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Wednesday, March 4, 2015
- Shedding new light on a chapter of the U.S. “war on terror” that has largely remained shrouded in secrecy, the Open Society Justice Initiative released a report Tuesday detailing the cases of 136 individuals who were extraordinarily rendered or secretly detained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Entitled “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition”, the report confirms that the CIA held suspected terrorists in undisclosed prisons, known as “black sites”. The agency also carried out “extraordinary renditions” – defined by the report as the illegal transfer of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for detention or interrogation.
According to the Justice Initiative’s report, CIA detainees were tortured and abused in detention sites around the world. Some were wrongfully detained, and others were never charged for a crime.
“That’s the thing with these cases, each one is quite disturbing,” Amrit Singh, author of the report and senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative’s National Security and Counterterrorism programme, told IPS.
Take the case of Fatima Bouchar, one of 136 individuals whose experience the report documented. In 2004, the CIA and Thai authorities abused Bouchar at an airport in Bangkok. She was chained to a wall and starved for five days, before being rendered to Libya. Bouchar was four and a half months pregnant at the time.
“Part of the reason why this report was written is because it’s really important to tell the stories of what happened to these victims,” said Singh.
The report argues that along with its illegality, torture produces faulty information. It cites the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who was extraordinarily rendered by the U.S. to Egypt in 2002. Under the threat of torture, al-Libi fabricated information about Iraq, Al-Qaeda and the use of biological and chemical weapons.
In 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell cited this fabricated information in his speech to the U.N., while advocating for war in Iraq.
The report was written in the context of post 9/11 U.S. counterterrorism policies. Its opening epigraph draws from a 2001 television interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, conducted by Tim Russert for “Meet the Press” on NBC News.
“We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world,” said Cheney. “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quickly, without any discussion.”
The report also lists 54 complicit “foreign governments” that participated with the CIA in various ways: by hosting CIA. prisons on their territories; by capturing, transporting and torturing detainees; by providing intelligence, etc.
“It really speaks to the power that the U.S. wields over the world,” said Singh. “In this case, the U.S. has power essentially to recruit partners in committing human rights violations in the name of countering terrorism.”
Checks and balances and extrajudicial killings
In 2002, Maher Arar was detained by U.S. authorities at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. The CIA flew him out to Amman, Jordan, where he was abused by Jordanian guards. Then he was extraordinarily rendered to Syria, locked in a grave-like cell for 10 months, beaten with cables and threatened with electric shocks.
Arar’s lawyer Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told IPS that they sued the U.S. government officials who sent him to be tortured. But their case came up short.
“Basically, the defendants (the U.S. government) came back with the same arguments as they always do, saying even if what (Arar) says is true – that the U.S. sent him to Syria to be tortured – the officials can’t be held liable,” said LaHood.
She said that when U.S. government officials associate their actions with “national security”, it is nearly impossible to prosecute them. “The judiciary cannot touch it.”
“Even though there’s constitutional violations here, there’s no remedy,” she added. “(Arar) couldn’t go anywhere with his case in the U.S. He hasn’t gotten an apology. He’s still on the watch-list.”
LaHood told IPS about similar challenges in prosecuting extrajudicial killings. She noted an ongoing case Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta in which the families of three U.S. citizens – who were killed in U.S. drone strikes – are suing the U.S. executive branch.
“The defendents – Panetta, Petraeus and a couple of others – have moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the judiciary can’t adjudicate the case,” she said.
When asked about the balance of power between the executive and judicial branches of the U.S. government, LaHood said, “(The) executive power has grown and grown, and that’s in part because the executive is increasing its own power, and in part because the judiciary is deferring to it.”
Philip G. Alston, a professor of law at New York University School of Law and a former U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, told IPS, “The executive branch is effectively given carte blanche by the judicial branch.
“The latter has particularly abdicated its responsibility to uphold the rule of law in any matter that involves the CIA,” he added. “The result is that it is left to make its own decisions, subject only to pro forma Congressional oversight – which, as far as can be judged from the public record, is little short of cheerleading.”
Singh told IPS, “There’s no doubt that there are serious terrorist threats today in the world, and they must be dealt with in an appropriate an lawful manner, but the fact that these threats exist does not constitute grounds to deviate from established domestic and international law.
“U.S. courts have largely denied victims of torture their (compensations). U.S. courts have not acted as a constraint on the abuse of executive power, which is how they should conduct their business,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released a statement in response to a controversial U.S. Department of Justice white paper, entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associate Force.”
“The parallels to the (George W.) Bush administration torture memos are chilling,” said Vincent Warren, executive director at CCR, of the white paper. “Those were unchecked legal justifications drawn up to justify torture; these are unchecked justifications drawn up to justify extrajudicial killing.”