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American War Crimes: Obama to continue 'renditions'

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  • Zafar Khan
    Obama to continue renditions http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2009/08/200982515611934234.html The White House has admitted that Barack Obama s
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2009
      Obama to continue 'renditions'


      The White House has admitted that Barack Obama's government will continue the previous administration's practice of sending terrorism suspects to other countries for detention and interrogation.

      But Obama administration officials told the New York Times on Monday that the treatment of suspects will be monitored to ensure that they are not tortured.

      "The emphasis will be on ensuring that individuals will not face torture if they are sent overseas," an administration official was quoted as saying.

      Upon taking office in January, Obama had ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and of CIA secret prisons or "black sites" abroad.

      Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, said during his confirmation hearings earlier this year that he would not permit the rendition of detainees to foreign countries for the purpose of torture.

      Panetta said Obama had banned "that kind of extraordinary rendition - when we send someone for the purpose of torture or actions by another country that violate our human values".

      "I do not believe we ought to use renditions for the purpose of sending people to 'black sites' [secret prisons in other countries] and not providing the kind of oversight I believe is necessary," he said.

      But he said some kinds of renditions of prisoners were "appropriate".

      "I think renditions where we return individuals to another country where they prosecute them under their laws, I think that is an appropriate use of rendition," Panetta said in February

      'No protection'

      But rights groups say diplomatic assurances on the humane treatment of suspects will not protect them against abuse.

      "It is extremely disappointing that the Obama administration is continuing the Bush administration practice of relying on diplomatic assurances, which have been proven completely ineffective in preventing torture," Amrit Singh of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times.

      Singh, tracked rendition cases under George Bush, Obama's predecessor, cited the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen sent by the US to Syria in 2002.

      He was given assurances against torture but was found to have been repeatedly beaten with electrical cables.

      The Obama administration's decision to continue so-called renditions is based on a series of recommendations proposed by a taskforce the president set up days after taking office in January, to review rendition and interrogation tactics employed by the US..

      The task force proposed improved monitoring of treatment of prisoners sent to other countries, but Singh said the usual method of such monitoring - visits from American or allied consular officials - had been ineffective.

      US to probe CIA abuse allegations


      The US attorney-general has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of abuse by the CIA during interrogations.

      Eric Holder's appointment of John Durham, a federal prosecutor, comes as a CIA report released on Monday revealed that US interrogators threatened to kill a suspect's children and sexually assault another suspect's mother.

      The announcement of the investigation coincided with a White House admission that Barack Obama's government would continue the previous administration's practice of sending terrorism suspects to other countries for detention and interrogation.

      The White House also announced on Monday that it was setting up a new interrogation unit to take over from the CIA any questioning of terrorism suspects.

      Holder's decision to launch an investigation followed a recommendation by the US justice department to consider re-opening several cases of prisoner abuse alleged to have been carried out by CIA employees or contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      "I fully realise that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial," Holder said in a statement.

      "In this case, given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take."

      'Limited scope'

      But Jayne Huckerby, research director at the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, said that Holder had not made the scope of the investigation wide enough.

      "The attorney-general has indicated that it will be a preliminary review into whether federal law was violated in respect of specific interrogations of particular detainees overseas," she told Al Jazeera.

      "On its very terms, [Holder] has limited the scope of the inquiry. Added to the concerns of who will be testifying, what documents will be accessed, it is very concerning that the inquiry will be limited.

      "That is a particularly stark concern, given the other thing that happened today - the release of the 2004 CIA inspector-general's report into secret detention facilities and the interrogation techniques that were used there."

      The CIA report, written by the agency's inspector-general five years ago but made public only on Monday, said interrogators used "unauthorised, improvised, inhumane and undocumented" techniques, including threatening detainees with guns and electric drills.

      The so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques that critics have called torture, went beyond sleep deprivation, withholding food, and waterboarding, where a suspect is made to feel like he is drowning.

      Interrogators threatened to kill the children of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, and implied that another suspect's mother would be sexually assaulted.

      Some officers also fired a gun in a room adjacent to where a prisoner was being held to make him believe another suspect had been executed, the report said.

      Under US law it is illegal to threaten a detainee with imminent death.

      Legal guidelines

      Monday's developments could expose CIA employees and contractors to prosecution for their treatment of suspects.

