To mark the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (in addition to an article here), I’m cross-posting an interview conducted by the ACLU’s Nahal Zamani with Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzini, the wife of Abou Elkassim Britel, an Italian citizen (of Moroccan origin), who was subjected to the CIA’s program of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and is currently serving a nine-year sentence on spurious terrorism charges in a Moroccan jail.
Abou Elkassim Britel is one of five victims of “extraordinary rendition” and torture represented by the ACLU in a lawsuit against Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing that was involved in the CIA’s rendition program as the CIA’s travel agent. I have previously exchanged emails with Khadija (see the comments following my article, “Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture”), and am pleased to reproduce this interview, not only for the insight it provides into the arbitrary nature of the Bush administration’s rendition program, but also to mark the ACLU’s “Accountability for Torture” project on an important day, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which was initiated by the UN eleven years ago.
Awaiting an End to Injustice: Rendition Victim’s Wife Speaks About Accountability and Torture
By Nahal Zamani
Today [June 25], the ACLU’s Human Rights Program and Alkarama for Human Rights sent a request to two UN Special Rapporteurs (human rights experts) asking them to investigate the “extraordinary rendition”, detention and torture of Italian citizen Abou Elkassim Britel.
The ACLU represents Britel and four other men in a civil suit in the US court system. The suit — Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen — alleges that Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing, knowingly participated in the US “extraordinary rendition” program by providing flight and logistical support services to the aircraft used by the CIA to transport Britel from Pakistan to Morocco in May 2002.
The request asks the two UN human rights experts to investigate the circumstances surrounding Britel’s apprehension, detention and interrogation in Pakistan and his clandestine transfer from that country to Morocco; his secret detention without charge or trial in Morocco; and his abusive interrogation also in Morocco. Britel is one of the few victims of the United States’ “extraordinary rendition” program whose identities are known, and the only European citizen, to our knowledge, still detained. To this day, Britel remains incarcerated in a Moroccan prison.
I recently spoke with Britel’s wife, Italian citizen Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzini, and asked her to share their story. The following is excerpted and translated from our conversation.
Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzini: March 10, 2002 was the last time I spoke to my husband and I remember that the phone connection was awful and scratchy. We thought we’d just continue speaking the next day. But then I didn’t hear from him — he disappeared. For 11 months I didn’t have any news. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead.
ACLU: On March 10, 2002, Britel, who was on a business trip in Pakistan, was arrested and detained in Pakistan on immigration charges. After several months in Pakistani detention, during which time he was interrogated by both Pakistani and US officials, Britel was eventually transferred to the exclusive custody of US officials. US officials dressed Britel in a diaper and overalls and shackled and blindfolded him before flying him to Morocco for detention and further interrogation. Britel was detained incommunicado by Moroccan security services at Témara detention center, and subjected to beatings, sleep and food deprivation, and threatened with sexual torture, including sodomy with a bottle and castration. Britel’s family only learned of his fate when Britel was released almost one year after his first disappearance, without charge, in February 2003.
Tragically, on his way back home to Italy in May 2003, Britel was re-arrested by Moroccan authorities, who detained him and under torture coerced him to sign a confession that he was involved in terrorist acts in Morocco. Britel was eventually convicted of terrorism-related charges and sentenced to nine years. To this day, he remains in a Moroccan prison.
Khadija Anna: On the evening of the day that Kassim was supposed to finally leave Morocco, May 16, 2003, there were terrorist attacks in Casablanca. This tragic event took 45 lives and prompted a large-scale police investigation. Kassim was picked up by Moroccan officials as he was leaving the country. His arrest was part of a wave of arrests that occurred immediately before these attacks. Once again, Kassim disappeared.
I had no idea where he was. I tried all over Morocco to find him. I asked the Italian embassy and the Moroccan authorities about him, but both denied they knew anything. I feared the worst because there had been a surge of disappearances by the Moroccan government; thousands were imprisoned, and others had even died during interrogations at the hands of the Moroccan police.
Later, I learned that Kassim had been secretly detained for four months at Témara; the same detention center where he had been detained and tortured only weeks before.
After four months of detention and interrogation, Kassim was whisked through a sham trial, which, according to his attorney, barely met basic fair trial standards. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but on appeal this sentence was reduced to nine years. Meanwhile, the Italian press heard of his story and reported that he was the mastermind behind the bombings in Casablanca — a lie that not even the Moroccan authorities would accuse him of.
Kassim is now incarcerated at Oukasha prison in Casablanca. He is only scheduled to be released in September 2012, yet he has done nothing wrong.
ACLU: In September 2006, following a six-year-long criminal investigation in Italy into Britel’s suspected involvement in terrorist activities, the examining judge dismissed his case, finding a complete lack of any evidence linking Britel with any criminal or terrorism-related activity. Since that time, members of the Italian parliament and European parliament have petitioned the government of Morocco to pardon and release Britel immediately. To date, Moroccan authorities have failed to act upon these diplomatic efforts, and since January 2007 the Italian government has done nothing further to represent Britel’s interests.
Khadija Anna: Official investigations have implicated four governments in my husband’s “extraordinary rendition” and torture. The Pakistani government tortured him so brutally that he confessed he was a terrorist. The CIA abducted and detained him in Pakistan before unlawfully rendering him to certain torture in Morocco; the Moroccan government detained and tortured him; and the Italian government was complicit in the whole affair; they knew full well what was going on and did little or nothing to help him.
