Shadows Whose Fate Can Only Be Guessed At
Shadows Whose Fate Can Only Be Guessed At
The frenzied US-led hunt for al-Qaida has led to people being put through `rendition' - the secret and usually illegal transfer of suspects across national borders to face often extreme questioning without legal process. Despite the furore over the rendition system, it is still in operation
Reza Afsherzadegan looked up at US warplanes on the hunt for al-Qaida. He and other refugees were waiting on the border for a guide to take them from
Reza, 25, a computer student from
In an investigation this year, I found that while the
Reza told me he had woken up at the border one morning to the sound of gunfire and explosions nearby, as if they were coming under direct attack. Everyone split up and ran towards the Kenyan border: "I was the last person left. I just got up and ran. I left my passport. I left my food rations that they gave us. Everything. I just ran and ran and, all the time, it sounded like the guns were getting close to us."
Reza found himself lost in the jungle with 30 people, mostly strangers, who stuck together as they walked through the bush in search of help, steering only by the sun. "We only had two cans of tuna, a bag of sugar and a bag of biscuits. That's it" (1). They drank from rainwater puddles. One day they trapped and caught a small deer, eating it almost raw. By the 13th day many were close to collapse and likely to be abandoned. "I think some people maybe started losing belief that they were going to make it." As they lay resting in the midday sun, someone heard a cock crow, indicating there was a village behind trees. At first the villagers were welcoming, took them to a mosque and gave them honey. But soon they were handed over to Kenyan soldiers who kicked and pushed them. "A bunch of them were telling us `you're al-Qaida; we finally caught you!' " Taken to the nearby town of
Held in crowded communal cells, with buckets as toilets, Reza was asked constantly if he had been to
Questioned by MI5
Although requests to see the British Embassy were constantly refused, eventually the Kenyans took Reza and the others to a
After a month Reza, who was held with three other Britons who fled the Somali conflict, had hopes of being deported straight back to
Reza was lucky. He and his fellow Britons were picked up in
When I first heard of the capture of these refugees from
At his headquarters in a
Alamin's Forum was in contact with the families of those arrested. They included Kenyan citizens that the Kenyan government had now sent back to Somalia, and it was clear that most if not all the prisoners had been sent on from Somalia to Ethiopia in a coordinated rendition operation. These prisoners were being transferred to Addis Ababa for interrogation, led by a team of Americans.
Alamin later told me that one of the women transferred to Ethiopia had just been released and sent back to her family's home in Tanzania. So I travelled with him to the town of Moshi by Mount Kilimanjaro, to hear her story. Fatma Chande, aged 25, revealed that she had been questioned by US agents once they had touched down in Ethiopia. Most prisoners were told that the Americans had orchestrated the arrest and rendition operation. "The Kenyans told me originally that it is the Americans who wanted my husband, it's the Americans who were interested in us. The police tried to force me to admit my husband was a member of al-Qaida. I told them he was a businessman. He was nothing to do with al-Qaida. They kept banging on the table. They threatened to strangle me if I didn't tell them the truth."
Fatma said the children suffered worst. "When we arrived at the airport, we were handcuffed and our headscarves were pulled down over our eyes. The men were hooded. The children were crying all the time saying `we want to go home, we want to go home'."
In Ethiopia, FBI agents took her fingerprints and a DNA sample. Other women were interrogated more than she was. "They told me that they were being quizzed about their husbands - the Americans wanted to know what their husbands did, and their connections to al-Qaida". Fatma said that not only were children held in jail but that at least one woman had gone into labour inside the prison and then "she was brought back to the cells with the baby". The baby was called Twalha. By now Ethiopia was acknowledging it was holding 41 "suspected international terrorists" in detention, leaving about 40 of those transported to Somalia unaccounted for, including the children. It denied prisoners were being held in secret detention but admitted that neither the Red Cross nor lawyers were being allowed to see the prisoners.
`Terrorists with their wives and children'
I tried to question officials in Addis Ababa and got to see the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, who has been sole ruler of the country since 1991. He was unabashed and acknowledged and defended the jailing of women and children. "You have to understand the type of enemy we were fighting in Mogadishu and in Somalia. You have international terrorists with their wives and children sheltering in Somalia. You find the wife, you don't find the husband, and the wife is fleeing the battlefield; you don't know whether the wife is just a wife or a comrade and a colleague in the art of terrorism. You catch her. You detain her."
Ethiopia says it has now released most of the prisoners, including all of the women and children. But many remain missing. Zenawi confirmed that Ethiopia had worked closely with the US but denied the operation was orchestrated by Washington. He said any intelligence agency with access to the prisoners got to interrogate them. "Not just the Americans. Anybody who knows about these individuals and wants to ask questions."
