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Extraordinary Rendition  


Ken Coates  


‘What I want to do, and this is something that has to be discussed very closely with the Muslim community...is to be in a position where if someone is a foreign national coming to preach in this country, they are not going to be preaching this type of extremism, and if they do, they have just got to understand they’re not going to come in. What I am trying to do here is, and this will be followed up with the action in the next few weeks as I think you will see, is to send a clear signal out that the rules of the game have changed.’  


Tony Blair, Press Conference, 5th August 2005  


‘Unless we start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, I am lying and that behind this there is some kind of secret state in league with some dark forces in the US, and we believe Secretary Rice is lying, there is simply no truth in claims that the UK has been involved in rendition.’  


Jack Straw speaking to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on 13th December 2005  



‘The rules of the game have changed.’ Tony Blair’s press conference on the 5th August 2005 was followed by a whole series of public announcements to the same effect. But precision was nowhere to be found. Which rules have changed, in what game? By whom have the changes been made, and where are they codified? Such systematic vagueness may be appropriate to a threat, but not to a law. On the 15th August Mr. Blair announced the strengthening of the powers of the Home Office ‘to deport those fostering hatred, advocating violence to further their beliefs or justifying or validating such violence.’ The Foreign Office, not to be left on the shelf, ‘was drawing up a list of websites, bookshops, networks and organisations of people considered to be inciting hatred’. Here the law was about to be invoked, but with similar imprecision. Sin is firmly declared to be sinful, but its boundaries are nowhere delineated. Instead, Mr. Blair said, ‘Active engagement with any of this’ (whatever it is) ‘will be a trigger’ for deportation.  


All these measures raised an immediate problem in the shape of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids deportations to countries that practice torture, even in cases where the pressures of sin might be expected. Mr. Blair had prepared his answer to this objection: special agreements would be negotiated with the torturers not to deploy their skills on those who were about to be forcibly returned to them. There was an immediate chorus of disbelief from human rights organisations, who realistically pointed out that all such undertakings were beyond credibility. Most torturers deny their activities, but to extract such a pledge, leave alone to verify its performance, would test the skills of even the most accomplished diplomats in the British Foreign Services. And such diplomats, judging by the activities of the Foreign Office in and around Iraq, are not so very numerous as might have been desired.  


In any case, following on this declaration in August, only one torturing Government, that of Jordan, has in the succeeding months offered to sign up to such an accord. The other torturers, and their name is legion, are too modest to claim credit for their achievements, and quite unwilling to enter into the desired recognizances in future.  


  But we are bound to admit that the deportation of Mr. Blair’s new category of thought criminals covers only the most modest part of the torture industry. We have seen the exposure of the regime in the American prison at Guantánamo, even though extensive measures have been taken to avoid undesirable publicity there. Then there has been the echoing atrocity of behaviour in Abu Ghraib. Macabre revelations have taken their time to percolate through from impromptu dungeons in Afghanistan. And then, in the concluding days of 2005, there has been a welter of accusations about rendition and extraordinary rendition, around the world by a fleet of special CIA planes. The purposes of these processes vary. Where they result in direct torture of the victims, this is alleged to serve the interests of ‘intelligence’. But information gathered from the victims of torture can be in the highest degree unreliable, and certainly some part of the imbecility of the intelligence services in the advanced countries during the prelude to the war in Iraq can be attributed to misinformation gathered by means of torture. An ancillary purpose of this form of intimidation has been to gather evidence in order to secure convictions in the Courts. In Britain, the Law Lords have given their own view on this disreputable activity. Such evidence they have declared to be null.

This most recent disquiet about the torturers began with rather modest revelations. The New York Times reported on the deaths (at Bagram in 2002) of two Afghan prisoners.  


  ‘The prisoner, a slight, 22-year-old taxi driver known only as Dilawar, was hauled from his cell at the detention centre in Bagram, Afghanistan, at around 2 a.m. to answer questions about a rocket attack on an American base. When he arrived in the interrogation room, an interpreter who was present said his legs were bouncing uncontrollably in the plastic chair and his hands were numb. He had been chained by the wrists to the top of his cell for much of the previous four days. Mr. Dilawar asked for a drink of water, and one of the two interrogators, Specialist Joshua R. Claus, 21, picked up a large plastic bottle. But first he punched a hole in the bottom, the interpreter said, so as the prisoner fumbled weakly with the cap, the water poured out over his orange prison scrubs. The soldier then grabbed the bottle back and began squirting the water forcefully into Mr. Dilawar’s face.  


