Friday, February 23, 2007

Rendition made ordinary

Last week, the European parliament released a report which blasted its own members for its involvement in the CIA extraordinary rendition program. The report said 14 European governments in Europe turned a blind eye to over a thousand CIA flights through their airspace between 2001 and 2005, some of which were used to illegally abduct terrorist suspects for questioning. The report, emerged from a year-long investigation by a special European Parliament committee and named Germany, Britain, Ireland and Portugal as the worst offenders permitting the most number of covert flights.

Italian Socialist MEP Giovanni Claudio Fava, who drafted the report’s final conclusions, told reporters that "involvement in detainment amounts to a certain extent to involvement in torture." Although the parliament cannot impose sanctions on its member states, the release is a serious embarrassment to the EU. The report goes to a vote of the full parliament next month.

In US law, rendition means the surrender of persons or property from one jurisdiction to another. However it does not have any validity in the canon of international law. The US describes it as an “extra-legal process”. The history of extraordinary rendition dates back to the Clinton administration. The CIA began an intelligence-gathering program that involved the transfer of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism to detention and interrogation in countries where they thought federal and international legal safeguards would not apply.

The process remained a small-time CIA operation until 9/11. From then on, the program expanded dramatically. Non US-nationals suspected of terrorism were transported to interrogation facilities in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Diego Garcia, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and elsewhere. CIA agent Robert Baer described a pecking order of detention centres: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear -- never to see them again -- you send them to Egypt, “ he said.

It is difficult to get a feel for how many people have been victims of these secret renditions. The EU report named 1,245 flights through Europe alone. But the report’s release may be a sign that the tide is turning against rendition. On 16 February, an Italian judge gave approval for a trial in absentia of 25 CIA operatives on charges of kidnapping a radical Muslim cleric four years ago. Meanwhile victims who have escaped the rendition hellholes are also seeking redress in the courts. The two most famous cases known so far are Maher Arar and Khalid El-Masri.

Maher Arar is a Syrian-born Canadian wireless technology consultant. On 26 September 2002, Arar was in transit in New York’s JFK airport when returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia. Likely acting on false information from Canadian police, US officials detained and interrogated him about alleged links to al-Qaeda. Twelve days later, he was chained, shackled and flown to Syria. Syrian military intelligence held him in a tiny “grave-like” cell for ten months before they moved him to a better prison. He was beaten, tortured and forced to make a false confession. He was released after a year. A 2006 Canadian enquiry totally exonerated Arar of any involvement in terrorism. The US did not co-operate with the enquiry and Arar remains on a US watchlist because of "his personal associations and travel history”.

Khalid El-Masri has also suffered brutally in the name of rendition. El-Masri was born in Lebanon and moved to Germany to escape the civil war. There he married a Lebanese and gained German citizenship. In 2003, he travelled from his home in the city of Ulm to Skopje, Macedonia. On arrival at the Macedonian border, he was detained by police who thought his passport was fake. El-Masri’s misfortune was to have a similar name to Khalid Al-Masri who was wanted in connection for his involvement in the Al Qaeda Hamburg cell which carried out the 9/11 attacks. Macedonian police held El-Masri for three weeks before releasing him. They also informed the CIA.

The CIA sent a snatch team to Macedonia and kidnapped El-Masri. They assaulted and drugged him, then flew him out of the country to the infamous “Salt Pit” prison near Kabul in Afghanistan where he was frequent tortured and injected with drugs. After two months US officials concede his passport was genuine and El-Masri was not a terrorist. El-Masri was finally taken to Albania where he was deposited on a desolate road at night with no apology and no money. Suspicious Albanian authorities initially arrested him on suspicion of terrorism. In May 2005, he finally made it home to Germany only to find his wife had gone back to Lebanon, thinking he had left her. One year later a Washington Federal District Judge dismissed a lawsuit El-Masri filed against the CIA explaining that a public trial would "present a grave risk of injury to national security”.

The full truth of extraordinary rendition may never be known.

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