Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Ghost prisons a blot on America's moral leadership

The Bush administration holds alleged terror suspects incommunicado all over the world, blatantly violating basic human rights

By Isabel Hilton  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

Extraordinary rendition was codified in the Clinton administration. Under Bush it has been hugely expanded.

As the US coordinator for counterterrorism, Cofer Black, acknowledged in April last year, "a large number of terrorist suspects were not able to launch an attack last year because they are in prison. More than 3,000 of them are al-Qaeda terrorists and they were arrested in over 100 countries."

Representative Edward Markey, who last month introduced a bill to make extraordinary rendition illegal in US law, has noted that in the year after Sept. 11, George Tenet, then director of the CIA, admitted to the rendition of 70 people, describing them all as terrorists.

Maher Arar, though, is not a terrorist. He is one of the few "ghost prisoners" who have emerged to testify to the reality behind extraordinary rendition. A Syrian-born Canadian, Arar was detained while changing planes in New York in 2002.

His name was on a terrorist watch-list but he was not charged in the US or even extradited to Canada, a friendly country with an inconvenient regard for the rule of law. Instead he was flown to Jordan, then sent on to Syria, a state that the US categorizes as one that practises torture.

One CIA agent explained to a reporter how it worked in the 1990s.

"We'd arrest them and send them to Jordan or Egypt, and they'd disappear," he said. They were not charged in the US, he said, because the evidence would not hold up in court.

The evidence against Maher Arar did not even hold up in a Syrian court. His crime was that his mother's cousin had joined the Muslim Brotherhood long after Maher moved to Canada. After 10 months of torture and incarceration in a cell the size of a grave, he was allowed to resume his journey home. Now he is suing the US government.

Some indication of the scale of the network of detention centers can be gleaned from a recent report by Human Rights First, formerly the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights. In Afghanistan, they say, in addition to the Bagram and Kandahar bases, the US acknowledges 20 other centers.

In Iraq, there are three official centers, including Abu Ghraib, and an additional nine US military facilities. In Pakistan, a prison at Kohat, near the Afghan border, is under US control. In Jordan, the al-Jafr prison in the southern desert is used as a CIA detention center. Human Rights First suspects that prisoners are held on US military ships and in bases such as Diego Garcia.

Other prisoners have been "rendered" to Egypt and, as in the Arar case, to Syria, both countries in which torture is well established.

Torture is illegal in the US. Facilitating torture elsewhere is also illegal under the convention against torture, to which the US is a signatory.

"I think it's time," said Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, "that we began to recognize that ghost prisoners are the new disappeared. And disappearance is almost invariably associated with mistreatment and torture."

Markey has taken a stand.

"Extraordinary rendition is the 800lb gorilla in our foreign and military policy-making that nobody wants to talk about. It involves our country outsourcing interrogations to countries that are known to practice torture, something that erodes America's moral credibility," he said.

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