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War on Terror Flashback: How US Delivered Detainees to Torture in Qaddafi's Libya (Human Rights Watch)

Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch talks to the Guardian about the report of US delivery of detainees to torture in Muammar Qaddafi's Libya

Human Rights Watch has released a lengthy report, based on interviews with 14 former detainees and documents recovered after the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, "Delivered Into Enemy Hands".

The summary of the full report:

When rebel forces overtook Tripoli in August 2011, prison doors were opened and office files exposed, revealing startling new information about Libya’s relations with other countries. One such revelation, documented in this report, is the degree of involvement of the United States government under the Bush administration in the arrest of opponents of the former Libyan Leader, Muammar Gaddafi, living abroad, the subsequent torture and other ill-treatment of many of them in US custody, and their forced transfer to back to Libya.

The United States played the most extensive role in the abuses, but other countries, notably the United Kingdom, were also involved.

This is an important chapter in the larger story of the secret and abusive US detention program established under the government of George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the rendition of individuals to countries with known records of torture.

This report is based mostly on Human Rights Watch interviews with 14 former detainees now residing freely in post-Gaddafi Libya and information contained in Libyan government files discovered abandoned immediately after Gaddafi’s fall (the “Tripoli Documents”). It provides detailed evidence of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees in US custody, including a credible account of “waterboarding,” and a similar account of water abuse that brings the victim close to suffocation. Both types of abuse amount to torture. The allegations cast serious doubts on prior assertions from US government officials that only three people were waterboarded in US custody. They also reflect just how little the public still knows about what went on in the US secret detention program.  

The report also sheds light on the failure of the George W. Bush administration, in the pursuit of suspects behind the September 11, 2001 attacks, to distinguish between Islamists who were in fact targeting the United States and those who may simply have been engaged in armed opposition against their own repressive regimes. This failure risked aligning the United States with brutal dictators and aided their efforts to dismiss all political opponents as terrorists.

The report examines the roles of other governments in the abuse of detainees in custody and in unlawful renditions to Libya despite demonstrable evidence the detainees would be seriously mistreated upon return. Countries linked to these accounts include: Afghanistan, Chad, China and Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

Finally, the report shows that individuals rendered to Libya were tortured or otherwise ill-treated in Libyan prisons, including in two cases where the Tripoli Documents make clear the United States sought assurances that their basic rights would be respected. All were held in incommunicado detention—many in solitary confinement— for prolonged periods without trial.  When finally tried, they found that the proceedings fell far short of international fair trial standards.

Most of the former detainees interviewed for this report said they had been members of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group (LIFG)—a group opposed to Gaddafi’s rule that began to organize in Libya in the late 1980s and took more formal shape in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. At that time, Islamist opposition groups were springing up across the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia in response to governments they deemed corrupt, oppressive, and not sufficiently Islamic.

Libya was no exception. In 1977, several years after Gaddafi took power, he imposed his unique political system, the Jamahiriya, or “state of the masses,” on the country. The government confiscated property, and began regulating every aspect of life, from religion to economics to education, in entirely new and often incomprehensible ways. Many Libyans, including traditional Muslims who were particularly outraged by the changes Gaddafi made to the practice of Islam and considered them blasphemous, expressed their opposition. Gaddafi put down dissent brutally, focusing in particular on Islamist opposition groups who, due to their alignment with Islamist groups abroad and the deep devotion of many members, he treated as a dangerous threat. Those suspected of even the slightest connection with the movement were rounded up, imprisoned, and sometimes executed, including in public and broadcast on television.  It is in the context of this crackdown that the LIFG began to organize and set out, from bases both within and outside Libya, to overthrow Gaddafi.  

Virtually all the former Libyan detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they fled the country in the late 1980s because of Gaddafi’s repressive policies against organized Islamic opposition groups and against persons perceived to be associated with such groups, due to their religious practices. Some joined the LIFG while in Libya and others once outside the country. All but one said they participated in the fighting in Afghanistan that eventually defeated the Soviet-installed government of Mohammed Najibullah in 1992 and used the training they gained there for LIFG-led anti-Gaddafi efforts.

After the September 11 attacks on the United States, being Libyan without documentation in Afghanistan, and being part of an armed Islamic opposition group, placed these Libyan expatriates at high risk of arrest. That was true even if—as all those interviewed for this report claim—their group was not at war with the West. And so many of them fled, along with their families, moving from country to country, including to destinations such as Malaysia and Hong Kong as well as Mali and Mauritania. It was in these countries that they were taken into custody before being sent elsewhere.

For many of the individuals profiled here, this will be the first time their stories are told because until last year they were locked up in Libyan prisons.

These stories provide new details about serious human rights violations in US detention sites, US and UK collaboration with the Gaddafi government, and the roles of several other countries that assisted in renditions. This information includes: 