It was clear that the interrogations had been led by the Americans. Every day prisoners were taken from the jail to a separate villa where the questioning took place. When they had appeared on Ethiopian television, some prisoners had announced they were well treated, but it emerged they had been told to make this statement ahead of a promised immediate release. Instead, they were returned to jail and further interrogations. One of them was a Tunisian named Adnan whose wife was also held; she gave birth to a baby on the day of their release. In a video statement he sent to me from Cairo, he described an American who used to beat up prisoners. Adnan was threatened with being sent back to Tunisia to be tortured. "They were trying to force me to confess to things. When I refused, I was taken to another room, they tied my hands behind my back and blindfolded me. I had to stand there barefoot for six hours. One said: `You are a criminal, you are a murderer. You'll be tried. Then you'll be executed.' "
All these stories show how, after the scandals of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and rendition, the war on terror and US treatment of prisoners is evolving. In Washington, the Democrats now control Congress, the CIA's secret rendition programme is no longer a secret and the US administration has been made to swear repeatedly it has nothing to do with torture or ill-treatment of prisoners. So things are being handled differently. Under a policy of host nation detention, the USemphasis has been on keeping its hands off prisoners and its role deniable.
A convenient and secret place
Yet the fundamentals remain the same: prisoners moved in great numbers across borders without legal process for an interrogation led by Americans. Western diplomats in Nairobi said the events were choreographed. "You can assume the Americans were involved at all stages," said one. "Moving prisoners to Ethiopia provided a convenient and secret place for the US to send its interrogators."
There are no longer secret CIA jails within European territory, nor will European air space be used widely for rendition operations. But the policy of rendition exists because politically the US is uncomfortable with the idea of proving the guilt or innocence of terror suspects in a court of law. Until there is a political shift, it has no alternative but to continue with rendition. On NBC's Today Show last year, President Bush criticised those who lived outside the US who second-guessed his policies. "But let me remind you: September 11th for them was a bad day; for us it was a change of attitude." This is a point constantly missed by analysts in Europe. The US still believes itself to be in a state of war.
Jeffrey Addicott is director of the Centre for Terrorism Law at St Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, and a former legal adviser to US Special Forces, who continues to advise the Pentagon. He said the search for a new legal paradigm has not been the top priority: "Justice in my view of things is the last priority, as it is in any war. I mean in any war that you're fighting your first concern is to neutralise the enemy. And the second concern would be to gather intelligence to further neutralise the enemy. And your third concern is to bring justice to those most culpable. And generally that third concern follows the cessation of hostilities." For Addicott, mistakes have been made in the legal approach.
But a tough approach is needed. "These people are murderers. They want to kill us wholesale in large numbers if they can. This is not a game of chess. It's not an academic exercise. It's reality."
The case of Abu Omar
However, the problem with this military approach is that many of the US's allies, particularly the Europeans, are bound by their constitutions or basic law to judge US actions by its legal system. The facts uncovered by prosecutors in Milan, Italy, suggest that the Italian government led by Silvio Berlusconi approved a CIA rendition - the kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric, Abu Omar, on Italian soil, in May 2003.
But whether approved or not by politicians, the courts may judge it illegal and all those involved as kidnappers. The trial that opened in a Milan court this summer may provide the most detailed exposure of the legality of the rendition programme. The case was suspended while Italy's constitutional court considers if prosecutors have violated state secrets by pursuing the case. The prosecutors are asking the court to uphold the basic tenets of the rule of law in Europe: that no elected government has the right to order an action that is in violation of the country's written laws, regardless of any secret state interest. The rendition of Abu Omar was likely a violation of such laws, on the grounds that it constituted an arrest conducted without any legal authority. But this offence was aggravated by the purpose of the operation, the transfer of a suspect across borders to a country where he or she was likely to face torture, an offence under the UN convention and the European Convention on Human Rights.
The US is a signatory to the UN convention against torture. The main problem with the rendition programme is that since terrorist suspects have systematically been tortured in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Morocco, it defies reason to presume that a "terrorist" will not be tortured if transferred to their custody. In defending its programme, the US maintains that it has always obtained guarantees that prisoners would not be tortured. I interviewed US diplomats, and CIA and White House officials who all told me the promises of non-torture were a sham.
This year another senior CIA official reiterated that their rendered prisoners were unlikely to be well treated. Tyler Drumheller, chief of European operations from 2001 to 2005, said that assurances of non-torture were a fraud in countries with a notorious human rights record:"When you turn someone over to another country you can't say to them `this is how we expect you to treat them'." If you knew how a country had dealt with its prisoners then"you have to be honest that that is going to be a part of it. You can say we asked them not to do it - and they do say that - but you have to be honest with yourself and say there's no way we can guarantee they are not to do that."
