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U.S. practice of prisoner 'rendering'
The Daily Star
The hypocrisy of the U.S. practice of prisoner 'rendering'
By William Fisher
Commentary by
Monday, January 17, 2005

Here is a sure-fire nomination for the most outrageous quote of the week: "Accusations that we are torturing people tend to be mythology." These are the words an unnamed Egyptian official questioned by The Washington Post about prisoner abuse. However, here are the facts of the case the paper was inquiring about. An Egyptian-born Australian citizen, who was a prisoner at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, charges that the American government forcibly transferred him to Egypt, where he was tortured for six months, before being returned to American custody. He has petitioned a U.S. Federal Court to block plans to send him back to an Egyptian prison a second time. Mamdouh Habib alleges that while in Egyptian custody he was hung by his arms from hooks, repeatedly shocked, nearly drowned and brutally beaten. He contends that under American and international law he cannot be sent back. The U.S. accuses Habib of training and raising money for Al-Qaeda, and say he had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in Washington and New York. Media in Australia, however, report that in 2001 authorities there cleared him of having terrorist connections. In a surprise announcement, on Jan. 11 the Pentagon said it would release Habib and four remaining British men on the grounds that "the governments of the United Kingdom and Australia have accepted responsibility for these individuals and will work to prevent them from engaging in or otherwise supporting terrorist activities in the future." Washington obviously did not want the case aired in a U.S. court. But Habib intends to pursue his legal action against the U.S. government. What he is challenging is a highly secret U.S. practice: the outsourcing of torture, a practice known as "rendering." It involves transferring detainees to countries where there are no de facto restrictions on prisoner abuse. This is used to obtain confessions and "intelligence" under duress, or because there is insufficient evidence to try them in American courts. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen are high on the list of destinations for rendered prisoners. And for good reason. Their alleged practices of torture and death in detention have been widely criticized by indigenous human rights advocates for many years, as well as by the U.S. State Department in successive editions of its Annual Report on Human Rights. Because of a close strategic relationship, Egypt has been a Central Intelligence Agency favorite. According to terrorism expert Peter Bergen, a fellow at the New America Foundation and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies: "Egypt routinely tortures political prisoners, untroubled by fears that other Arab leaders will seriously condemn such actions." Human Rights Watch shares this view. In a briefing paper entitled "Egypt's Torture Epidemic," the organization wrote: "Torture in Egypt is a widespread and persistent phenomenon. Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation."

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights in Cairo reported that "Deaths in custody as a result of torture and ill-treatment have shown a disturbing rise." Egyptian human rights organizations report at least 10 cases in 2002 and seven in 2003. There were four deaths in custody during the September-November 2003 period alone. U.S. congressional testimony confirms that the CIA engages in rendering. However, the Bush administration says it always seeks "diplomatic assurances" from foreign governments that they will treat the captives humanely. However, advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have found that such assurances are routinely violated. According to a memorandum filed in U.S. district court in the District of Columbia, Habib was arrested in Pakistan in October 2001. He claims that three Americans interrogated him over a period of weeks, after which he was taken to an airfield where Americans beat him. One cut off his clothes while another placed a foot on his neck "and posed while another took pictures," the document says. Court papers allege he was then flown to Egypt, where he spent six months in custody. During interrogations, Habib alleges he was suspended from hooks, with his is feet resting on the side of a large cylindrical drum attached to wires and a battery. "When Mr. Habib did not give the answers his interrogators wanted, they threw a switch and a jolt of electricity" went through the drum, it says. "The action of Mr. Habib 'dancing' on the drum forced it to rotate, and his feet constantly slipped, leaving him suspended by only the hooks on the wall. This ingenious cruelty lasted until Mr. Habib finally fainted." At other times, the petition alleges, he was placed in ankle-deep water that interrogators told him "was wired to an electric current, and that unless Mr. Habib confessed, they would throw the switch and electrocute him." Habib says he gave false confessions to stop the abuse. The legal authority for rendering is based on an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton, and reportedly summarized in a 2002 memo titled: "The President's Power as Commander in Chief to Transfer Captive Terrorists to the Control and Custody of Foreign Nations." According to The Washington Post, "knowledgeable U.S. officials said White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales participated in its production." During Gonzales's recent Senate confirmation hearings on his nomination to be attorney general, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, criticized the Bush administration for refusing a congressional request to make the memo public. But an August 2002 Justice Department opinion defines torture narrowly and concludes that the president could legally permit torture in fighting terrorism. The Senate hearings confirmed that Gonzales asked for and helped draft that memorandum. During his confirmation hearing, Gonzales was asked by Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, if it would be illegal for the U.S. to turn a prisoner over to a country that would torture him. Gonzales responded: "Under my understanding of the law, we have an obligation not to render someone" to a country that we know practices torture." He added: "It would be illegal if U.S. officials were involved."

Only one other court case has challenged rendering. It was brought by a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, who claims he was detained at New York's Kennedy Airport after arriving from Tunisia en route to his home in Canada, and shipped off to Syria. There, he alleges, he was imprisoned and tortured for 10 months before being set free without charge. The case is now pending. In continuing this obscene practice, the U.S. is once again shooting itself in the foot. In a time when the entire world is "wired," it is no longer possible to keep secret operations secret for very long. Many old hands at the CIA believe rendering to be a waste of resources, since torture consistently yields unreliable confessions. And, while America likes to believe it occupies the moral high ground in just about everything; there is nothing moral about torture, whether at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay or in Cairo, Riyadh or Sanaa.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR