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UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and 'disappearance'

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL USA

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UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and 'disappearance'
SUMMARY

Sending prisoners overseas to extract information through water torture, removal of toenails and fingernails, beatings, and electrocution at the request of US officials is inhumane and must be stopped.
- US Congressman Edmund Markey, March 12, 2005

Download the full report (PDF)

In May 2005, three stunned and traumatized Yemeni men emerged from a covert network of US-run prisons scattered across continents. They had been transported from site to site on secret flights and detained since 2003 without any contact with the outside world. Amnesty International went to Yemen to interview them and the men's gruelling stories shed a glimmer of light on the murky system of captures, transfers and secret detention that has been developed by the USA in the "war on terror".

Muhammad Bashmilah and Salah 'Ali Qaru were arrested in Jordan and transferred to US custody in October 2003. Two months later Muhammad al-Assad was arrested in Tanzania and handed to US officials. As far as their families were concerned, the men then "disappeared".

In fact, they were held in at least four secret US-run facilities, probably in three different countries. From the information subsequently provided by the men, it is likely they were held in Djibouti, Afghanistan and somewhere in Eastern Europe.

After arrest, Muhammad Bashmilah and Salah 'Ali Qaru were apparently taken from Jordan to Afghanistan and held in what appeared to be a high security facility where inmates were permanently shackled to a ring fixed in the floor. Muhammad al-Assad was flown on a small US plane to a site probably in Djibouti, where he was questioned by officials who told him they were from the FBI. Then he was flown to somewhere "very cold", where he was held at two detention centres.

In late April 2004, all three men were stripped and given absorbent plastic underpants and blue overalls to wear. They were shackled, had their ears blocked and eyes covered, and were put on a plane. Although they may have started off on different flights, all say that after a few hours they landed and were thrown roughly into a helicopter with other prisoners, which flew for up to three hours. On landing, the men were taken to a new detention centre by car.

The location of their final secret prison, a high security facility where they spent 13 months, remains unknown. However, the information provided by the men suggests that it could have been located in Eastern Europe. Tremendous effort was made to keep the location secret from the detainees -- they were never allowed to look outside, labels were removed from food, and so on. And for month after month, the men had no idea whether it was day or night, sunny or rainy, or whether their torment of spending endless days staring at blank walls or being interrogated would ever end.

The flight that brought the men back to Yemen on 5 May 2005 took about seven hours non-stop. Yemeni officials say they were only informed a day earlier by the US authorities that the men would be arriving, and were given no information about any charges the men faced. The US authorities effectively instructed the Yemeni officials to detain the men, apparently promising to transfer their case files. No files were ever received.

On 13 February 2006, after more than nine months in arbitrary detention in Yemen, and some two and a half years since they were first arrested, the three were brought to trial in Sana'a. Each was charged with forgery, in connection with obtaining a false travel document for personal use. None was charged with any terrorism-related offence; the Chief of Special Prosecution in Yemen told Amnesty International that they were not suspected of any such involvement. The men all pleaded guilty, and the judge had it written into the trial record that they had been detained in an unknown place by the USA. On 27 February the judge sentenced the men each to two years in prison, adding the instructions: "to count the period that the accused spent in prisons outside the country as part of the sentence". He calculated that, in addition to their nine months in prison in Yemen, their time in secret US detention had been at least 18 months, and ordered their release.

Muhammad al-Assad was released from custody on 14 March. Muhammad Bashmilah and Salah Qaru were transferred to Aden, where they were released at around midnight on 27/28 March. They were given instructions to report to political security every month and not to leave Aden without permission.

Muhammad al-Assad told Amnesty International on his release: "For me now, it has to be a new life, because I will never recover the old one". His business is in ruins, he is in debt and he doesn't know if he will be allowed to return to Tanzania. Muhammad Bashmilah and Salah 'Ali Qaru do not know if they will have the money or permission to return to their destitute wives in Indonesia. All three men believe that they will remain stigmatized as security risks and will never again be able to lead normal lives. All continue to suffer the dire mental and physical health consequences of torture and ill-treatment, including the prolonged periods in isolation and secret detention.

This is the human cost of the illegal and secret practices involved in the US rendition programme -- a cost that rarely makes the headlines.

Renditions

Renditions involve the transfer of people from one country to another in ways that bypass all judicial and administrative due process. In the context of the "war on terror", this practice has usually been initiated by the USA and carried out with the collaboration, complicity or acquiescence of other governments. Its aim is to keep detainees away from any judicial oversight that might impede interrogation and the gathering of intelligence.

The USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), using planes leased by front companies as well as legitimate aviation firms, has secretly transferred terror suspects into the custody of other states -- including Egypt, Jordan and Syria -- where torture is known to accompany interrogation.