      Obama has said that those who interrogated suspects based on legal guidelines written by the administration of his predecessor George Bush should not face legal action.

      But Bill Burton, the deputy White House spokesman, acknowledged that Holder has the final say.

      "The president has said repeatedly, he thinks that we should be looking forward, not backward," he said.

      "But, ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the attorney-general."

      Alexander Abdo, from the American Civil Liberties Union's national security project which went to court to get the CIA report made public, told Al Jazeera that his organisation hopes "that agents hesitate in the future before they resort to techniques that amount to torture".

      "We think that is a form of hesitation that is beneficial. It is good for the reputation of the United States, it is good for our PR in parts of the world that might want to do us harm and it is also good in terms of the effectiveness of the interrogation technique.

      "The [US] president made clear in May that he believes that the most effective techniques are not the coercive techniques of the CIA but the rapport-building techniques used by the FBI and other techniques used in the army field manual," he said.

      Renditions to continue

      The apparent attempt to break with the policies of the Bush administration, however, has not extended to the area of so-called extraordinary renditions.

      Obama administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted on Monday that they would continue the practice of sending terrorism suspects abroad to be detained and interrogated.

      They said the state department would be given a larger role in assuring that suspects sent overseas would not be tortured.

      But human rights groups condemned the decision, saying diplomatic assurances were no protection against abuse.

      Also on Monday, Obama approved the formation of a White House-supervised unit to interrogate terrorism suspects.

      Burton said the president had set up the High Value Interrogation Group, which will be housed at the FBI and answer to the National Security Council.

      It will adhere to interrogation guidelines based on the US army field manual, which forbids techniques such as waterboarding, Burton said, adding that the CIA will no longer handle the questioning of people suspected of planning or carrying out attacks.

      "The president's view is that intelligence gathering is best left to the intelligence community," he said.

      US 'gives Red Cross inmate details'


      The Obama administration has starting to lift its veil of secrecy on who is being held prisoner in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      Military officials told The New York Times that International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) officials are now being told who is being held in Special Operation secret camps.

      Unlike the secret prisons run by the CIA that President Barack Obama ordered closed in January, the US military continues to operate the Special Operations camps, which it calls temporary screening sites, in Balad, Iraq, and Bagram, Afghanistan.

      As many as 30 to 40 foreign prisoners have been held at the camp in Iraq at any given time, military officials said; they did not provide an estimate for the Afghan camp but suggested that the number was smaller.

      The ICRC is allowed access to almost all American military prisons and battlefield detention sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Special Operations camps have been excluded.

      Comment declined

      A spokesman for the ICRC in Washington, Bernard Barrett, declined to comment on the new notification policy, citing the organisation's longstanding practice of refusing to talk about its discussions with the defence department about detention issues.

      The New York Times reported in 2006 that some soldiers at the temporary detention site in Iraq, then located at Baghdad international airport and called Camp Nama, beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces, and used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball.

      Military officials say conditions at the camps have improved significantly since then, but virtually all details of the sites remain shrouded in secrecy.

      The US military had previously insisted that disclosing any details about detainees at the secretive camps could tip off other fighters and jeopardise counterterrorism missions.

      Another shift

      Separately, Eric Holder, the US attorney-general, is expected to decide in the next several days whether to appoint a criminal prosecutor to investigate the interrogations of suspects accused of being involved in terrorism after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

      The new Pentagon policy on detainees took effect this month with no public announcement from the military or the ICRC.

      It represents another shift in detention policy by the Obama administration, which has already vowed to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by next year and is conducting reviews of the government's procedures for interrogating and detaining fighters.

      Toll rises in Pakistan drone attack


      The death toll from a suspected US air raid in Pakistan has risen after nine more bodies were pulled from the rubble, officials have said.

      Three Pakistani intelligence officers said on Saturday that 21 people had been killed in the attack in the village of Dande Darpa Khel in North Waziristan a day earlier.

      A local tribal elder said six children were among the dead.

      The attack on a housing compound in the village was thought to have been aimed at Siraj Haqqani, a Taliban commander with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.

      It was unclear whether he was among the dead.

      None of the dead were identified, but the officials said local informants told them all those in the compound were Afghans.

      Taliban 'mastermind'

      Dande Darpa Khel is the Pakistani stronghold of Haqqani, who is blamed for masterminding ambushes on US troops in Afghanistan.