  • New accounts of abuse in secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) black sites: Five former LIFG members told Human Rights Watch that they were detained in US run-prisons in Afghanistan for between eight months and two years. The abuse allegedly included: being chained to walls naked—sometimes while diapered—in pitch dark, windowless cells, for weeks or months at a time; being restrained in painful stress positions for long periods of time, being forced into cramped spaces; being beaten and slammed into walls; being kept inside for nearly five months without the ability to bathe; being denied food and being denied sleep by continuous, deafeningly loud Western music, before being rendered back to Libya. The United States never charged them with crimes. Their captors allegedly held them incommunicado, cut off from the outside world, and typically in solitary confinement throughout their Afghan detention. The accounts of these five men provide extensive new evidence that corroborates the few other personal accounts that exist about the same US-run facilities. One of those five, before being transferred to Afghanistan, as well as another former LIFG member interviewed for this report, were also held in a detention facility in Morocco.
  • New evidence of “waterboarding” torture and a similar practice during interrogations: One former detainee, Mohammed Shoroeiya, provided detailed and credible testimony that he was waterboarded on repeated occasions during US interrogations in Afghanistan. While never using the phrase “waterboarding,” he said that after his captors put a hood over his head and strapped him onto a wooden board, “then they start with the water pouring…. They start to pour water to the point where you feel like you are suffocating.” He added that, “they wouldn’t stop until they got some kind of answer from me.” He said a doctor was present during the waterboarding and that this happened numerous times, so many times he could not count. A second detainee in Afghanistan described being subjected to a water suffocation practice similar to waterboarding, and said that he was threatened with use of the board. A doctor was present during his suffocation-inducing abuse as well. The allegations of waterboarding contradict statements about the practice from senior US officials, such as former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who testified to the Senate that the CIA waterboarded only three individuals — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Former President Bush similarly declared in his memoirs that only three detainees in CIA custody were waterboarded. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has also denied the use of waterboarding by the US military.
  • Unlawful rendition: All interviewees said their captors forcibly returned them to Libya at a time when Libya’s record on torture made clear they would face a serious risk of abuse upon return. All had expressed deep fears to their captors about going back to Libya and five of them said that they specifically asked for asylum. One of them, Muhammed Abu Farsan, sought asylum in the Netherlands while in transit between China and Morocco. He said his asylum application was ultimately denied and he was sent to Sudan, where he held a passport. But Sudanese authorities kept him in detention and, shortly after his arrival, individuals representing themselves as CIA officers interrogated him on three different days. Within two weeks he was sent back to Libya. Though the Netherlands is the only government that actually had provided any of the Libyans we interviewed with an opportunity to challenge their transfer, the Tripoli Documents contain information suggesting Dutch officials might have been aware that Abu Farsan would ultimately be sent to Libya from Sudan. To the extent they knew that there was a genuine risk he would be returned to Libya, they violated his rights against unlawful return. 
  • More information aboutWestern collusion with the Gaddafi government: The Human Rights Watch interviews and the Tripoli Documents present new details showing a close degree of cooperation among the US, the UK, and other Western governments with regard to the forcible return and subsequent interrogation of Gaddafi opponents in Libya. Ten of the fourteen Libyans interviewed for this report were rendered back to Libya within about year of the date when Libya, the United States and the United Kingdom had formally mended their relations, seven within the five months. The mending of relations was very publically marked by a visit from British Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, to Libya on March 25, 2004. The collusion is ironic, given that years later these same governments would end up assisting Gaddafi’s opponents in their efforts to overthrow the Libyan leader. Several of those opponents are now in leadership positions and are important political actors in Libya.
  • Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi:  Al-Libi’s case is significant, among other reasons, because the United States relied on statements obtained through his interrogation while in CIA custody to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq: Al-Libi died in a Libyan prison in 2009—a suicide, according to Libyan authorities at the time—so it is difficult to obtain information about him today. But by talking to family members and others detained with him in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Libya, Human Rights Watch has pieced together some new details about al-Libi’s time in CIA custody and circumstances surrounding his death. Human Rights Watch also observed photos of al-Libi that Libyan prison officials appear to have taken on the morning of his death which allegedly depict him in the manner he was found in his cell.  The photos show bruising on parts of his body. 

The United States, Libya, and most of the other countries discussed in this report are party to important international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Persons apprehended in armed conflict situations would also have been protected by the Geneva Conventions of 1949. These treaties prohibit not only torture, but all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Importantly, they also prohibit sending an individual to a country where that person would face a genuine risk of torture or ill-treatment. 

In discussing rendition policies, former Bush administration officials have tried to justify the forced returns that took place during the administration by saying they always got “promises” from the receiving countries or “diplomatic assurances” the transferees would be treated humanely.  As evidenced by US State Department country reports on human rights in the mid-2000s, however, the US government was well aware of the torture and ill-treatment taking place in Libyan prisons. The Gaddafi government’s many executions of its opponents after summary trials would have made it obvious to anyone involved in the rendition of LIFG members to Libya that they would be at grave risk. The US government’s perfunctory resort to diplomatic assurances—unenforceable agreements between governments to not harm a person being transferred, shown in the Tripoli Documents to have been used in two transfers — reflect a callous disregard for the lives and wellbeing of people who the United States never should have returned to Libya.

Several individuals interviewed for this report said they endured physical abuse and mistreatment in Libya, some of which amounted to torture. This included being beaten with wooden sticks and steel pipes; whipped, including with ropes and electric cables; slapped, kicked and punched; and administered electric shocks.

At the same time, other interviewees said they were not subjected to physical abuse in Libyan custody. Some speculated this may have been due to prison reforms initiated by Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif Gaddafi, or agreements they had heard were made between the United States and Libya (perhaps diplomatic assurances) that transferees would not be mistreated. But, neither Saif Gaddafi’s reforms nor US diplomatic assurances, if obtained, appear to have protected those detainees who were subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Nor did they protect detainees from being placed in solitary confinement—which can amount to torture—ensure their access to family members and legal counsel, or make sure they were promptly charged and fairly tried. Typically detainees had no lawyers and were denied family visits, sometimes for as long as two years. All of those interviewed said they were held for years before finally being charged with any offense. Once charged, they were appointed a lawyer to whom they either never spoke or who did not assist in their defense. They faced summary trials, and all detainees interviewed for this report were convicted, receiving sentences of lengthy prison terms up to life imprisonment, or the death penalty. At least three said they were subsequently interrogated in Libyan prisons by US, UK, or other foreign agents.

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