Torture denial conflicts with mounting evidence

WASHINGTON – Does the United States operate secret prisons where detainees suspected of involvement in terrorism are taken and tortured? U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attempted to deflect this nagging question during a Dec. 5 press conference by defending “rendition” – the practice of transporting suspects to third countries for interrogation – while stating that, "the United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture.”

Despite her careful denial, Rice did not deny reports of a network of secret, CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, while insisting that the United Stated would use "every lawful weapon to defeat these terrorists," according to the BBC and other press

The day after her press conference, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) officially announced a lawsuit charging that the CIA has broken both U.S. and international law. The lawsuit, filed in Alexandria, VA, charges that “CIA officials at the highest level violated U.S. and universal human rights laws when they authorized agents to abduct an innocent man, detain him incommunicado, beat him, drug and transport
him to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan," the group said in a news release. ACLU says that its goal is to stop the transportation of terror suspects to countries outside U.S. legal jurisdiction.

The plaintiff in the ACLU case, 42-year-old German citizen Khaled al-Masri, said he was abducted on New Year’s Eve 2003 while on holiday in Macedonia after being mistakenly identified as a suspect in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

On Dec. 3, al-Masri boarded a flight to the United States to appear at the ACLU news conference announcing the lawsuit, but was refused entry, according to the Knight Ridder news service. As a result, he spoke to the press gathered in Washington on Dec. 6 from Germany via a video hook-up.

Al-Masri said he was kidnapped by seven or eight men and taken to Afghanistan, where he was drugged, interrogated harshly, and beaten while being held captive in a secret CIA prison. He repeatedly professed his innocence. After a hunger strike in which he said he was force-fed, a prison "director" told him he had been held because of "mistaken identity."

Tenet and Rice eventually learned of the mistake, according to a Washington Post report, and told German officials, but asked them not to discuss the case. In May 2004, al-Masri said, he was flown to Albania and driven to a hilltop late at night. Three armed men took him to another plane, and he was flown to Germany.

The ACLU has identified the jail involved as the "Salt Pit," and claims that private corporations own and operate the aircraft that have been used to covertly transport detainees.

Other individuals say they were flown by the CIA to countries like Syria and Egypt, where they were tortured, according to BBC correspondent Adam Brookes.

The German weekly Der Spiegel has revealed that the German government has a list of at least 437 flights suspected of being operated by the CIA in German airspace. "Such planes could be used to transfer presumed terrorists and place them in secret locations," the weekly said.

The UK Guardian also recently disclosed that planes chartered by the CIA used European airports on at least 300 occasions, including 80 in the UK.

The Washington Post recently revealed these secret flights and the alleged existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. According to the Post, chartered crafts landed in Frankfort, Berlin, and the U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany.

Airports in Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Norway also have been mentioned, forcing the European Council to open an investigation and the European Union to ask Washington for explanations. Rice’s statement was supposed to clarify the situation. While she declined to address the issue directly, she maintained that renditions have been carried out for decades, that they “save lives," and “are permissible under international law."