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U.S.-Held Prisoners Transferred Abroad Subjected to Torture


Despite repeated denials from President Bush and others in his administration that the U.S. government does not engage in torture or hand over prisoners to nations that do, a number of eyewitness accounts and press reports contradict those White House assertions. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, the Bush administration adopted a policy called “extraordinary rendition” that permitted the transfer of a small number of terrorist suspects to nations that employed brutal interrogation methods illegal in the U.S.

In recent years, the government’s “rendition” policy has greatly expanded, with estimates placing the number of U.S.-held prisoners transferred to nations employing torture at 150. Those who have been subject to the policy include Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was detained in New York City and then sent to Syria, where he suffered months of torture before being released without charge. Another prisoner, Mamdouh Habib, accused of training several of the 9/11 hijackers, was held in the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility and later transferred to Egypt where he claims he was beaten and burned. A piece in the Feb. 8th edition of the New Yorker magazine by Jane Mayer, titled, “Outsourcing Torture,” details the rendition program and some of the allegations made against the Bush administration.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a principal attorney for prisoners being held at the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Base. Ratner expresses his grave concern about the rendition policy and the message sent to the world by the recent Senate confirmation of Alberto Gonzalez as the Bush administration’s new Attorney General.

Michael Ratner: Well, we became aware of this really in December 2002; there were some articles in the Washington Post that the U.S. had a practice called “extraordinary rendition.” There’s always been a small practice of rendition even under President Clinton, where they pick up people in one country and then deliver them to another country for purposes, usually of criminal prosecution where??? they can’t get cooperation etc. That’s not a legal practice, but they did that in a handful of cases.

After 9/11, it became apparent from certain news articles and other sources that they had a new practice called “extraordinary rendition.” It meant two things: They were going to do this on a broad basis to pick up people all over the world, essentially “disappeared” them from their homes, their communities or their countries — or from whatever country they were in — and take them to places where they would be subjected to interrogation through torture. The places they would take them to would be Egypt, Morocco; in the case we represent, Maher Arar, (is) a man taken to Syria, and some other countries. And they did that I think partly for two reasons: One is they claimed that there were techniques they didn’t want to use on people which were torture, and that somehow that would be legal if other countries did it and they didn’t. Of course, that’s not a good legal excuse, that’s aiding and abetting — and secondly what’s interesting, of course, is the U.S. wound up engaging in torture anyway.

The first person we got that gave us a glimpse into it was a man named Maher Arar, he was coming back from Tunisia, a Canadian citizen on a transit flight at Kennedy airport. (He was) picked up at Kennedy, claimed to be a terrorist by the government of the United States, sent to Syria in one of those private Citation jets, which is what they do to deliver people all over the world, and tortured in Syria. Eventually because he was Canadian, because we knew he was there, because he was able to call his wife from Kennedy before he got taken out, we got him out after 10 months and 10 days from an underground prison cell.

Since then, there’s been more and more documents of this practice. And the practice is not only nasty in the sense that it of course violates borders and is kidnapping, but it’s actually disappearing people and in many cases I think disappearing them for torture, and maybe never to be heard from again. For example, I don’t think people expected Arar, the man in Syria, ever to be heard from again. So it’s a major practice going on now. Our country has its hands really up to its elbows, if not higher, in this practice. Between The Lines: What is being done by human rights groups and your organization to challenge this practice?

Michael Ratner: Scott, it’s been the hardest to get to. You know we have lawsuits pending on Guantanamo obviously on torture. We have a Freedom of Information Act case that we brought with a variety of other groups, Physicians for Human Rights, ACLU and others, to try to get to the bottom. Groups like — the investigations that were appointed by our government like the Schlesinger investigation and others. If you read those reports that came out, the CIA refuses to talk to anybody about what they were doing. If you look at the Gonzalez memos and all those other torture memos, those in some way were really essentially to allow the CIA to engage in certain practices of torture. In the rendition memos, the ones about extraordinary rendition, that were asked for by the (U.S. Senate) subcommittee in approving Gonzalez, the Judiciary Committee, never saw the light of day, so we don’t know what they say.

This is a very, very hard area to get to, in some ways it’s the Achilles heel. It’s where the worst aspects of the utterly illegal, so-called, war on terror are occurring.

Between The Lines: Alberto Gonzalez was just confirmed as the new U.S. attorney general. What message does it send to the world about America’s tolerance toward torture and future policies that are liable to come out of the Bush administration regarding torture?

Michael Ratner: Well, it’s incredibly distressing. I mean, Alberto Gonzalez not only was the one who penned, authored and was responsible for the memo that called the interrogation practices or protections of the Geneva Conventions “obsolete” and other provisions, “quaint.” He was the one who said that Geneva should not apply to people picked up, and the humane provisions of Geneva should not apply. He is the one who was also involved in the famous memo from (Assistant Attorney General Jay S.) Bybee that defined torture so narrowly that everything you saw at Abu Ghraib would not be considered torture. And who still today insists that non-citizens, and I want to stress this, non-citizens held outside the United States are not protected from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment — which is our lawyers’ word for essentially inhumane treatment, just a shade underneath torture. So that’s the man who has been confirmed.

What message does it send? It sends two messages to me and I think to our allies and all over the world and to the human rights community. One is that we’re not only refusing to investigate and go up the chain of command in torture, but we are actually elevating the positions of the very torturers, and those involved in torture themselves.

So Alberto Gonzalez is confirmed as attorney general. Judge Michael Chertoff is up for Homeland Security. His nomination (was) held up a little bit pending some of the memos. But he again was apparently involved in approving various techniques that I think constitute torture. You have Donald Rumsfeld being extended for four more years as the Dept. of Defense head, Secretary of Defense, and again he was deeply involved in the abuses. You have Lt. General Ricardo S. Sanchez, head of Iraq at the time of Abu Ghraib, head of the forces there being considered for a fourth star.

So, we’re elevating the people, and in my view that makes all those people who are willing to elevate them, vote for them, think they should get their jobs, essentially complicit — if not in the torture itself — in the cover-up of the torture.

A number of human rights groups have called for either an independent investigation, or special prosecutors to be appointed, on the grounds that Alberto Gonzalez is basically completely disqualified.

 Michael Ratner is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the co- author along with Ellen Ray of the book: “Guantanamo: What The World Should Know.” Contact the Center for Constitutional Rights by calling (212) 614-6464, or visit the Center’s website at www.ccr-ny.org.

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