This is all theoretical: victims of rendition are mostly ghosts. We are dealing with shadows - people who have disappeared and whose fate can only be guessed, whose crimes are rarely proved and who are usually voiceless. If they do speak, we hear them through officially-released confessions we cannot trust; or through the mouths of lawyers who choose not to ask the difficult questions.
This year Abu Omar was finally released. He was threatened with being locked up again if he ever spoke about his treatment, but he wanted to speak to me. "I was out of history. My lawyer searched prisons all over Egypt and no one could find a trace of me. There were witnesses who saw me kidnapped but no one knew where I had gone," he told me.
`Justice' without a charge
In his little apartment in Alexandria, he talked for hours. We filled up video tape after tape. How would we leave the country with this material? And what would happen to Abu Omar after his story is made public? Abu Omar is 44. He walks with a limp, is deaf in one ear, and has scars visible more than four years after his torture. Some of what he says is familiar; I feel I've met him before from the words he smuggled out of prison or the transcript of the conversation when he phoned home to tell of his kidnap after he was briefly released in 2004.
That prisoners sent to Egypt are tortured has been established by almost every expert I have spoken to. But, in Abu Omar's painful account, it becomes tangible.
He was accused of being a former member of the Gama'a al-Islamiya, the Egyptian militant group responsible for terrorist attacks in the 1990s - a charge he denies. He fled Egypt in 1988 and was later granted political asylum in Italy. When he disappeared on 17 February 2003, he was walking to midday prayers at a radical mosque in Milan where he was a part-time preacher. He was bundled into a white van and then driven first to Aviano air force base, near Venice. He was beaten while bound and gagged, began to choke and thought he would die.
His journey to Egypt was surreal. He was put aboard a US air force jet and flown to Ramstein, Germany. There, he was put on a Gulfstream jet hired from one of the owners of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. Its logo was painted on the tail of the plane, although covered over for the CIA mission. Throughout the 13-hour journey no one said a word to him or explained what was happening. He remembered the sound of classical music in the cabin. The CIA agents had wrapped him in thick masking tape like a mummy, which made his face bleed when it was ripped off later in Cairo. He had been so tightly wrapped up that his body went into shock: "I felt the soul was coming out of my body." The CIA team quickly responded by putting on an oxygen mask and inserted a tube in his mouth to give him water. He vomited.
When he arrived in Cairo, he was taken to a room and told he was meeting two pashas (important people); one appeared to be the Egyptian interior minister. He was asked: "Do you want to be an informer for us? If you say `yes' then you can be back in Italy in 24 hours." He said no and was sent back to his cell.
For the first seven months, he found out later, he was in the hands of Egis, Egypt's foreign intelligence service. At a secret location, they tortured him - stripped him naked and beat him with bare hands, sticks and electric cables. He said they handcuffed his leg to his hands, and forced him to stand for hours on the other leg, and beat him.
On 14 September 2003 he was handed over to Egyptian state security, the secret police. He was held in their special interrogation compound in the Nasr City district of Cairo. Here things got worse. He was hit in every part of his body and humiliated. Until now, he had not wanted to talk of this so as not to upset his family.
In April 2004 he was released for 23 days on condition of the seven "sacred do nots", which included not speaking to the media, not calling his wife and family left behind in Italy, and not talking to human rights groups. When he broke the rules and phoned home, his telephone calls were tapped. One tap in Italy alerted the police as to how he had been kidnapped and started the criminal investigation that identified the CIA team responsible. But another phone tap in Egypt led to his re-arrest. He was held without charge in prison until early this year.
At no point was he charged with any criminal offence. Renditions by the US to foreign countries are described again and again as a "rendition to justice", but few, if any, of those rendered are brought to trial in a regular court. Even under Egypt's emergency laws, people like Abu Omar are held without conviction. He illustrated this point by showing me the white uniform he wore in prison, which has the word "interrogation" printed on it. Convicted prisoners have a blue uniform. When Abu Omar left prison in Cairo, most of the rendered prisoners were still wearing white. ________________________________________________________
(1) In an interview for Channel 4's Dispatches, Kidnapped to Order, 11 June 2007.
(2) The journalist who did most to track down these renditions was Anthony Mitchell, a Nairobi correspondent for Associated Press who died in an accident in Cameroon on 5 May 2007.
© Stephen Grey Stephen Grey is a journalist in London and author of Ghost Plane (St Martin's Press/Hurst, 2006)
Original text in English