The American government is influential, they must intervene to secure my husband’s release and bring him home to Italy. If the American government intervenes, I believe that Italy will call for Britel to be liberated and Morocco will comply. It’s the least they could do given their involvement in his “extraordinary rendition”. I’ve already asked the American embassy in Morocco for a meeting or for an intervention to liberate my husband. I’ve also visited the embassy twice, and spoken to the staff there. Suffice to say, my request has fallen on deaf ears and I don’t know where else to turn.
ACLU: Since March 2002, Britel has been subject to physical and psychological torture and cruel treatment — including severe beatings, isolation, sleep deprivation, and death threats. Britel’s experiences are part of a larger pattern of widespread torture and abuse committed by the US government under the Bush administration. Meaningful accountability for crimes committed in the name of national security must include recognition and compensation for torture victims.
Khadija Anna: Physically, Kassim is weak, and has many physical problems due to the torture and abuse he went through. This has left traces, not only on his soul but also his heart. He’s fighting to stay alive. He’s also fighting for the rights of the other prisoners detained along with him; to improve their conditions as well as his own. He’s gone on hunger strikes many times — sometimes on his own, other times with other prisoners — hoping to bring attention to the conditions inside the prison and to protest his torture.
As for me, I am always tired, and always waiting. It’s been over seven long years since Kassim disappeared. These years have been so painful, but I know that the injustice that I’ve gone through will soon be over. I haven’t given way to hate; nor has Kassim. Instead, we’re waiting for his liberation. We want to live our lives, and to reclaim our rights to live in dignity as citizens and human beings. We look towards to the future; when truth will be heard, when our rights will be restored and when justice will finally be served.
For further information, see Khadija’s website, “Giustizia per Kassim”.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah? and CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009, and follow the links for further articles about al-Libi). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.
For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009) and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.
This from Khadija, Abou Elkassim Britel’s wife:
grazie a Andy per il suo fondamentale lavoro. Scrivo in italiano e spero che qualcuno gentilmente tradurrà.
Vi racconto che nessun giornale italiano ha parlato finora dell’azione dell’American Civil Liberties all’ONU in favore di mio marito Abou Elkassim Britel (se ci uscirà qualcosa vi informerò). E’ facile parlare dei diritti umani di cittadini di altri stati e disconoscere quelli di un cittadino italiano musulmano.
Il governo italiano continua nella sua indifferenza e nel suo silenzio nonostante l’ingiustizia evidente che Kassim subisce ogni giorno in carcere.
La tortura anche per lui continua…
Chiedo ai giornalisti che seguono questo blog un aiuto, di darci voce come ha fatto Andy e come altri hanno fatto (gli articoli sono sul mio sito).
In questi anni l’uso della tortura non ha fatto altro che rendere meno civili le nostre società, la giustificazione della tortura ha avvelenato lentamente i rapporti tra le persone e seminato dubbi, …
E non dimentichiamo le famiglie e ciò che soffrono, …
In questi giorni ho rivissuto tutto quanto mentre rivedevo i documenti insieme agli amici dell’ACLU, sono stata male: mi sento assolutamente impotente di fronte alla sofferenza dei moltissimi che ogni giorno patiscono la tortura.
Come Andy vi esorto a non dimenticare e a lavorare per sostenere chi di tortura è vittima, e sono innumerevoli nel mondo
Ciao, Khadija. Ho dimenticato dirti che parlo italiano (a bastanza):
Khaija wrote (more or less):
Thanks to Andy for his important work. It seems that no Italian newspaper has seen fit to report the ACLU’s actions on behalf of my husband, Abou Elkassim Britel. It’s easy to talk about the human rights of citizens in other countries and to pretend that those of an Italian Muslim don’t exist.
The Italian government continues with its indifference and silence regarding the obvious injustice that Kassim suffers every day in prison.
For him, the torture is also ongoing …
I ask a favor from journalists who follow this blog, to speak out, as has Andy, and as have other journalists (their articles are on my site).
In recent years, the use of torture has done nothing but make out societies less civilized. [Sorry, don’t understand the next section].
And we mustn’t forget the families who also suffer …
In recent days, looking over all the documents sent by my friends at the ACLU has made me feel ill. I feel absolutely impotent when confronted by the suffering of the many people who, everyday, endure torture.
Like Andy, I urge you not to forget, and to work to help the numerous victims of torture around the world.
Well, the only words of Italian appropriate are, to Khadija, brava! and to Andy, bravo! Knowledge is the only form of power we’ve got… I don’t know, for example, how well covered in Italy the Abu Omar story and the trial against intel operatives for his kidnapping is, let alone the Britel story.
All we can all do is get these stories out there, in the hope that public sentiment in Italy, the USA, and everywhere else starts to shift into the only appropriate response: outrage.
After I wrote back to Khadija, she sent the following reply:
Ho visto… splendida sorpresa, io non so, non ho mai studiato l’inglese e mi arrangio come posso
quando parlerò con Kassim racconterò di questo, è un aiuto, così sa che c’è chi non lo dimentica!
il tuo lavoro è molto importante e il tuo serio impegno è evidente.
tu sei una delle tante, brave persone che ho incontrato nella difficoltà di questa situazione, tutti voi ci spingete a tenere viva la speranza, a non perdere la forza anche quando siamo tanto stanchi …
Cerco solo la giustizia, perche la giustizia e in una stata pericolosa in questi giorni.
E tutti dobbiamo provere essere forti per gli altri …
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: