Trade in torture

By Stephen Grey writing in The New Nation

A Swedish immigration lawyer, Kjell Jonsson, was on the phone to a client, asylum seeker Mohamed al-Zery from Egypt, on the afternoon of 18 December 2001. “Suddenly there was a voice coming in, saying to al-Zery to end the telephone conversation,” Jonsson recalls. “It was the Swedish police, who had arrested him.”

Jonsson had requested the Swedish government to promise that there would be no quick decision on Zery’s application for refugee status: he feared that Zery would be tortured if sent back to Cairo. But Zery was expelled in the shortest time that Jonsson had encountered in 30 years of asylum work.

Five hours after the arrest of Zery and another Egyptian, Ahmed Agiza, both were deported from Stockholm’s Bromma airport. It was not revealed for another two years that there had been a US plane at the airport, plus a team of US agents who, it has been claimed, picked up the suspects, manacled their wrists and ankles, dressed them in orange overalls, drugged them, and bundled them into the plane.

Jonsson said the US team “were wearing black hoods and they had no uniforms; they were wearing jeans. The Swedish security police described them as very professional.” The whole operation took less than 10 minutes. “It was obvious that they have done things like this before.”

The events, including the presence of the US agents, were kept quiet for months. But in response to concern in Sweden, its parliament has set up an inquiry and already released documents that confirm what happened. In one, the head of the deportation operation with the Swedish security agency, Arne Andersson, said they had problems obtaining a plane that night and turned to the CIA : “In the end we accepted an offer from our American friends. . . in getting access to a plane that had direct over-flight permits over all of Europe and could do the deportation in a very quick way.”

When agreeing to the transfer of the prinoners to Egypt, the Swedish government had sought and obtained diplomatic assurances that both men would not be tortured and would receive regular consular visits from Swedish diplomats in Cairo. They received such visits in jail. The authorities told the Swedish parliament and a United Nations committee that the prisoners had made no complaints. But they had right from the first visit, they protested that they had been severely tortured. Jonsson says Zery was tortured repeatedly for almost two months. “He was kept in a very cold, very small cell and he was beaten; the most painful torture was. . . where electrodes were put to all sensitive parts of his body many times, under surveillance by a medical doctor.”

Zery has now been freed, and has not been charged with any crime. But he is banned from leaving Egypt or from speaking openly about his time in prison. Agiza remains in an Egyptian prison. His mother, Hamida Shalibai, who has visited him many times, said in Cairo: “When he arrived in Egypt, they took him, hooded and handcuffed, to a building. He was led to an underground facility, going down a staircase. Then, they started interrogation, and torture. As soon as he was asked a question and he replied, ‘I don’t know’, they would apply electric shocks to his body, and beat him. . . During the first month of interrogation, he was naked, and not given any clothes. He almost froze to death.”

The confirmation that US agents were involved in the Swedish case provided the first concrete evidence that smce 9/11 the US has been involved in organising a worldwide traffic in prisoners. Official and journalistic investigations show that the US has systematically organised the repatriation of Islamic militants to countries in the Arab world and East Asia where they can be imprisoned and interrogated using methods forbidden to US agents. Some call it torture by proxy. Prisoners have been captured and transported by the US not only from Afghanistan and Iraq, but from Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Libya, Sudan, Kenya, Zambia, Gambia, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The official term, coined by the CIA, is “extraordinary rendition”. No serving US official will discuss it in public. But a former senior official of the CIA, who left the agency last November, has provided a detailed and candid explanation. Michael Scheuer, who in the late 1990s headed the unit tasked with hunting down Osama bin Laden, was interviewed for a BBC Radio programme, File on Four. He confirmed the Swedish case was part of a much wider system.

Scheuer said the CIA invented rendition because it was ordered by the White House to deal with al-Qaida but had few options on what to do with terrorists it captured. “The practice of capturing people and taking them to third countries arose because the executive branch assigned to us the task of dismantling and disrupting and detaining terrorist cells and terrorist individuals,” he said. “And basically, when the CIA came back and said to the policymaker, where do you want to take them, the answer was – that’s your job. And so we developed this system of assisting countries to capture individuals overseas and bring them back to the particular country where they are wanted by the legal system.”

