Have messages from the host nation been listened to

License to torture in the service of the USA

For years the CIA has been flying suspected terrorists to countries whose interrogation methods are notorious. When the practice became known, there were protests around the world. But the “renditions” go on, only better camouflaged. For example in the Horn of Africa by Stephen Gray

Reza Afsherzadegan peered into the sky. He saw the American planes chasing suspected al-Qaeda people. Together with other refugees, Reza was dropped off by boat on the south coast of Somalia. Now they were waiting for a local guide to take them across the border to Kenya.

That was in January of this year. Shortly before, Ethiopian army units had overthrown the Islamist government in Mogadishu, which had been in power for only a few months. The US immediately declared the region the new front in the global war on terrorism. They were convinced that the Islamist government had sheltered wanted terrorists and trained new jihadists who wanted to flee Somalia. They wanted to intercept now with the help of allied neighboring countries.

Reza is from London. The 25-year-old computer science student said he had only come to Mogadishu a few weeks earlier to train young people on computers. The change of power meant for him that he sat in the African bush and feared for his life. Helicopters circled overhead and spy planes at a great height. "We kept hiding under bushes," reports Reza. "We thought: They're looking for us, we're being hunted."

A few days later, Reza actually got into the underworld of secret prisons and interrogations. There he experienced for four weeks what it means to be considered a suspect in the "war on terror". In the end he was released again, but before that he had learned how the system of so-called renditions works, in which suspects are simply caught and deported to another country without legal proceedings.

One morning Reza was awakened by gunfire and explosions. Apparently soldiers were advancing from somewhere. The group fell apart. Most of them ran in fear of death towards the Kenyan border. Reza was left alone at first, but then ran after the others: “I left my things, my passport, my food rations, everything. I ran and ran, but I heard the shots getting closer. "

When the danger was over, Reza found himself somewhere in the bush with thirty other refugees, most of whom he did not know. The group stayed together and marched off. The only orientation was the sun. "We only had two cans of tuna, a packet of sugar and a packet of biscuits," Reza told me in an interview for British Channel 4.1 They drank water from rain puddles, at one point they caught a small deer with the help of a trap, which they devoured almost raw.

By the 13th day most of them were on the verge of collapse. Some were already thinking about leaving the weakest behind. While they were resting in a wood in the midday heat, they suddenly heard a rooster crow. There must be a village somewhere behind the trees.

At first they were well received in the village. They were taken to a mosque and given honey. But then Kenyan soldiers showed up. After they were arrested, they were kicked and pushed around and yelled at, “You are from al-Qaeda! We finally caught you. "

They were taken to the nearest town of Kiunga, where they were handed over to officers of the Kenyan counter-terrorism force. Then they were flown to Nairobi. Reza found herself in an overcrowded communal cell with a bucket as a toilet. He was repeatedly asked whether he had been in a terrorist camp in Somalia: “They wanted to know whether I had dealt with weapons or had military training. I told them I had never seen any guns. They just stared at me and said: You are lying. Nobody believed my story. "

Then Reza discovered that there were women and children among the prisoners: “In a cell across the street I saw a woman with maybe five-year-old children, that was unbelievable. But it was also unbelievable how they treated them. "

Although the Kenyans persistently denied his request to contact the British embassy, ​​Reza and the others were eventually taken to a hotel where they were interrogated by officers from the British foreign intelligence service MI5. The other foreign prisoners felt the same way. They were denied any contact with a lawyer or with their embassies, as prescribed by the Vienna Convention. Instead, they were interrogated by the secret service in their respective country.

After the Kenyans held Reza and three other British citizens who fled the war in Somalia for a month in Nairobi, his hopes grew that he would be sent straight to London. But then he saw more prisoners being brought in on cars and trucks. "When I saw Kenyan prisoners, it was clear to me that it would not go to London."

With her hands tied and blindfolded, she was put on a plane that took her back to Somalia. In the city of Baidoa they were handed over to Ethiopian soldiers. “I asked myself: can you just send us to Somalia? MI5, the British, they know about our existence. But they're sending us to Somalia! Are they allowed to do that? "

They ended up in a dark cell in the basement. “It was teeming with cockroaches,” says Reza. “There was hardly any light coming in. After sunset it was pitch black. You always had the feeling of suffocating. "

Reza was lucky. Two days later, he and the other British were taken out by a consular officer in Somalia. But before they were flown home, they had witnessed an incredible operation.