The rendition programme has also delivered people into US custody, whether at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, detention centres in Iraq and Afghanistan, or secret CIA-run facilities known as "black sites" around the world.

Rendition is sometimes presented by officials as simply an efficient means of transporting terror suspects from one place to another without red tape. Such descriptions are a feeble attempt to hide the truth about a system that puts the victims beyond the protection of the law and sets the perpetrators above it.

Renditions involve multiple human rights violations and thrive on secrecy. Most victims have been detained illegally in the first place -- some were abducted, others were refused access to any legal process to challenge, for example, their transfer to countries where torture is rife. Many of those illegally detained in one country and illegally transported to another have subsequently "disappeared", including in US custody. Their whereabouts remain undisclosed. Every one of the victims of rendition interviewed by Amnesty International has said they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated.

Secret detention is the corollary of renditions. Renditions have allowed the USA to transport so-called high-value detainees -- people thought to have intelligence information too sensitive to be entrusted to client states -- to the CIA-run "black sites" in various parts of the world that are so secret that they are in effect beyond the reach of US and international law.

The scale of the rendition programme is by definition difficult to gauge because of the secrecy involved and the "disappearance" of many victims. Family members are often reluctant to report their relatives missing, fearing that intelligence officials will turn on them. A few cases -- around 25 -- have come to light when victims have been released or given access to a lawyer, although neither outcome is common. On the basis of these cases and other information collected from a wide range of sources, Amnesty International believes there have been hundreds of victims of rendition.

Renditions involving European countries have received substantial attention in the media and from human rights organizations. However, most of the known victims were initially detained in Pakistan, where the government maintains a close working relationship with the USA on intelligence matters. The Pakistani government has stated that some 700 terror suspects have been arrested, many of whom have been handed over to US custody. Many of these detainees -- men, women and children -- have "disappeared".

The USA acknowledges its use of renditions but says they are carried out in accordance with US law and its obligations under international law. Several European countries have launched official inquiries into alleged CIA activities in Europe and into European governments' alleged complicity in such activities. Their outcome is awaited.

Transfer to torture

Those who have been rendered to other countries for interrogation have said they were beaten with hands or sticks, made to stand for days on end, hung upside-down while the soles of their feet were beaten, or deprived of food or sleep. The former director of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre described what happened to one detainee who had been rendered to Egypt: "they promptly tore his fingernails out and he started telling things". In some cases, the conditions of detention, including prolonged isolation, have themselves amounted to cruel treatment. Yet no one can investigate these abuses, much less stop them, because the identity, condition and whereabouts of most rendition victims remain concealed.

The US government has claimed that renditions do not lead to a risk of torture. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has said that where appropriate, the USA "seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured". Even if the premise that rendition is not intended to facilitate interrogation under torture is accepted, reliance on such "diplomatic assurances" does not address the absolute obligation of all states not to transfer anyone to a country where they risk torture or other ill-treatment (the principle of non-refoulement). Indeed, the premise on which such assurances are based is nonsensical. If the risk of torture or ill-treatment in custody is so great that the USA must seek assurances that the receiving state will not behave as it normally does, then the risk is obviously too great to permit the transfer.

A case investigated by Amnesty International is one of several that highlight the pattern of terror suspects being transferred to another country apparently so they can be interrogated under torture. Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German national of Syrian descent, was questioned by German police after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the USA, but was not held. In early December 2001 he was detained by Moroccan intelligence agents at Casablanca airport -- apparently on the basis of intelligence supplied by Germany -- and interrogated by Moroccan and US intelligence officials for more than two weeks. He was then reportedly put on a CIA Gulfstream V jet and flown to Damascus, Syria, apparently so that he could be interrogated under torture. In November 2002, six German intelligence agents arrived in Damascus and interrogated Mohammed Zammar for three days. As Der Spiegel magazine noted, "No court operating under the rule of law would ever accept an interrogation conducted in a Damascus prison notorious for its torture practices". Muhammad Zammar's current whereabouts are unknown by his family or Amnesty International, although he is believed to still be in a Syrian prison and his condition has been described as "skeletal".

Flying below the radar

Countries that allow CIA planes to cross their airspace and use their airports often cite the Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention. They say they have no authority to question the reasons for the flight or to board the plane at an airport because of the clause in the Convention that allows private, non-commercial flights to fly over a country, or make technical stops there, without prior authorization or notification.

This appears to be one of the main reasons why the CIA rendition programme relies on privately contracted planes rather than military or other official aircraft. In some cases, these planes are operated by CIA-front companies that exist only on paper, such as Premier Executive Transport. Other transport contractors have actual premises and staff, but appear to be largely controlled by the CIA, such as Aero Contractors. In other cases, the CIA leases planes from ordinary charter agents, such as Richmor Aviation. The CIA has, for example, frequently used Richmor's Gulfstream IV (initially registered as N85VM, now as N227SV), which has made over 100 trips to Guantánamo Bay.

