," said one inmate.

"They poured cold water on you in winter and hot water in summer. They used dogs against us. They put a pistol or a gun to your head and threatened you with death," he said.

"They put some kind of medicine in the juice or water to make you sleepless and then they would interrogate you."

The BBC said its findings were shown to the Pentagon. Lt Col Mark Wright, a spokesman for the US Secretary of Defense, insisted that conditions at Bagram "meet international standards for care and custody". He said the US Defense Department has a policy of treating detainees humanely.

But he acknowledged that "There have been well-documented instances where that policy was not followed, and service members have been held accountable for their actions in those cases."

Since coming to office, US President Barack Obama has banned the use of torture and ordered a review of policy on detainees, which is expected to report next month. But unlike its detainees at the US naval facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the prisoners at Bagram have no access to lawyers and they cannot challenge their detention.