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"Disappearing" into CIA Custody: Part One of a Two-Part Series


Monday, Mar. 05, 2007

Last month, nearly 60 countries signed a landmark treaty that prohibits governments from holding people in secret detention. The Convention against Enforced Disappearance, opened for signature on February 6, bars state authorities from placing anyone "outside the protection of the law" by depriving that person of liberty while concealing his or her fate or whereabouts.

The United States was not among the signatories of this new treaty. While a State Department spokesman explained vaguely that the final text "did not meet our expectations," the actual reason that the U.S. did not sign the treaty was quite concrete.

By using secret CIA prisons--a practice that President George Bush adamantly defended last year--the U.S. government has itself been responsible for enforced disappearances.

The Case of Marwan Jabour

The case of Marwan Jabour exemplifies the practice. A Palestinian who came to Pakistan as a student, Jabour was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Lahore in May 2004 on suspicion of assisting Arab militants. On his third day in Pakistani custody, he later told Human Rights Watch, three people he believes were Americans questioned him; the following day he was transferred to a secret facility in the capital, Islamabad. This facility had both U.S. and Pakistani personnel, but the Americans seemed to be in charge.

In both the Lahore facility and in Islamabad, Jabour endured many days of forced sleeplessness and forced standing, with little respite. Twice he collapsed, falling unconscious.

After a month in Islamabad, he was flown to a secret CIA prison, which he believes was in Afghanistan, where all of the personnel (except possibly the interpreters) were American. There, he was held completely naked for a month and a half, filmed naked, and questioned naked by women interrogators. He was chained tightly to the wall of his small cell so he could not stand up, placed in painful stress positions so that he had difficulty breathing, and warned that if he did not cooperate he would be put in a suffocating "dog box."

Although his clothes were given back to him piece by piece over a period of several months, Jabour's legs were left shackled to each other by a short chain for a year and a half. Yet what was hardest to endure was the isolation, particularly the total isolation from his family. He worried incessantly about his wife and three young daughters, but he was not even allowed to send them a letter to reassure them that he was alive.

Spending most of his time alone in his cell, Jabour had almost no contact with any human being besides his captors for more than two years.


One of the most momentous occasions for Jabour was the day he was allowed to see sunlight. He had spent a year and a half in captivity without ever getting a glimpse of natural light.

One day his captors opened up a skylight in the building. "They brought me a chair and let me sit under the skylight," Jabour remembered. "I was so happy. I joked with them, pretending to call outside, 'Help! Someone help me! Let me out!'"

A little more than six months later, without having been charged with any crime, Jabour was transferred to Jordanian custody. There, for the first time in more than two years, he received a visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and was allowed to contact his family.

On a Friday visiting day, the Jordanians allowed several of Jabour's family members to visit him. "My father cried the whole time," Jabour later remembered.

Soon after, the Jordanians transferred Jabour to Israel, and after a few more weeks in detention in Israel, he was released.

The Convention against Enforced Disappearances

The secret prison program under which Jabour was held was established in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when President George W. Bush signed a classified directive authorizing the CIA to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists. Over the next five years, Jabour and dozens of other Muslim men would be held in unacknowledged detention outside of the protection of the law, without any contact with their families, legal counsel, or the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Convention against Enforced Disappearance absolutely bars these practices. Indeed, on the day that the treaty opened for signature, Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, underscored this point. Although she did not single out the United States, she referred to the treaty as "a message to all modern-day authorities committed to the fight against terrorism" that some tactics are "not acceptable."

The U.S. response to this message was silence. When asked whether the U.S. refusal to sign the treaty was influenced by the administration's policy of sending terrorism suspects to CIA prisons, a State Department spokesperson declined to comment.

Joanne Mariner is a New York-based human rights attorney. She is the author of the new Human Rights Watch report, Ghost Prisoner: Two Years in Secret CIA Detention. Her previous columns on the detainee cases and the "war on terrorism" are available in FindLaw's archive.

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