More than eighty people were handcuffed and blindfolded from Kenya to Somalia and then to Ethiopia as "dangerous international terrorists" as claimed by the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments. The group included at least eleven women, five of whom were heavily pregnant, and eleven young children, including a baby of seven months.

Although these people had been detained in three different countries for weeks without being informed of their whereabouts, most were released without charge. At least four of the women gave birth in prison.

When I first heard about the intercepted Somali refugees, it was still completely unclear how their story had ended. Most of them had been choked off the ground since their arrest at the Kenyan border in January. There were rumors of US special forces operating in the region and interrogations by FBI experts in Nairobi, but nobody had heard of “renditions”.

Now this whole action was carried out under strict secrecy, but that doesn't mean much in Africa. Fortunately, some prisoners managed to use one of their guards' cell phones. One of the British citizens was able to reach two human rights groups in London. In this way, the Reprieve and Cageprisoners researchers learned of a group of men, women and children who were held as secret prisoners in the Nairobi Police Prison. From the Reprieve office, I tried to call those arrested in their cells. But contact was broken again.

Then, in Nairobi, the Muslim Human Rights Forum (MHRF) began organizing protests and asking the authorities about the fate of the prisoners. In the end, she was able to legally obtain copies of the flight documents that documented the repatriation of more than 90 prisoners from Kenya to the Somali war zone.2 As MHRF chairman Al-Amin Kimathi told me, these official lists showed how many women, children and babies were on board. And now it became clear that it wasn't suspected terrorists, but the family members of wanted terrorists.

When Al-Amin showed me the flight documents in the MHFR office in Nairobi, he pointed to the photos of three children and a woman: Luqmaan (15 years old), Asma (13), Sumaiya (4) and their mother Halima. This was the family of Fasul Abdullah Mohammed, who is considered one of the planners of the 1998 bombings on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He was said to have gone into hiding in Somalia and the US services had been after him for a long time. According to Al-Amin, the only reason the four were on the plane was because the authorities failed to catch their husband: “It is believed the woman could lead the persecutors on his trail and the arrest of the children could get him out of his Lure out hiding place. A grotesque practice: these children are simply hostages. "

The Muslim Human Rights Forum has contacted the families of those arrested, including Kenyan citizens returned to Somalia from Nairobi. And soon most or all of these prisoners should be sent on from Somalia to Ethiopia. It was a coordinated rendition operation: the prisoners were transported to Addis Ababa to be interrogated there - by a team of US interrogators.

During my research in Nairobi, Al-Amin told me that one of the women who had been brought to Ethiopia had been sent back to her family in Tanzania. So I traveled with him to Moshi at the foot of Kilimanjaro.

Fatma Chande is 25 years old. She reports how she was interrogated by US agents after her arrival in Ethiopia, as was most of the others in the group. They were told quite frankly that the entire arrest and rendition operation had been orchestrated by the Americans. But the Kenyans had already told her “that it is the Americans who hunted my husband. The police tried to force me to say that my husband is a member of Al Qaeda.I told them he was a businessman and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. They kept beating the table with their fists. They threatened to strangle me if I didn't tell the truth. "

According to Fatma, the children were worst off during the transport from Kenya to Ethiopia: “When we arrived at the airport, we were handcuffed and the headscarves pulled over our eyes. The men got hoods on. The children kept shouting that they wanted to go home. "

A premier as an accomplice with a clear conscience

In Ethiopia, FBI agents took Fatma's fingerprints and had to hand over a DNA sample. She learned from other women that everyone was being squeezed at their husbands: "The Americans wanted to know what their husbands were doing and what connections they had with al-Qaeda." At least one woman went into labor in prison, Fatma said she has seen her being taken back to the cell with the child.

In Ethiopia, the government admitted that it had 41 "suspected international terrorists" in custody. Nothing can be said about the whereabouts of most of them, including eleven children, except that they were transported back to Somalia. The government admitted that it had not allowed the Red Cross or lawyers to contact these people.

To find out what happened then, I went to Addis Ababa. There I got an interview with Prime Minister Mele Zenawi, who has ruled as sole ruler since 1991. Zenawi bluntly admitted that women and children had been imprisoned: “You need to understand the enemy we are fighting in Mogadishu and Somalia. There we have international terrorists who find shelter in Somalia with their wives and children. You find the wife but not the husband, and the wife runs away from the theater of war. One does not know whether the woman is just the wife or a comrade and colleague in the craft of terrorism. You can find them on the run. They are arrested. "

The government says most of the prisoners have now been released, including all women and children. But many of them are still missing. Zenawi confirms the close cooperation between Ethiopia and the United States, but denies that the operation was coordinated by the Americans. Any intelligence agency that had information about the prisoners was allowed to interrogate them, Zenawi said.

But after the prisoners were released, it was clear from their testimony that the interrogations in Addis Ababa were conducted by the Americans. Every day prisoners were taken to a specific villa. Some of them later stated on Ethiopian television that they had not been mistreated. But as we know today, they had been assured that they would be released immediately after their television appearance. Instead, they were sent back to prison and subjected to further interrogation.

One of the men who had said they were treated well on television was a Tunisian named Adnan. He sent me a videotape from Cairo, on which he also described an American who regularly beat the prisoners. He was threatened with being sent back to Tunisia, and there he was tortured: “They tried to force me to confess certain things. When I refused, I was taken to another room. There my hands were handcuffed behind my back and my eyes were blindfolded. I had to stand like this for six hours, with no shoes on. One of them said: You are a criminal, a murderer. You will be judged. And then you will be executed. "

The history of the refugees from Somalia exemplifies the methods used to continue the war on terror and how the USA treats its prisoners - even after all the scandals surrounding Abu Ghraib, the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay and the program of " extraordinary renditions ”.

Because of the criticism, the US is now approaching things differently. As part of the new policy, which is called “host nation detention”, care is taken to ensure that Americans no longer deal with the prisoners personally. Then Washington can - no matter what happens to them - deny any responsibility.3

But the old principle remains: Many prisoners are brought across borders without any legal basis to be interrogated in other countries, by Americans. Diplomats from western countries in Nairobi have confirmed to me that the processes were precisely coordinated. One experienced diplomat said: “You can assume that the Americans were involved in all stages. The prisoners are sent to Ethiopia; This means that the Americans have a suitable and secret place where they can send their interrogation specialists. ”At least there are no more secret CIA prisons on European soil, and the European airspace is no longer so generously used on Rendition flights.

And yet the "renditions" have by no means stopped. And that is also logical, because in principle the USA does not fit into the concept that a regular court has to rule on the guilt or innocence of suspected terrorists. So there is no other way for them than to continue the rendition policy.

President Bush responded to foreign criticism on NBC's Today Show last year. Above all, he said to the Europeans: “I have to emphasize once again: for them, September 11th was just a bad day; for us it was a change in mentality. ”This difference is persistently overlooked in Europe. The US still sees itself at war and behaves accordingly.4

There is a "Center for Terrorism Law" at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. His director Jeffrey Addicott told me in an interview that the search for new legal principles is not a top priority in Washington: “In my view, justice is at the bottom of the urgency list, it is in every war. The most important thing is to destroy the enemy; and the second most important thing to do is to get information to eliminate the enemy completely. In third place comes the concern of holding the main culprits accountable, and that is generally done after the hostilities have ceased. "

Addicott previously served as legal advisor to the US Special Forces and continues to advise the Pentagon from time to time. He admits that you made legal mistakes, but you just have to show severity: “These people are murderers. They want to kill us, all of us, or at least as many as they can. This is not chess. It's not an academic exercise. It's the reality. "

In the fight against terrorism by military means and under military law, the USA faces a permanent problem: Many of its allies, and especially the Europeans, are obliged by their constitutions or their constitution to judge the actions of the USA according to their own legal system. This is the case in Italy, for example.