      He has a large Islamic religious school in the village that was hit by a suspected US missile in October 2008, killing about 20 people.

      Siraj is the son of senior Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was supported by the US and Pakistan when he fought in the 1980s against Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan.

      Now, US commanders count him as a dangerous foe.

      Father and son are alleged to have close connections to al-Qaeda and to have helped funnel foreign fighters into Afghanistan to fight Nato troops.

      The Haqqanis have also been linked to an attempt to kill Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and to a suicide attack on a hotel in Kabul last year.

      Raids increase

      Friday's raid was the third in three weeks by what are believed to be CIA-operated pilotless aircraft.

      Pakistani and US officials believe Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief, was killed in a similar strike in neighbouring South Waziristan on August 5.

      The US has carried out about 52 drone air raids since the beginning of last year.

      The death toll stands at about 480 people, including many foreign fighters, according to a tally of reports from Pakistani intelligence agents, district government officials
      and residents.

      US officials rarely acknowledge the air strikes but a senior legislator, Senator Dianne Feinstein, told a US Senate hearing in February that the drones were being operated and flown from an air base inside Pakistan.

      Pakistan denied the claim, saying no permission had ever been issued for the

      Pakistan officially protests drone assaults as a violation of its sovereignty.

      The government also worries that the raids could undermine efforts to deal with the Taliban because the civilian casualties they cause inflame public anger and bolster support for the fighters.

      Deadly 'US drone raid' in Pakistan


      At least 10 people have been killed after a suspected US drone fired missiles into Pakistan's North Waziristan region, Pakistani intelligence agency officials have said.

      The raid on Friday on Darpa Kheil village was the third such attack this month in Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal areas by what are believed to be CIA-operated pilotless aircraft.

      "The attack caused a huge explosion," said a Reuters reporter in Miranshah, about 2km from the scene of the raid.

      Drones were seen flying over the area after the blast, he said.

      Madrassa attacked

      Darpa Kheil village is home to a large madrassa, or religious school, set up by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former veteran Afghan fighter commander who is also a senior Taliban leader.

      US drone aircraft attacked the complex in September last year, killing 23 people, most of them members of Haqqani's family.

      Pakistani and US officials believe Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief, was killed in a similar strike in neighbouring South Waziristan on August 5.

      Pakistan, an ally of the US, which is fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the region, officially objects to US drone attacks on its soil, saying they violate its sovereignty.

      Guantanamo's 'more evil twin'?


      It is a US-run prison built from scratch on an US military base to hold "enemy combatants" captured in the so-called "war on terror".

      Those imprisoned there have never been charged with a crime, nor do they have any meaningful way of challenging their detention.

      The inmates allege abuse at the hands of their captors, ranging from sleep deprivation to brutal beatings. And no, it is not Guantanamo Bay.

      The Bagram Theatre Internment Facility lies on a sprawling US military complex, 40km northeast of the Afghan capital Kabul. It holds almost three times as many prisoners as Guantanamo and, as its better-known Cuban counterpart prepares to close, the Bagram prison is about to double in size.

      You could be forgiven for never having heard of the prison at Bagram. After all, Barack Obama, the US president, does not like to mention it, preferring to concentrate on his flagship policy of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility.

      Journalists are not allowed to visit and lawyers are banned from the premises. Even the number of prisoners held there remains an official secret. Estimates suggest it currently houses more than 600 but exact details remain classified by US authorities.

      While Guantanamo has been in the spotlight in recent years, Bagram has operated in the shadows. The first announcement of detentions at Bagram came in January 2002 and, as the US renditions programme swung into action, the site became a key regional hub in a global network of prisons.

      'Terrifying experience'

      It was often used as a holding site for those on their way to Guantanamo Bay. Omar Deghayes was held in Bagram in 2002 before he was transferred to Cuba. He says it was a terrifying experience.

      "Lying on the floor of the compound, all night I would hear the screams of others in the rooms above us as they were tortured and interrogated," he says.

      "My number would be called out, and I would have to go to the gate. They chained me and put a bag over my head, dragging me off for my own turn. They would force me to my knees for questioning, and threaten me with more torture."

      As American actions in Guantanamo became more visible, Bagram's role in the system changed.

      While Guantanamo's population declined, Bagram's increased. With the former coming under increasing scrutiny, the latter had become a destination as well as a hub.

      Last summer, while Barack Obama campaigned on promises to close Guantanamo Bay and end CIA detentions, the US government approved plans for a $50mn redevelopment of the prison at Bagram.

      Construction of the project is now well underway.

      The new 40-acre site will have space for 1100 inmates and there will be low and high-risk detainee units spread across multiple buildings. There will be recreation yards, guard towers and specialist medical facilities.

      The structures are described as "semi-permanent," suggesting that the new prison will be in use for some time to come.

      With Guantanamo's days numbered, lawyers and campaigners are shifting their attention to those held in Bagram. Top of their list of priorities are efforts to force the US government to release the identities of those held there.

      'Shrouded in secrecy'

      In the US, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act in a bid to obtain details about the inmates. The requests have been refused.

      "There are serious concerns that Bagram is another Guantanamo – except with many more prisoners, less due process, no access to lawyers or courts and reportedly worse conditions," says Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.

      "As long as the Bagram prison is shrouded in secrecy, there is no way to know the truth or begin to address the problems that exist there."

      But the US government rejects the argument that the two groups of prisoners qualify for the same rights.

      The Pentagon says that Bagram is a "battlefield" prison and that those held there are prisoners of war.

      It also denies allegations of ongoing mistreatment at the site, pointing out that prisoners receive regular visits from the International Committee of Red Cross.

      "Department of Defence policy is and always has been to treat detainees humanely," a Pentagon statement said after a recent BBC investigation turned up more allegations of abuse.

      "There have been well-documented instances where that policy was not followed, and service members have been held accountable for their actions."

      Challenge to incarcerations

      But judges in the US see at least some parallels between Guantanamo and Bagram.

      A US court ruled earlier this year that foreign nationals arrested outside of Afghanistan and flown to Bagram - believed to be a minority of those held there - are eligible to challenge their detention in court.

      However, without any means of accessing the prison or identifying the prisoners, lawyers cannot obtain the necessary authorisations to begin proceedings.

      The deadlock is forcing them to seek other ways to discover who is being held in the prison.

      Reprieve, a London-based legal charity that represents prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, announced it was suing the UK government this week in a bid to obtain the identities of two Bagram prisoners that British forces captured in Iraq in 2004 and handed to the US military.

      The two men were rendered to Afghanistan and have been held in Bagram ever since. After years of denying involvement, the British government finally admitted its role in their capture earlier this year and apologised.

      Detainees' names withheld

      But, citing the men's privacy rights, the government has refused to release their names. Without identifying them, lawyers cannot act for the men.

      Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve, explained why the charity was launching the action: "Imagine, if you will, that a criminal was to apologise for taking part in a kidnap, but then refuse to name his victims, or to help secure their freedom. We would hardly accept the apology as being sincere."

      "Here, the government admits its involvement in the crime of rendition, says it apologises, but then does nothing to reunite the victims with their legal rights."

      Even if prisoner lists were to be released, only those inmates who were rendered to Bagram from another country would be eligible for legal representation. The Afghan inmates, who make up the majority of the prison population, have no access to any form of judicial process.

      Advocates for the prison say that it is on a "battlefield" and class its inmates as prisoners of war, who are therefore not entitled to challenge their detention.

      But critics point out that in a war where there is no uniformed enemy, innocent men may have been swept up and detained.

      The best hope for Afghan inmates lies in being classed a "Low Level Enemy Combatant" at one of the periodical military review boards that all prisoners in Bagram face.

      This designation can be enough for them to be transferred to Afghan custody, where they can access a lawyer. But the prisoners' review boards are run by their accusers, evidence is classified, no defence can be submitted and they are not allowed to attend the hearing.

      It's a long way from the sort of justice that human rights campaigners would like to see administered in Bagram. Having fought their way through the courts to win freedom for at least some of the men held in Cuba, they are now gearing up to take on what they call "Guantanamo's more evil twin."

      The US government, on the other hand, is intent on blocking such moves.

      Campaigners may see Guantanamo and Bagram as twins, but the Obama administration has made it clear in recent months that it does not believe the two prisons are cut from the same cloth, nor that their respective populations should be treated identically.

      As the arguments progress, 600 nameless men are waiting to see how much family ties really matter in the world of US military detention.
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