Among those at the centre of investigations into rendition is a lawyer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights, Barbara Olshansky. She is examining modern cases and how rendition is being justified legally. She believes the US is not only using third countries to interrogate pnsoners but also its own offshore jail facilities run and operated by the CIA. She says that for more than 100 years the US seized fugitives outside its jurisdiction to bring them back to the US to face justice. General Manuel Noriega, the former president of Panama, was one high-profile example (I). That was ordinary rendition.

After the CIA began to fight al-Qaida, and especially since 9/11, extraordinary rendition emerged; the prisoner was captured, not for return to the US, but for transfer elsewhere. “Rendition started in the 1880s,” Olshansky says. “The US would always use any measure to get an individual back to be tried in front of a court here. . . Now this entire idea has been turned on its head. We now have extraordinary rendition, which means the US is capturing people and sending them to countries for interrogation under torture: rendering people for the purpose of extracting information. There is no planned justice at the end.”

Surprisingly, the CIA and other US agencies often use private executive jets to transfer prisoners. I obtained the confidential flight logs of a long-range Gulfstream V jet at the centre of the traffic. Since 2001 the plane has been to 49 destinations outside the US and has crisscrossed the world. It made frequent visits to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Uzbekistan, all destinations from where the US has been repatriating prisoners.

The white jet, which has been photographed by plane spotters, has no markmg except its US civilian registration number, until recently N379P. I have seen documentary evidence that it was the plane used to fly the Egyptians from Sweden. In October 2001 witnesses saw it in Karachi, Pakistan, when a group of masked men deported a terrorist suspect to Jordan.

According to a former covert officer with the CIA, Robert Baer, who has seen the flight logs, the jet is definitely involved in renditions. “The ultimate destinations of these flights are places that are involved in torture,” he says. Baer, who worked for the CIA in the Middle East for 21 years until he left in the mid-1990s, said such civilian jets were useful to the CIA because there were no military markings.

“You can run these things out of shelf companies. You can set them up quickly, dismantle them when they are exposed; you can do it overnight – change the airplane if you have to. It’s fairly standard practice.”

Baer says rendition is about more than sending terrorists to be locked up in prison. Each country has its own value. “If you send a prisoner to Jordan you get a better interrogation. If you send a prisoner to Egypt you will probably never see him again; the same with Syria.” Countries such as Syria might seem to be US enemies but remain allies in the secret war against Islamic militancy. Baer says: “The simple rule in the Middle East is my enemy’s enemy is my friend. . . that’s the way it works. All of these countries are suffering in one way or another from Islamic fundamentalism, militant Islam.” For years the Syrians have offered to work with the US against Islamic militancy. “So at least until II September these offers were turned down. We generally avoided the Egyptians and the Syrians because they were so brutal.”

Baer believes the CIA has been carrying out renditions for years, but they became bigger and more systematic after 9/11. He says hundreds of prisoners, more than were sent to Guantanamo, may have been sent by the US to Middle Eastern prisons and that 9/11 had “justified scrapping the Geneva Convention” and was the end of “our rule of law as we knew it in the West”.

Some defenders of rendition inside the US administration view its purpose as the removal of terrorists from the streets. After a terrorist suspect has been sent back to Egypt, the US takes no interest in- what happens. But the case of an Australian suspect, Mamdouh Habib, indicates that renditions are also aimed at collecting in teIligence, which can be extracted with torture, forbidden to US agents. Habib, a former coffee shop manager trom Sydney, was arrested in Pakistan, close to the Afghan border, a month after 9/11. He was handed over to US agents, who flew him to Cairo, where he was tortured for six months, according to his US lawyer, Professor Joe Margulies, of the MacArthur Justice Centre of the University of Chicago. Margulies says: “Mr Habib describes routine beatings.

He was taken into a room and handcuffed and the room was gradually filled with water until the water was just beneath his chin. Can you imagine the terror of knowing you can’t escape?” On another occasion, he was suspended from a wall. “His feet rested on a drum with a metal bar through it. And when they passed an electric current on the drum he got ajolt of electricity and he had to move his feet, and he was left susended by his hands. And it went on untill he fainted.”

Under this interrogation, Margulies, says, Habib confessed to his involvement with al-Qaida and readily signed “every document they put in front of him”.

He was transferred back to US custody, sent to Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo. The confessions he signed in Egypt were used against him in military tribunals. Accordmg to Margulies: “Those combatant status review tribunals relied on the evidence secured in Egypt as a basis to detain Mr Habib.”