UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and 'disappearance'
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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 full report (PDF)
- 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.
Contact: Sharon Singh, 202-544-0200 x289