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Joanne Mariner

International Complicity in US Abuses, Part III


Friday, April 10, 2009

A growing scandal has erupted in Britain over the government's role in human rights abuses, centering on claims of British involvement in the torture of terrorist suspects detained abroad. The uproar was sparked by allegations by former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed that British agents were complicit in his abuse, but it has since broadened significantly in its scope.

Mohamed, an Ethiopian national who had lived for several years in the UK, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002. He claims that he was questioned by a British intelligence agent while detained and mistreated in Karachi, and that later, after he was rendered by the CIA to Morocco, a British agent provided questions that he was asked by interrogators who tortured him. He was later moved to Afghanistan and then spent years in military detention at Guantanamo.

The British Attorney General announced last month that she would ask the police to probe allegations of "possible criminal wrongdoing" in relation to Mohamed, who was released from Guantanamo in February.

Britain is hardly alone in having collaborated with the US in "war on terror" abuses. In my last two columns, I explored some examples of such collaboration, showing how other countries facilitated abusive US practices. Today's column sets out a few more examples, underscoring the need for countries besides the UK to carry out a searching probe of their records.


In the post-9/11 period, Pakistan was in a category all its own in collaborating in abusive U.S. counterterrorism policies. Without any legal process, it handed over hundreds of suspects to U.S. security forces, allowed the CIA and other intelligence agencies to operate with impunity on its territory, and ran secret proxy detention facilities to hold suspects of interest to the United States, giving U.S. agents full access to interrogate those suspects.

A majority of the prisoners held by the CIA over the last seven-plus years were originally arrested in Pakistan, often during joint U.S.-Pakistani operations. Of the 14 "high-value" CIA detainees transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006, for example, nine were picked up in Pakistan.

The Pakistani authorities made no secret of the fact that they handed over several hundred terrorism suspects to the United States, boasting of the arrests and transfers as proof of Pakistan's cooperation in US counterterrorism efforts. While the majority of these detainees were likely transferred into U.S. military custody in Afghanistan or at Guantanamo, some substantial number of them disappeared into CIA black sites or were transported to third countries via the CIA's rendition program.

Some of the suspects believed to have been arrested by the Pakistanis on behalf of the United States remain disappeared. Abdul Karim Mehmood (aka Abu Musab al-Baluchi), for example, who was reportedly picked up in Pakistan in June 2004, has not been heard from since.

Similarly, Mustafa Setmariam Naser, a dual Syrian-Spanish national believed to have been picked up in Pakistan in late 2005, was reportedly transferred to Syrian custody in 2006, but the Syrian government has not acknowledged his detention.

Not only did the Pakistani authorities cooperate with the United States in secretly detaining and interrogating terrorist suspects, they even are believed to have detained innocent family members of such suspects. In more than one case, including that of alleged September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, compelling evidence suggests that Pakistani intelligence agencies held suspects' relatives—even children—as hostages.


According to two former prisoners interviewed separately by Human Rights Watch, an Iraqi teeamger with Australian travel documents was held for at least a year at a secret prison run by the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence services in Islamabad, Pakistan. The boy, who was in custody in 2003-2004, reportedly told the two that Australian officials had visited him in mid-2003, interrogating him and making a video of the interrogation.


A number of terrorism suspects were picked up in Georgia in 2002 and handed over to the CIA. A few of them were reportedly abducted by the Georgian mafia, but others were captured by government forces.

In a series of sweeps of the Pankisi Gorge region beginning in May 2002 and continuing into the fall, Georgia's military forces reportedly captured some 15 Arab militants and handed them over to the United States. Many of those men—perhaps all of them—were transferred by the CIA to Jordanian custody.

On February 6, 2003, Georgia's U.N. ambassador publicly acknowledged that Georgian troops had detained several suspected Al-Qaeda members during search operations in the Pankisi Gorge, and had handed them over to the United States. U.S. officials did not deny the claim.


The most egregious example of Italian/U.S. collaboration in abuses was the 2003 kidnapping of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (better known as Abu Omar) and his subsequent handover to Egypt. The evidence suggests that numerous Italian officials—including several high officials—are implicated in the case.

Abu Omar was abducted from a Milan street on February 17, 2003, in an operation in which both CIA and Italian military intelligence personnel are believed to have participated. He was then transferred by the CIA to Egypt, where, Nasr claims, he was badly tortured in detention.

Several months after his release from prison in February 2007, Nasr described his treatment by the Egyptian intelligence services to a Human Rights Watch researcher. "You cannot imagine," he said. "I was hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electrical shocks."

An Italian court issued indictments against those responsible for the cleric's abduction in June 2005, but the case has moved slowly, in part because successive Italian governments have viewed the prosecution as a hindrance to U.S.-Italian relations. The Italian government has refused to seek the extradition of the 26 Americans who were charged in the case, and has interposed state secrecy challenges to the prosecutor's actions.

Seven Italian defendants face charges in the case, including Gen. Nicolò Pollari, the former head of SISMI, Italy's military intelligence service, and Marco Mancini, Pollari's former deputy. Two additional Italian defendants agreed to plea bargains in 2008.

The Abu Omar case is not the only example of Italian assistance in U.S. abuses. In another case, that of Abou Elkassim Britel, the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs reportedly cooperated with foreign intelligence services by providing information.

Britel is a naturalized Italian citizen who was arrested in Pakistan in early 2002 and, after a few months of interrogation by both Pakistani and American intelligence agents, was rendered by the CIA to Morocco. He claims that while he was interrogated under torture in Morocco he was questioned about his activities in Italy.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney. Her previous FindLaw columns on the "war on terror" are available in FindLaw's archive.

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