Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Innocent Victims of U.S. Renditions Policy

The New York Times has two stories today about the tensions between Germany and the Bush administration resulting from the rendition of Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen who was kidnapped by the C.I.A., beaten, and detained for five months in Macedonia and in Afghanistan, in what the Bush administration has admitted was a mistake. During the five months of his detention, al-Masri was assaulted, forced to strip nude while prison staff photographed him, and injected with drugs.

Khaled al-Masri has filed a lawsuit against former C.I.A. director George Tenet and three U.S. companies said to have provided flight services to the C.I.A.

In a joint news conference with Angela Merkel, Germany's new chancellor, Condoleezza Rice said she could say nothing about al-Masri's particular case, but added: "...[A]ny policy will sometimes result in error, and when it happens we do everything we can to correct it."

Which is a fancy way of saying, "Mistakes happen. We do our best, but we're only human." That response does not even begin to cut it when you're talking about a "mistake" that involved being kidnapped, beaten repeatedly, sexually humiliated, injected with drugs, and kept in secret detention for five months. No one knew where he was. His wife and children had no idea what happened to him. And the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences for al-Masri are ongoing -- perhaps permanent.

Condi Rice asks for "a healthy respect for the challenges we face" in the war against terror, while seemingly not showing any real respect for the enormity of the damage done to Khaled al-Masri and his family.

But then, neither does the administration she is part of. After publicly acknowledging that al-Masri did nothing wrong and should never have been arrested, much less detained and tortured, you would think the U.S. government would do everything it could reasonably do to communicate its sincere regret. Certainly, one would not expect the U.S. government to humiliate al-Masri again or to give him cause to fear for his safety again. Yet, the Bush administration did exactly that, by refusing to allow him to enter the United States to speak about his experience and answer questions at a news conference in Atlanta:

...Khaled el-Masri, a 42-year-old Lebanese-born former car salesman, was refused entrance to the United States after arriving Saturday in Atlanta on a flight from Germany with the intention of appearing at a news conference today in Washington. He spoke instead by video satellite link, describing somberly how he was beaten, photographed nude and injected with drugs during five months in detention in Macedonia and Afghanistan.

"I want to know why they did this to me," Mr. Masri said, speaking in German. He said that he had been reunited with his wife and children and was seeking work in Germany but that he had not fully recovered from the trauma of his experience.

"I don't think I'm the human being I used to be," he told reporters through an interpreter.

In a separate interview in Germany, Mr. Masri said his weekend encounter with federal immigration officers in Atlanta made him briefly fear that the ordeal might be repeated or that he might be taken to the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

"My heart was beating very fast," he said. "I have remembered that time, what has happened to me, when they kidnapped me to Afghanistan. I have remembered and was afraid." [Emphasis mine.]

Khaled al-Masri is far from being the only innocent person detained and mistreated by the U.S. government. The Christian Science Monitor's Terrorism and Security Daily Update tells us that there have been a number of highly publicized cases in which innocent people were arrested, flown to secret prisons, and tortured for extended periods of time.

The problem for the US has been that, along with the disclosure of the existence of the "secret prisons," there have been several high-profile cases that have highlighted US mistakes, such as US agents grabbing the wrong person, wrongly imprisoned subjects of rendition alleging they had been tortured in the countries where they had been taken, and allegations that the CIA lied to a European ally about a rendition.
The [Washington] Post reports that the Masri case shows how pressure on the CIA to apprehend Al Qaeda members after 9/11 led to an unknown number of detentions based on slim or faulty evidence, and just how hard it is to correct these mistakes in a system "built and operated in secret."

One [US] official said about three dozen names fall in that category [those mistakenly detained]; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by Al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the Al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said.

"They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association" with terrorism, one CIA officer said.
[Emphasis added for extracted quote within article.]

Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian who was arrested while changing planes at JFK airport in New York City on (completely unfounded) suspicions of being associated with Al Qaeda, is another notorious example of innocent civilians being thrown into a nightmare of secret prisons and torture because of the Bush administration's propensity for detaining people on slim, questionable, or nonexistent evidence.

A man of slight build, unassuming character and average looks, Arar is strident yet soft-spoken. Before his detention at J.F.K., he was an apolitical workaholic who was obsessed only with making ends meet and spending free time with his family. "Engineers by nature are machines," he says. "They work 9 to 9. They do what they're told to do." But it wasn't a bad life. The Damascus native, now 34, immigrated to Canada with his family in 1987 and became a citizen four years later. By 1997, he was making a decent living in Ottawa amid the city's high-tech boom. Two years later, while his wife Monia Mazigh was completing a Ph.D. in finance at McGill, Arar took a job at the MathWorks, a Boston-area computer company. In 2001, wanting to be near family and friends, he returned full-time to Ottawa and started a consultancy specializing in wireless technology.

That life came to an abrupt end on Sept. 26, 2002, when Arar was pulled aside while passing through J.F.K. after a vacation in Tunisia, where most of his wife's family lives. He was detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, where he says U.S. authorities questioned him for 10 days. Then, in the middle of the night, he was put into shackles and spirited away via Jordan to Syria, a country he hadn't been to in 16 years -- despite the fact that he was a naturalized Canadian citizen traveling on a Canadian passport en route to Canada.

Arar ended up in a dark, 1-m by 2-m cell he calls the "grave" in the Syrian military intelligence agency's Palestine branch in Damascus. He was held there without charge for 10 months and 10 days. During his first two weeks, he claims, he was interrogated about people he had known in Canada, sometimes for 18 hours at a time, and tortured. One punishment, he says, was repeated lashings with a 5-cm black metal cable on his palms, wrists, lower back and hips. The mental ordeal was also brutal, he said in November 2003 at one of the most dramatic press conferences ever televised in Canada. "The second and third days were the worst," he told the world that day. "I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming." During his first week in prison, he says, he falsely confessed that he had received military training in Afghanistan.

Many would have crumbled emotionally under such duress, but Arar hung tough. Finally, almost a year later, on Oct. 5, 2003, the Syrians released him, saying publicly that they considered him "completely innocent." When Arar made it back to Canada, Amnesty International's [Alex] Neve [director of Amnesty-Canada] was among those who met him at the airport in Montreal. "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind," Neve declared at the time, "that he has been through a horrific ordeal."

In the face of cases like these, Bush and his minions will continue to insist that the U.S. does not torture people or send them to countries where they might be tortured. And that's why nobody will trust the U.S. or believe the U.S. about anything anymore.

1 comment:

Gary said...

Compare John Kornblum & picture Ben Bot