However, the use of private planes does not give the CIA or any other intelligence agency the right to do anything they like without interference. The Chicago Convention makes clear that every state has the right to require that an aircraft flying over its territory must land at a designated airport for inspection if there are "reasonable grounds to conclude that it is being used for any purpose inconsistent with the aims of the convention". Given that renditions violate international human rights law, it follows that transferring, or aiding and abetting in the transfer of, a detainee in such circumstances cannot be a purpose consistent with the aims of the Chicago Convention. The extensive reporting by the media, human rights organizations and parliamentary bodies of specific flight numbers and chartering companies that appear to be involved in renditions constitutes "reasonable grounds" for suspicion, and therefore gives countries the right -- and duty -- to stop any aircraft suspected of involvement in renditions.

The use of private planes is not the only ploy used to try to evade scrutiny of the rendition programme. The planes and companies used in renditions appear to be constantly changing. Once a specific plane or named company has been too frequently linked with secret transfers of detainees, they often seem to disappear from the radar.

Amnesty International has compiled a list of companies likely to have had some level of involvement in renditions and other covert operations. The list, published in United States of America: Below the Radar -- Secret flights to torture and 'disappearance', includes the owners or operators of aircraft that have been detected in known cases of rendition and other CIA operations, as well as some of the companies -- believed to be intelligence-linked -- that are mentioned in both the US Army Aeronautical Service Agency's worldwide landing permits and in US Department of Defense fuelling contracts. The list formed the basis of a list of aircraft whose flights were tracked between 2001 and 2006.

Amnesty International is concerned about the role private companies have played in assisting the illegal rendition of detainees, and believes that these companies risk being complicit in human rights violations. Amnesty International has written to companies whose aircraft have been linked to renditions, asking them for information on specific flights, including itinerary, purpose and details of those on board. To date, there has been no reply.

Amnesty International has records of nearly 1,000 flights directly linked to the CIA, most of which have used European airspace; these are flights by planes that appear to have been permanently operated by the CIA through front companies. In a second category, there are records of some 600 other flights made by planes confirmed as having been used at least temporarily by the CIA. Finally, there are well over 1,000 other flights made by planes owned by companies that have been linked to the CIA, but which are not known to be connected to any known cases of rendition.

Flight records, however, do not show the precise activities of the planes. They only show whether planes were active in a certain region at a specific time. They also do not prove that a particular plane has been involved in a rendition. Nevertheless, they sometimes provide a vital piece of the jigsaw that is later completed by victims of renditions who have been able to tell their tales. In the few cases where the details and dates of an abduction or transfer can be pinpointed, Amnesty International has often been able to match a rendition with a flight record.

Although renditions have largely been carried out under the auspices of the CIA, other US agencies have apparently been involved in both flight leasing and operations. Contracts for identified rendition planes have been issued through an obscure US Navy office, rather than the CIA. It has also been reported that the teams that actually carry out the renditions include members of military Special Forces units, as well as CIA personnel. Amnesty International has copies of police investigation reports into CIA flights in Spain, for example, which suggest that the pilots of the rendition planes were US military officers.

Conclusion

In general, governments do not violate human rights or international law openly and proudly. They do it in secret. They torture behind closed doors. They instigate programmes of repression in which opponents "disappear" in the night. They set up covert operations to break arms embargoes, overthrow hostile governments, illegally detain people deemed a threat to their security.

Without a transparent process, based on the international law and standards that bind all states, the programme of rendition and secret detention is eroding the very human security and rule of law it claims to protect. The USA has, in effect, created a law-free zone in which the human rights of certain individuals are erased. It is time the programme was stopped.

Amnesty International, in its report Below the Radar, brings together critical evidence about the US-led rendition programme and urges action by all those involved. It calls on:

  • The USA to end its practice of renditions and secret detention.
  • All governments to ensure that victims of rendition are protected from torture or ill-treatment, and that all those detained in the "war on terror" are charged and given a fair trial, or released.
  • All governments to prohibit the return or transfer of people to places where they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
  • All governments to ensure that their airports and airspace are not being used in renditions, and to instigate inspections of any aircraft suspected of involvement in renditions.
  • All private aircraft operators and leasing agents to refrain from leasing planes in circumstances that suggest they might be used in renditions.
Download the full report (PDF)

Contact: Sharon Singh, 202-544-0200 x289


:: Article nr. 22316 sent on 07-apr-2006 07:55 ECT

www.uruknet.info?p=22316

Link: www.amnestyusa.org/news/document.do?id=ENGUSA20060404001



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