The United Nations is seeking to examine Britain’s role in the policy, as part of a wider inquiry into ways in which counter-terrorism operations around the world may breach basic human rights.
By Ian Cobain, Stephen Grey and Richard Norton-Taylor writing in
It was only a matter of time before the CIA caught up with Saad Iqbal Madni. A Pakistani Islamist and, allegedly, a close associate of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, he turned up in Indonesia in November 2001, just as the Taliban regime was crumbling and members of al-Qaida were fleeing Afghanistan. Renting a room in a Jakarta boarding house, he told locals he had arrived to hand over an inheritance to his late father’s second wife.
On January 9 2002, Iqbal was seized by Indonesian intelligence agents. Two days later, according to Indonesian officials, he was bundled aboard a Gulfstream V executive jet which had flown into a military airfield in the city. Then, without any extradition hearing or judicial process, he was flown to Cairo.
Iqbal, 24, had become the latest terrorism suspect to fall into a system known in US intelligence circles as “extraordinary rendition” – the apprehension of a suspect who is not placed on trial, or flown to Guant’namo, but taken to a country where torture is common.
These suspects are denied legal representation, and their detention is concealed from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The most common destination is Egypt, but there is evidence of detainees also being flown to Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Syria.
Precise numbers are impossible to determine. A report on renditions published by New York University school of law and the New York City Bar Association suggests that around 150 people have been “rendered” in the last four years, but that is only an estimate. A handful have emerged from what has been labelled a secret gulag, and have given deeply disturbing accounts of horrific mistreatment.
Previous media reports have uncovered sketchy details of a British link to CIA abduction operations, but the full extent of the UK’s support can now be revealed. Drawing on publicly available information from the US Federal Aviation Administration, the Guardian has compiled a database of flight records which shows the extent of British logistical support.
Aircraft involved in the operations have flown into the UK at least 210 times since 9/11, an average of one flight a week. The 26-strong fleet run by the CIA have used 19 British airports and RAF bases, including Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Luton, Bournemouth and Belfast. The favourite destination is Prestwick, which CIA aircraft have flown into and out from more than 75 times. Glasgow has seen 74 flights, and RAF Northolt 33.
The Gulfstream V on to which Iqbal was bundled and flown to Egypt, for example, left Cairo on January 15 and headed for Scotland. After a brief stopover at Prestwick, probably to refuel, it departed again for Washington. Iqbal was held in Cairo for two years before appearing in Guant’namo, where he told other detainees who have since been released that he was tortured by having electrodes placed on his knees. It also appears that his bladder was damaged during interrogation.
Human rights campaigners insist that these operations violate international law. Washington insists they do not. Nevertheless, the United Nations is seeking to examine Britain’s role in the policy, as part of a wider inquiry into ways in which counter-terrorism operations around the world may breach basic human rights.
Martin Scheinin, a UN commission on human rights special rapporteur, has submitted a number of queries to the British government. His view about complicity in renditions is clear: “When several states can, through cooperating, breach their obligations under international law simultaneously, if they are all involved in torture, they all bear their own responsibility. It is my intention to look at acts where more than one state is involved. It is too early to say what will happen with the UK.”
Although the Foreign Office has denied any knowledge of the use of British airports during renditions, Prof Scheinin says: “It isn’t unusual that governments deny involvement and try to keep it secret as long as possible.” Some of the flights which the Guardian has examined were made during operations which clearly ended in the abduction of a terrorism suspect who was then tortured, such as Iqbal.
Other data points to the strong possibility that the CIA was using British airports during an abduction operation. On March 26 2002, the Gulfstream used in the abduction of Iqbal flew from North Carolina to Washington and on to Prestwick, where it remained overnight before flying to Dubai. Two days later, FBI officials and Pakistani police stormed a house in Faisalabad, where they arrested a number of al-Qaida suspects, including Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s senior aides.
Flight records do not show where the aircraft flew after Dubai, and where Zubaydah was taken remains a mystery. There have been rumours that he is being held in the far east, however, and the Gulfstream next appeared in Alaska before returning to Washington.
On other occasions the same aircraft has stopped off at Prestwick before and after flying people from Pakistan to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador in Tashkent, says he is aware of detainees being flown into the country on an executive jet, and believes they were probably tortured.
It is not clear whether any detainees are on board the aircraft when they land in the UK, or whether the CIA is using British airports purely for refuelling and other logistical support. There is no suggestion that any of the UK airport authorities have colluded in any wrongdoing. The CIA’s renditions programme, and its use of UK airports, has angered some human rights lawyers. Concern is also being expressed in a number of other European countries, where authorities have barred the agency from making unauthorised flights or have launched investigations into abductions.
Last month Denmark announced that unauthorised CIA flights would not be allowed into the country’s airspace, while in Austria, in January 2003, two fighters were scrambled to intercept a Hercules transport plane thought to be involved in the renditions operation which had not declared itself to be on a government mission. In Sweden, a parliamentary investigator into the abduction of two Egyptian men flown from Stockholm to Cairo in December 2001 concluded that CIA agents had broken the country’s laws by subjecting the pair to “inhuman treatment”. In Italy, a judge has issued warrants for the arrest of 19 CIA agents said to have been behind the kidnapping of Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, an Islamist cleric dragged into a van near his home in Milan in February 2003. He was flown to Egypt for interrogation, and later told relatives that he had been tortured with electric shocks.
The aircraft and their crews are the successors to Air America, the CIA-owned airline that flew covert missions during the Vietnam war. Many of the aircraft are operated by a company called Aero Contractors, which was founded by a former chief pilot of Air America, and is based in a remote corner of an airfield at Smithfield, North Carolina.
Most of the CIA’s fleet, which includes executive jets, a Boeing 737 and a Hercules transport plane, is owned, at least on paper, by a network of seven other companies. Examination of records in the US shows these seven firms to be a series of shell companies with no premises, and the directors of the companies appear to be fictitious. Aero’s company president, Norman Richardson, would not talk to the Guardian, although he has told one American journalist: “Most of the work we do is for the government. It’s on the basis that we can’t say anything about it.” A former Aero Contractors pilot has confirmed to the New York Times that he had been recruited by the CIA, and that the agency ran the airline. He said the crews did not use the term extraordinary rendition: “We used to call them snatches.”
British assistance for covert CIA kidnapping operations may violate international law, according to some lawyers, while the CIA agents involved may also be breaking British domestic law. “In international law, states are required to prevent acts of torture, and not turn a blind eye to it,” said Paul Green, a member of the Law Society’s international human rights committee.
It remains illegal under US law for any American citizen to torture a foreigner. Critics of the rendition campaign argue that the CIA gets around this by practising “torture by proxy”, taking detainees to countries where they know they will be tortured.
President George Bush has defended the renditions programme, saying: “We operate within the law and we send people to countries where they say they’re not going to torture the people.” Critics doubt whether such pledges are credible. The US State Department describes torture as being systemic in most of the countries. Even the CIA has described the “curtailment of human rights” in Uzbekistan as a concern.
The CIA declined to comment.