“Come on, drink!” the interpreter said Specialist Claus had shouted, as the prisoner gagged on the spray. “Drink!”  At the interrogators’ behest, a guard tried to force the young man to his knees. But his legs, which had been pummelled by the guards for several days, could no longer bend. An interrogator told Mr. Dilawar that he could see a doctor after they finished with him. When he was finally sent back to his cell, though, the guards were instructed only to chain the prisoner back to the ceiling.  “Leave him up,” one of the guards quoted Specialist Claus as saying.  


Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Mr. Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.’  


President Hamid Karzai addressed this question in May 2005 when he demanded ‘very, very strong action’ against abuse by American military personnel. ‘The people of the United States are very kind people’, he said. ‘It is only one or two individuals who are bad.’  There have turned out to be rather more bad individuals than the President suspected. Perhaps his confinement in the secure zone of Kabul has restricted his vision. In fact, since 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency has captured some three thousand people who have been ferried around the world in a fleet of special planes, to be ‘rendered’.  


According to Der Spiegel, there have been 437 CIA flights which have either landed in Germany or crossed German air space. The French are aware of two jets which carried prisoners to Guantánamo. In Britain, 210 flights are alleged to have used British airports. And in Portugal there have been reported 34 such landings. Ten CIA flights are alleged to have touched down at Tenerife and Majorca, whilst 67 flights have, it is claimed, landed in Iceland since the year 2001. In Italy there have been 17 secret flights by the CIA which landed there between July 2002 and May 2005, if we are to believe Corriere della Sera. Plane spotters have been monitoring some of this bizarre tourist trade. Their web pages have listed some of the movements of the flights of a Gulfstream V, one of the CIA’s planes, which is recorded as having landed at Jakarta’s military airport and taken away Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, suspected of working for al Qaeda, to interrogation in Egypt. The plane spotters’ lists track the Gulfstream V to Islamabad, Karachi, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Baghdad, Kuwait City, Baku in Azerbaijan, and Rabat in Morocco. The same plane has landed often at Dulles International Airport in the United States, at Jordan’s military airport in Amman, and at airports in Frankfurt, Glasgow and Larnaca.  


The Guardian reported on December 10th on the activities of Paul, who has been monitoring movements at Glasgow Airport, but who has been in regular contact, they say, with people as far away as Bournemouth and Karachi, building up a picture of this hyperactive network of renditions. One of these volunteers is apparently a Spanish town planner ‘who is part of a small group who gather with their long lenses and foil-wrapped sandwiches at Majorca’s Son Sant Joan Airport’.  


Of course, the very extensive movements that have been monitored in parts of the press do appear to involve rigorous intelligence, and we are bound to wonder whether the volunteer plane spotters may, unbeknown to themselves, have been able to draw upon information volunteered by rogue intelligence specialists. So profound is the alienation engendered by the war in Iraq and its related operations that nobody can be absolutely sure who works for whom in the present heaving spook stew.  


Who are the involuntary tourists ferried about by the Central Intelligence Agency?  Many of them, perhaps most of them, may have been to some extent involved in terrorism. But others are simply unfortunate victims of error, like the poor taxi driver who was put to death by his interrogators in Bagram. Since this has become a thriving industry, the numbers of innocent victims have, of course, increased.  But there is another victim. Whoever, and however many of the abducted persons are ‘wrongly’ taken, the kidnap of even the wickedest and most brutal of terrorists strikes a fearsome blow at the rule of law itself.

Henry Porter captures the horror of this situation in a report in The Observer on the 11th  December 2005.  


  ‘I heard a story about five Egyptian al Qaeda suspects being arrested in Albania and flown to Egypt. The important part was that this had happened before 11 September 2001 – during the Clinton administration – proof that rendition was an established CIA practice.  So I flew to Tirana, stayed in the Rogner Hotel and waited for various contacts I had been given to return my calls. If you hang about in the Rogner sooner or later you meet everyone you need and with the help of a fixer – one of the few Albanian males I met who was not suffering some mild psychotic disorder – I got to the bottom of the story of how five men were trapped by the electronic surveillance of the local intelligence service and were transported to Cairo by the CIA. They were all tortured and two were hanged.

