Last Saturday, for the first time, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, founded in 1986, heard a case relating to the program of rendition and torture established under George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, with particular reference to US crimes committed on African soil.
The case was brought by the Global Justice Clinic, based at the Center for Human Rights and Justice at New York University School of Law and by the London-based INTERIGHTS (the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights), and it concerns the role played by Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, as part of the program of rendition, secret detention and torture run by the CIA on Bush’s orders, with specific reference to the case of Mohammed al-Asad, a Yemeni citizen, who, as the Global Justice Clinic explained in a press release, “was secretly detained, tortured and interrogated in Djibouti for several weeks in 2003 and 2004 before being forcibly transferred to a CIA ‘black site.'”
As the press release also explained:
In December 2003, Mohammed al-Asad was abducted from his family home in Tanzania and taken to a secret detention site in Djibouti where he was placed in isolation in a filthy cell, interrogated, and subjected to cruel treatment. He was deprived of all contact with the outside world, and was not able to contact a lawyer, his family, or the ICRC. After two weeks, Djibouti handed al-Asad to CIA agents who assaulted him, stripped him naked, photographed him, then dressed him in a diaper, and strapped him to the floor of a CIA transport plane. He endured 16 months of secret detention before he was transferred to Yemen and eventually released without ever being charged with a terrorism-related crime.
The first documents in this case were filed confidentially in December 2009, although it didn’t become public knowledge until March 2011, when, as I reported at the time, the groups representing al-Asad urged the Commission to “demand that the government of Djibouti ‘answer for abuses it committed’ as part of the CIA’s secret program.”
At the time, I also wrote that al-Asad had “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.”
I added, “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.”
When the story of al-Asad and the African Commission was first made publicly available in February 2011, the Washington Post reported it, speaking to al-Asad in Yemen, who explained that he believed 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 renditions, 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.”
Last week, announcing that the African Commission had agreed to the hearing, the Global Justice Clinic and INTERIGHTS noted that it “presents an historic and unprecedented opportunity for the African community to hold African perpetrators of human rights violations accountable for their role in the extraordinary rendition program,” which began almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks (see the story of Jamal Mar’i here), and continued throughout the rest of Bush’s presidency, although it was mostly curtailed after the Supreme Court reminded Bush in June 2006, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, that all prisoners in the “war on terror” were entitled to the protections of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits “cruel treatment and torture,” and “humiliating and degrading treatment.”
The press release added, “The rendition program was executed by a ‘spider’s web’ of international actors who unlawfully detained and interrogated suspects with the aim of gathering actionable intelligence. The program relied on at least 50 countries, including Djibouti, to carry out clandestine activities in their territories with no accountability,” as was revealed in a major report published in February this year by the Open Society Justice Initiative. “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition,” the first major report since the UN report in 2010 on which I was the lead writer, “identifie[d] for the first time a total of 136 named victims and describe[d] the complicity of 54 foreign governments in these operations.”
The Global Justice Clinic and INTERIGHTS also pointed out that “US courts have repeatedly declined to hear cases of rendition victims on the basis of state secrets, effectively blocking domestic avenues for redress,” and that “Djibouti has failed to take action on Mr. al-Asad’s claims of torture and secret detention in Djibouti or to provide him and his family with redress.”
Judy Oder, a lawyer at INTERIGHTS, stated, “The extraordinary rendition program was designed to deny detainees all avenues to justice. Mr. Al-Asad’s experience was sadly not an isolated instance: over the past decade we have seen a wave of such cases across Africa. By allowing Mr. Al-Asad’s case to proceed, the Commission would open an alternative path of justice to victims of the rendition programme and help to ensure that those African states which participate in secretive unlawful transfers are held to account.”
Looking back on his ordeal, Mohammed al-Asad said, “I try hard to forget, but this injustice lasts forever. It has destroyed my business and traumatized me and my family. I am hopeful that I will get justice from the African Commission.”
I hope so too.
Note: For documents related to the lawsuit, please see here, and for a declaration by Mohammed al-Asad, see here. For further reports on the hearing and its significance, see this article on the newly-established Just Security website, and this article by John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, who testified at the hearing.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
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Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this story. I still remember when I first heard about the case of Mohammed al-Asad and the two other Yemenis held in “black sites” and then freed. It was in April 2006, with the publication of the Amnesty International report, “Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and ‘disappearance'”: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR51/051/2006
That was at the same time that I began the work on Guantanamo and other crimes committed by the US and its allies in the “war on terror,” work that continues to this day. It is horribly wrong that Mr. al-Asad, who will mark the 10th anniversary of his abduction on December 26, still seeks justice of any kind from his kidnappers and torturers in the US.
Torture creates *more* terrorists, not less of them.
Yes, Thomas. A simple and important lesson that no leaders in the west – with all their hypocritical talk of our own values – seems to want to understand or act upon. President Obama speaks well, but his actions thoroughly undermine the impact of his fine words.
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. 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.
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