March 3, 2011
The mainstream media in the US may not care about the significance of the Spanish National Court’s recent decision to allow an investigation into torture at Guantánamo to proceed (the story was ignored by both the New York Times and the Washington Post, even though the Center for Constitutional Rights called it “the first real investigation of the US torture program”), but the Washington Post has at least partly made up for this omission by reporting that a new front in the quest for accountability for those who conceived, justified and ordered America’s program of “extraordinary rendition”and torture in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” has opened up in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, where the US maintains a significant military presence at Camp Lemonnier.
On Monday, the Post reported that the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, based at New York University’s School of Law, and Interights, a British human rights law organization, had filed legal documents (PDF) with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, based in the Gambia. Described by the Post as “a quasi-judicial body that has jurisdiction over nations that have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which includes Djibouti,” the case involves Mohammed al-Asad, a Yemeni who was seized on December 26, 2003 at his home in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, where he had lived since 1985, and was then blindfolded and flown to a secret CIA prison in Djibouti.
After two weeks of torture in Djibouti, he disappeared into a network of secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, where he was, for a time, held with two other Yemenis subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture in a network of secret prisons, as Amnesty International explained in November 2005, in a report entitled, “United States of America/Yemen: Secret Detention in CIA ‘Black Sites’” (PDF). The other two men were Salah Nasser Salim Ali (aka Darwish), who was seized in Indonesia in October 2003, and Mohammed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, who was detained by Jordanian intelligence agents in October 2003, when he was in Jordan to assist his mother who was having an operation.
In May 2005, the three men were returned to Yemen, where they continued to be held — almost certainly at the request of the US authorities — until they were released without charge in 2006.
On Monday, the groups representing al-Asad publicized his case, revealing for the first time documents urging the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to demand that the government of Djibouti “answer for abuses it committed” as part of the CIA’s secret program. Although the case was made public on Monday, the documents were first filed confidentially in December 2009.
As the Post noted, “If the commission accepts the case, it would represent the first international case to inquire into the role of an African country in the US rendition program,” and it is therefore of great significance. Jayne Huckerby, the research director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, stated, “By serving as the doorway for the US secret detention and rendition program in Africa, Djibouti directly violated the human rights of our client.”
The Post also spoke by phone to Mohammed al-Asad, at his home in easterrn Yemen, and he ran through his story, stating that he believes that he was seized simply because the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Saudi Arabian charity, had “rented space in a building [he] owned,” and the charity was “blacklisted after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks for allegedly funding terrorism.” Operating on this kind of vague hunch was not unusual for the Americans after 9/11, unfortunately, and other men held in secret prisons were also picked up because of the alleged activities of al-Haramain, one example being Laid Saidi, an Algerian seized in Tanzania in May 2003, who was held for a week in a detention facility in the mountains of Malawi, then rendered to Afghanistan, where he was held in the “dark prison”, the “salt pit” and another unidentified prison. About a year after he was seized, he was flown to Tunisia, where he was detained for another 75 days, before being returned to Algeria, where he was released.
Describing his detention in Djibouti, Mohammed al-Asad told the Post that he “was placed in a small cell, and not given a change of clothes for the two weeks he was there.” He added that “A woman who identified herself as an American interrogated him,” and also explained that a guard “told him he was in Djibouti and he also noticed a photograph of the country’s president on a wall in the prison.” Later, the Tanzanian authorities “told his father that he had been taken to Djibouti.”
As with all the reported rendiitons, Al-Asad’s transfer from one CIA-run facility to another involved him being blindfolded and bound, and taken to an airport where “five black-clad men masked with balaclavas tore off his clothing and photographed him naked before assaulting him.” He was then chained, hooded, put on a small plane, and flown to what he believes was Afghanistan, where he was held in two separate facilities, and then another country — possibly Romania or Lithuania, where secret prisons are known to have existed, along with a specific torture prison for “high-value detainees” in Poland, even though the Romanians continue to deny their prison’s existence, and the Lithanians recently closed an investigation into their own secret prison.
Mohammed al-Asad told the Post, “I am sure there was a powerful authority behind this kind of treatment,” adding, “It definitely was the United States.” He also explained, “I want those who treated me badly to be brought to justice. I lost everything, my business, my life. I want my rights back.”
It remains to be seen whether his attempt to secure justice will be successful. Certainly, the chances of securing success have to be more positive than in the US, where his fellow detainee, Mohammed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, was thwarted by the Obama administration. With four other victims of the torture program — including British residents Binyam Mohamed and Bisher al-Rawi — Bashmilah, whose detailed account of his “extraordinary rendition” and torture is entitled, “Surviving the Darkness” (PDF), had submitted a lawsuit against Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a Boeing subsidiary that had acted as the CIA’s travel agent for torture. However, although they won the first round in April 2009, last September the Obama administration invoked the little-known and easily abused “state secrets doctrine” to prevent a court from even hearing their claims, on the basis of national security, and an appeals court in California turned down their claim.
Bashmilah and the other plaintiffs may yet succeed in the Supreme Court, although it seems unlikely, given the manner in which the Obama administration has shown itself determined to prevent any calls for accountabiity from even receiving a hearing in the US courts.
Margaret Satterthwaite, one of al-Asad’s attorneys, told the Post that his legal team “had not tried to sue the US government,” although she conceded that it “remains an option.” She noted, however, that, although they had filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests for documents relating to their client from the CIA and other agencies, most of the agencies “responded that they could ‘neither confirm nor deny’ holding records about Asad or denied they had any.” She added, bluntly, “The reason we have not sued the US government is that Mohammed’s goals are to seek justice in a forum that will actually hear him.”
Satterthwaite also explained that the African Commission had “taken preliminary steps to accept the case” but had still “not fully committed to proceed forward with actions against Djibouti,” and the Post noted that the decision to make the case public on Monday was “apparently intended to add pressure” on the Commission to proceed.
She added, “We do hope that making the case public will ensure that all parties involved in the case proceed as expeditiously as possible given the seriousness of the injustice Mr. al-Asad has suffered.”
Finally, the Post spoke to the lawyer and private investigator John Sifton, who has worked extensively on cases involving the CIA program of “extraordinary rendition” and torture. Sifton explained that lawyers first “tried suing the CIA,” before the Jeppesen case, but that, after both approaches failed, “Asad’s attorneys are now using an African forum, on the grounds that an African country — Djibouti — was complicit in the CIA’s acts.” He added, “This is a natural legal strategy, given that US courts have closed their doors to the CIA’s victims.”
He also noted that, “If Asad’s case is accepted and Djibouti is held accountable, it could pave the way for other former CIA detainees who were later found to have no links to terrorism to file suit,” and could “have direct bearing on cases involving several Guantánamo Bay detainees.” He told the Post that “Asad was held at a CIA site with several detainees who are still at Guantánamo,” and that he “may be able to corroborate the forms of mistreatment and torture that were used on detainees, including ones who are still in custody.”
Read all posts by Andy Worthington