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     Volume 4 Issue 75 | December 16, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

"Extraordinary" Indeed!

Farah Ghuznavi

In the last fortnight, there has been a controversy raging in Europe over secret CIA flights alleged to be carrying prisoners to places where they have been subject to torture and illegal imprisonment. While the US is engaged in an intensive damage-control exercise, there are many of us who wonder why it has taken so long for these matters to come to the attention of the general public!

After all, it is hardly news that the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay have been operating in a kind of "black hole", where no recognised legal system applies and international law is somehow regarded as an irrelevance. Whatever the detainees may or may not have done, it cannot justify the legal limbo in which they are held (for an indefinite period ; presumably, for ever, if necessary) in which even the United Nations and the International Red Cross are not given free access to them, let alone their own lawyers, if they are fortunate enough to have any!

If such a system can be so openly and brazenly defended by the US government as a valid way of treating "enemy combatants" (yet another fictitious term, recognised by none except those who insist on using it!), it begs the question of what might be happening in the more shadowy operations of international espionage.

So while the "warrior of democracy" Condoleezza Rice works hard on reassuring skittish European governments that a) nothing illegal was taking place, b) the US government would investigate whatever was taking place and c) while Washington had carried out "renditions" of suspects, that was never done in violation of other countries' sovereignty, and never where it was believed that the individual might be tortured, it becomes hard to believe anything that is being said!

For one thing, why does the US government need to investigate what it's own agencies are up to? Shouldn't they be aware of such covert activities? Or are we expected to believe that they don't know already? If so, would that make them liars or fools? Neither option is particularly attractive.

For another thing, how on earth can people be expected to believe that when any government - let alone the leader of the free world! - delivers suspects through "extraordinary rendition" to other governments which are infamous for their use of torture, the country doing deliveries is not complicit in the torture that subsequently takes place??

Few could have failed to be astonished by Dr. Rice's recent acknowledgement of the CIA's "mistake" to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. But surely the mistake was not in what was done, but in getting caught doing it! After all, according to the Secretary of State, " extraordinary rendition" - a process where suspects are moved from the country of their capture to another country for questioning, detention or trial - is "a vital tool" for tackling transnational terrorism.

But, she has taken pains to reassure us (and of course, the European leaders), torture and conspiracy to torture are crimes under US and international law (so rarely referred to by this administration!), and the US does not employ "rendition" to move a suspect to a country where he might be tortured. Nor, the Secretary of State added in words directed to Germany, did Washington use "the airports or airspace of any country" to transport a prisoner to a country where he or she might be tortured. The million-dollar question then, of why suspects are being transported to these countries at all, remains conveniently unanswered!

As do Khaled Al Masri's questions. A German citizen, Mr Masri was picked up off a coach at the Serb-Macedonian border crossing. His name, identical to one of the hijackers on September the 11th, had lit up a police computer. While he waited to clear immigration in Macedonia, the border police informed the local CIA station (!), which contacted the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia. According to the UK Independent, the head of the CIA's counter-terrorist unit then ordered Mr Masri's "extraordinary rendition" because she had "a hunch" that he was involved in terrorist activities!

After several hours of interrogation, Mr Masri was released by the Macedonian police, but immediately grabbed on the street by several men who put a hood over his head, and took him to a location where he was beaten, stripped naked and given a powerful sleeping potion. He was handcuffed, blindfolded, injected with drugs, and awoke some hours later to find himself in Afghanistan! This was just the beginning of a five-month ordeal, where unknown to his family and friends, he would be tied up, tortured and abused before being dumped in Albania.

Although he has been reunited with his family since his release, Mr. Masri's problems are far from over. He is now traumatised and unemployed - even shunned by his friends, because of the publicity surrounding his case. According to the Washington Post, after they realised their mistake, the CIA simply tried to dump Mr. Masri and "act as if nothing had happened"…!

In Khaled Al Masri's own words, "I have very bad feelings about the United States…I think it's just like in the Arab countries: arresting people, treating them inhumanly and less than that, and with no rights and no laws."

Despite Dr. Rice's extraordinary defence of "rendition" as a practice, there is little doubt that others remain unconvinced. Her claim that no country's sovereignty has been compromised, just raises further questions about the complicity of European governments in turning a blind eye (or worse) to these alleged CIA flights. And it is no wonder that the European governments concerned are feeling nervous. As the former Law Lord and judge Lord Steyn said in London, "if British authorities knew the nature of these flights they would be guilty of war crimes" (UK Independent).

Nor does the US Secretary of State's steadfast refusal to comment specifically on such prisons provide much reassurance. She has so far insisted that Washington "cannot discuss information that would compromise the success of intelligence, law enforcement and military operations," and assumes that other countries share that view!

She may be disappointed. A cross-party group of British MPs, set up to investigate the "extraordinary renditions" of prisoners by the CIA, dismissed Dr. Rice's assurances that America did not send detainees abroad for torture, as "beyond belief". One member of the group, the highly-respected deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell, described her statement as "disingenuous", asking "The volume of evidence of transfers has become overwhelming but what possible purpose is served by rendition other than to subject individuals to harsher treatment than would otherwise be the case?"

Undeterred by the shockwaves generated by their policies (declared or covert), the US administration appears to have now decided that attack is the best means of defence (not surprising from a government that believes so strongly in pre-emptive action!). Nevertheless, it is hard not to be amused and infuriated in equal measure, by Dr Rice's insistence that US efforts are "sometimes misunderstood"! By whom, one wonders? Perhaps the issue is that these so-called efforts are finally being understood all too well…

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