After the examining magistrates in Milan uncovered the most important facts, it became clear that the Italian government under Silvio Berlusconi had given their consent to the most famous Rendition case on European soil, the kidnapping of the Egyptian preacher Abu Omar in May 2003. But despite the official approval, the Italian courts can prosecute the whole thing as a violation of the law and treat everyone involved as kidnappers.

The process, which opened in Milan this summer, could open up the most detailed glimpse yet into the legal quality of the Rendition program. However, the negotiations cannot continue until December at the earliest, as the Italian Constitutional Court must first decide whether the investigating magistrates have violated Italian state secrets in their prosecution.

But the prosecutors have asked the court to adhere to the basic principles of the rule of law in Europe: No elected government should have the right to order an act that violates the legal order of the country - regardless of the interests of the state. And the abduction of Abu Omar is illegal because no Italian judicial authority was involved in his arrest.

Prosecutor Amando Spataro said the offense was particularly serious because the operation was aimed at evacuating a suspect out of the country and into a place where he was likely to be tortured. But this is not only prohibited under the UN Convention against Torture, but also under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The USA has also signed the relevant UN convention. The aforementioned ban on torture has therefore always been the Achilles' heel of the Rendition program. In countries such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Morocco, suspects of terrorism are tortured so systematically that the assumption that a transferred prisoner labeled a terrorist will not be tortured in these countries is completely absurd.

The CIA also knows that there is a risk of torture if they are transferred

In the interviews I did for my book on the subject5 , All of the interviewed US diplomats, CIA officials and White House officials assured me that the assurances not to torture should not be taken seriously. This year, another senior CIA official confirmed to me what I had always suspected: Few CIA people believe that "transferred" prisoners are treated properly. And the assurances in question are a chimera when they come from countries with notoriously poor human rights records.

Tyler Drumheller, who headed the CIA operations on European soil until 2005, says: "If you hand someone over in another country, you can't tell the people there what kind of treatment you expect them to be." If everyone knows how If the country has dealt with prisoners in the past, you shouldn't fool yourself: “You can then say, I asked them not to, and they promise you that too, but you have to honestly tell yourself: We don't have any Guarantee that they will adhere to it. "

These are all theoretical considerations, but the victims of the Rendition program remain largely shadowy figures. Because basically we are dealing with shadows: with those who disappeared, whose fate can often only be speculated about. Their crimes are sometimes described in detail, but are rarely really proven. They remain people without a voice of their own. And when they speak, we only hear the officially published confessions that we cannot trust.

On February 11 this year, Abu Omar was finally released. But he was warned that if he ever said anything about his treatment, he would be put back in. When I learned that Abu Omar was ready to speak to me about his abduction and detention, I flew to Egypt. In his little apartment in Alexandria, he began to tell: “I was just out of history. My lawyer searched all over Egypt, but did not find a trace of me in any prison.There were witnesses who saw me being kidnapped, but no one knew where I had been taken. "

Abu Omar talked for hours while my video camera was running. The 44-year-old preacher exudes the strength of a man who has experienced the deepest humiliations. He's still limping, one of his ears is deaf, and his face has torture scars.

The Odyssey of the Egyptian Abu Omar

I already know some of what Abu Omar describes; from the notes he smuggled out of prison and from the transcript of the telephone conversation recorded by the Italian police in which he described his abduction after his brief release. But it is a very moving experience to hear this story right now from this man's mouth. When one hears such a personal account, torture becomes something else, something very specific.

Abu Omar is actually called Ussama Nasr Mustafa Hassan. He fled Egypt under this name in 1988. At that time he was considered a member of Gama’a Islamija, a militant Egyptian organization that carried out several terrorist attacks in Egypt in the 1990s. Abu Omar has always denied the allegation. He was granted political asylum in Italy in 2001.

When he was pushed into a white van by CIA agents in Milan on February 17, 2003, he was on his way to the midday prayer in a mosque whose visitors were considered radical and where he was one of several preachers. His kidnappers first drove him to the US Air Force Base Aviano near Venice. The brutality began in the car, says Abu Omar. He was handcuffed and gagged, and then beaten. At one point he thought he was going to suffocate: “One of them choked me while his colleagues beat me everywhere. Then they threw me on the floor of the van. I was bleeding all over my face, knee, other parts of my body. Foam stood in front of my mouth, my breath was panting, as if I were coming to an end. "

His surreal journey to Egypt began in Aviano. Without his knowing it, he was flown in a US Air Force plane to its Ramstein base in Germany. There he was loaded onto a rented Gulfstream jet owned by the owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. The Red Sox logo on the aircraft's tail unit was pasted over by the CIA. The flight to Egypt took a total of 13 hours. The whole time nobody spoke a single word to him. The only thing he heard was classical music over the cabin speakers.

The CIA agents had tied him into a package with thick tape - "like a mummy," says Abu Omar, and so tight that bleeding wounds were left when the tape was torn off again in Cairo. In the plane he felt so constricted and terrorized that at some point he believed he felt "the soul is escaping from my body". When the CIA found out, they quickly put an oxygen mask on him and gave him water. "But my mouth, my whole face was paralyzed - and when I felt dirt and blood in my mouth, I had to vomit."

In Cairo he was brought into a room and it was announced that two “pashas”, important people, would be coming. In fact, he was one of the Egyptian interior ministers. During the conversation he was asked: “Do you want to become our informant? If you say yes, you can go back to Italy within 24 hours. ”When he said no and wanted to explain why, they just said“ shut up ”and had him taken back to his cell.

As Abu Omar found out afterwards, he was in custody for the first seven months of the Egyptian intelligence service Egis, which works directly with the CIA as a foreign intelligence service. During this time, he says, he was tortured in a secret location: he was stripped naked and beaten continuously with bare fists, sticks and electric cables. Or you cuffed one of your feet to your hands so that he had to stand on one foot for hours while you were beating him.

On September 14, 2003, he was handed over to the Egyptian secret police and taken to the notorious interrogation center in the Cairo district of Nasr City. The seven months in Nasr City were even worse: "They beat me on the genitals, they laid me face down on the floor and someone stood on my shoulders, and repeated blows to all parts of the body."

The worst torture came at the end: “Once they threw me on the floor and cuffed my hands behind my back. Then one of the guards lay down on my back and started to rape me, and then I couldn't take it anymore and started screaming and screaming until I passed out ... "

In April 2004 he was released for 23 days, but subject to what the Egyptian secret police called the "seven sacred prohibitions". Among other things, he was banned from speaking to the media, calling his wife and family in Italy and contacting human rights groups. When he failed to do so and spoke to his family on the phone, the calls were tapped. But the Italian police also listened in. That was how she learned how the abduction of Abu Omar went. The criminal investigation that led to the identification of the CIA kidnappers was then initiated.

In Egypt, Abu Omar was arrested again after being wiretapped. He remained in prison until early 2007 without charge. During all of his suffering, he was never accused of any wrongdoing. And here is the crucial point. The USA never tires of presenting the “renditions” to other countries as “transfer for the purpose of legal prosecution”. In fact, hardly any of the abductees was brought before a court even remotely close to a regular court.

Even under Egypt's emergency legislation, people like Abu Omar are locked away without any judicial verdict. He himself showed me that clearly. He got up and got his white prison clothes with the big words "interrogation" on it. The convicted inmates of Nasr City, he said, have different clothes, which are blue. When he was released, most of the remaining prisoners who had been delivered to Egypt by the Americans were still in white prison clothing.

Footnotes: 1 Kidnapped to Order, June 11, 2007 on Channel 4. 2 The journalist who contributed most to the exposure of this rendition operation was the AP correspondent in Nairobi, Anthony Mitchell. He was killed in a tragic accident in Cameroon on May 5th this year. 3 The technical term is: "host nation detention". 4 So the new revelations that the US Department of Justice officially approved of the CIA "crude interrogation methods" are hardly surprising. See: New York Times, October 5, 2007. 5 Stephen Gray, “The Shadow Realm of the CIA. America's Dirty War on Terror ”, Munich (DVA) 2006.

Translated from the English by Niels Kadritzke

© Le Monde diplomatique, Berlin

Stephen Gray is a freelance journalist.

Le Monde diplomatique, October 12, 2007, by Stephen Gray