Since it had all happened in 1998 people didn’t mind talking about it. Only when I asked about current operations against al Qaeda in the Balkans did the shutters come down. I left Tirana for Cairo and after many false trails found the facilities where these things were likely to have happened. I also learned that American intelligence officers were part of the process.  They did not simply leave the rendered suspects, but remained on hand to receive information produced by the interrogation. That America was collaborating with torturers was shocking, but it was seeing these facilities that brought home to me the terror and despair of the men who were wrung dry before being executed.’  


The extent of rendition was convincingly summarised by the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice in New York University School of Law at the beginning of December 2005. Their findings have been distributed by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, in the British House of Commons.  


  ‘Extraordinary Renditions have been widely reported in the media. These public sources indicate, for example, that:  


  Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari were expelled from Sweden on December 18, 2001, and transferred to Egypt. According to the Swedish TV programme Kalla Fakta, both men were flown on a Gulfstream V jet alleged to be owned by a US company and which reportedly is used mainly by the US Government. The Swedish Government relied upon “diplomatic assurances” from Egypt that the two men would not be tortured and would have fair trials upon return. US agents were involved in the transfer of Agiza and al-Zari. The UN Committee against Torture recently held that in deporting Agiza and al-Zari to Egypt, Sweden violated the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  



Egyptian-born Hassan Osama Nasr (also known as Abu Omar*) disappeared from his city of residence, Milan, in February 2003. He briefly surfaced fifteen months later, when he called his family in Italy claiming to have been kidnapped by US and Italian forces, taken to Egypt and tortured. Based on the latest available information, Abu Omar is being held in the Tora prison on the edge of the Egyptian capital Cairo. Italian authorities are currently conducting an inquiry into Nasr’s purported kidnapping. On 23 June 2005, an Italian judge issued arrest warrants for thirteen alleged CIA agents in connection with Abu Omar’s kidnapping. On the same day, another Italian judge issued an indictment against Abu Omar for crimes relating to terrorism. In July 2005, the Italian authorities issued warrants for six more alleged CIA agents accused of helping plan the kidnapping. In November 2005, prosecutors requested that the Italy’s Justice Ministry seek the extradition of the CIA agents from the United States.  


Khaled El-Masri*, a German citizen born in Lebanon, was arrested by police at the Macedonian border on 21 December 2003. He was then reportedly held in a Macedonian hotel room for twenty-three days. During this time he says he was constantly interrogated by Macedonian agents about connections to Islamic organisations, and accused of having been in a terrorist training camp in Jalalabad. At the end of this time he was allegedly beaten, stripped, shackled, blindfolded, and placed aboard a plane. El-Masri was delivered to a prison in Afghanistan that he says was nominally run by Afghan officials but was actually under US control. While in the prison he was repeatedly interrogated, and photographed naked by individuals el-Masri identified as US agents. US authorities have neither confirmed nor denied these allegations. In May of 2004, el-Masri was returned to Europe, having never been charged with a crime. A reporter, Stephen Grey and the ZDF television show Frontal 21, have independently determined that the details of al-Masri’s statement coincide with the flight schedule of a US-chartered Boeing 737 used by the CIA. El-Masri’s release was reportedly personally ordered by the US Secretary of State Rice after she learned the man had been mistakenly identified as a terrorist suspect. German authorities are currently investigating the case, and have determined that he was in Afghanistan during the time of his disappearance by using isotope analysis of his hair.  


In October 2001, Jamil Qasim Aseed Mohammed, a Yemeni microbiology student, was allegedly flown from Pakistan to Jordan on a US-registered Gulfstream jet after Pakistan’s intelligence agency reportedly surrendered him to US authorities at Karachi airport. US officials alleged that Aseed Mohammed was an al Qaeda operative who played a role in the bombing of the USS Cole. The handover of the shackled and blindfolded Aseem Mohammed reportedly took place in the middle of the night in a remote corner of the airport, without the benefit of extradition or deportation procedures.  Apparently acting on information provided by the CIA, Indonesian authorities reportedly detained Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni in early January 2002. Iqbal Madni is suspected by the CIA of having worked with Richard Reid (the “shoebomber”). ccording to a senior Indonesian official, a few days later, Egypt formally sked Indonesia to extradite Iqbal, who carried an Egyptian as well as a Pakistan passport. The request did not specify the crime, noting broadly that Egypt sought Iqbal in connection with terrorism. On 11 January, allegedly without a court hearing or a lawyer, Iqbal was put aboard an unmarked US-registered Gulfstream V jet and flown to Egypt. A senior Indonesian official said that an extradition request from Egypt provided political cover to comply with the CIA’s request. “This was a US deal all along”, the senior official said, “Egypt just provided the formalities”.  


In September 2002, US immigration authorities, reportedly with the approval of then acting Attorney General Larry Thompson, authorised the “expedited removal” of a Syrianborn Canadian citizen, Maher Arar*, to Syria under section 235(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act 1952. US authorities alleged that Arar had links to al Qaeda. While in transit at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Arar was taken into custody by officials from the FBI and Immigration and Naturalisation Service (since reorganized into the Department of Homeland Security) and shackled. Arar’s requests for a lawyer were dismissed on the basis that he was not a US citizen and therefore he did not have the right to counsel. Despite the fact that he is a Canadian citizen and has resided in Canada for seventeen years, Arar’s pleas to return to Canada were ignored. Officials repeatedly questioned Arar about his connection to certain members of al Qaeda. Arar denied that he had any connections whatsoever to the named individuals. He was eventually put on a small jet that first landed in Washington DC, and then in Amman, Jordan. Once in Amman, Arar was allegedly blindfolded, shackled and transferred to Syria in a van. Arar was then placed in a prison where he was allegedly beaten for several hours and forced to falsely confess that he had attended a training camp in Afghanistan in order to fight against the US. Arar remained in Syria for ten months during which he was repeatedly beaten, tortured, and kept in a shallow grave. Arar has subsequently been released and returned to Canada. No charges were ever filed against him in any of the countries involved in his transfer. Following intense public pressure, Canada initiated a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Arar’s transfer. The US has refused the invitation to participate in the Canadian inquiry. US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that the Arar case fits the profile of extraordinary rendition.  


Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib was arrested in Pakistan in October 2002 and, reportedly at the request of the US authorities, flown to Egypt where he was allegedly severely tortured. Habib remained in Egypt for six months, after which he was transferred to Guantánamo. On 11 January 2005, Habib was released from Guantánamo without charge and subsequently transferred to Australia.’

Some of these cases we have marked with an asterisk, because they are treated in greater depth within this issue. They have been chosen to exemplify some particular features which are worthy of note, and stand out from the general, very dismal, picture.  At the time of writing, various national Parliaments and the European Parliament have become seized of this question. There are continuing contentious investigations. Allegations have been made that former Soviet air bases in Poland have been taken over by the CIA, and used, alongside similar facilities in Romania, to keep ‘senior al Qaeda suspects’. Human Rights Watch reported that some twenty-five prisoners were being held secretly at two bases in Poland, and the American Network ABC quoted CIA sources to say that these prisoners had recently been cleared away from Europe and moved to North Africa, ‘to avoid embarrassment during Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Europe’.

Meantime, Dick Marty, representing the Council of Europe, has opened an investigation in Poland and elsewhere to ascertain whether or not the Poles’ strenuous denials hold water or not.  


Alvaro Gil Robles, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, has also come across a questionable installation at the American Camp Bondsteel near Pristina in Kosovo.  


Denials, claims and counter-claims darken the air and fill the press with confusing headlines. But the scandal of rendition will not go away, and already there are signs that those politicians who seek to obscure the truth about what has been happening have now passed the point at which their protestations do more damage to their own reputation than they do to the unfortunate victims whose systematic mistreatment has darkened the earliest days of the twenty-first century.  


Those who are concerned to treasure human rights, and build a culture of freedom, are already reaching the point of no return, and will soon be recognizing a new need: that we must start again to build a society and a polity where men and women can breathe freely.



Ken Coates is editor of The Spokesman. Reviews of his recent book, Empire No More!, by Tony Benn, Bruce Kent, Jim Mortimer and others can be read here.


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