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Survivors of CIA torture, rendition speak out

Three former CIA detainees welcomed Tuesday’s Senate summary on torture but called for accountability

Survivors of alleged CIA torture and rendition programs praised the release of a damning if heavily redacted Senate account of the agency’s “brutal” and “ineffective” practices but said it was only a first step toward accountability — and it certainly wasn’t an apology.

“Publishing this shows the other side, that human rights apply to everyone,” said Abdelhakim Balhadj, a Libyan political dissident who the U.S. rendered to Libya in 2004, where he was allegedly tortured over a six years without being charged with a crime. “The U.S. denied us our human rights. We wanted the American people to recognize this.”

After years of delay, the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday released a 499-page executive summary of a more than 6,000-page report, which remains classified. It detailed a litany of apparently illegal methods employed by CIA officers to extract information from detainees — death threats, beatings, sleep deprivation, forced rectal feeding and other psychological torment — much of which had long since been leaked. 

Significantly, the summary noted that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques were “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented” and they were not nearly as useful in obtaining information vital to national security as the agency previously said.

Though ex-detainees like Belhadj welcomed those findings, he was disappointed that his name was not mentioned specifically. In a phone call from his home in Libya, Belhadj, now a prominent politician and military leader in Libya, told of how he and his pregnant wife, Fatima, were picked up by U.S. authorities as they were trying to leave China, where they had been living until 2004, to seek political asylum in the U.K.

Belhadj, who at the time was a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which opposed then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi, said he was taken to a secret U.S. prison, where he was hooded, hung by his wrists from hooks and beaten. Then, as part of an apparent effort by the U.S. and U.K. to cultivate ties with Gaddafi, a potential ally in the so-called war on terrorism, the U.S. subsequently rendered the couple to the Libyan capital, Tripoli. There, Belhadj says, he was tortured by Libyan authorities and foreign agents — including some from the U.K. — until his release in 2010.

To date, the U.S. has not acknowledged involvement in Belhadj’s case or explained why he could be subjected to such treatment without ever being charged with a crime.

“We were handed over to a dictator,” he said. “There must be justice. Someone must be held accountable.”

Other notable omissions from the CIA report include Khadija al-Saadi, who was just 12 years old when the U.K.  and allegedly the U.S. rendered her, her parents and her three younger siblings to Libya from their home in Hong Kong.

The family has described Libyan intelligence detaining and torturing Saadi’s father, prominent Gaddafi opponent Sami al-Saadi, for the next seven years, another apparent victim of U.S. and British efforts to build ties with Gaddafi. Sami al-Saadi was not freed until 2011, when the country’s toppled Gaddafi and killed him in the street.

Though the Saadis received a settlement from the British government in 2012, the CIA has yet to make amends.

“We now have the actual faxes and flight plans that prove that the CIA arranged the whole thing,” Khadija al-Saadi, now a 23-year-old college student, said in an email on Tuesday. But like Belhadj, she had hoped her name would be mentioned in the report summary, in tacit recognition of American wrongdoing. “This is the very least that is owed me,” she said.

“Hiding the truth is how tyrannies and dictatorships function … Justice has to take its course if other countries are to learn a lesson from this case,” she said.

In a statement, Saadi’s lawyer Alka Pradhan, who is with the U.K.-based rights NGO Reprieve, also welcomed Tuesday’s release but added, “No review of the CIA torture program can be complete without an exhaustive list of the victims’ names and the inclusion of their voices on what they suffered.”

Perhaps the most outspoken victim of CIA interrogation, Moazzam Begg, was mentioned a number of times in Tuesday’s summary. He was even more scathing in his critique of the Senate report.

The U.S. held Begg, a dual British-Pakistani citizen, at Bagram prison in Afghanistan and at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where, he said, he was tortured, sometimes into making false confessions, over the course of three years. He was accused of having ties to Al-Qaeda, but he was never formally charged with a crime.

The worst moment he said he witnessed in three years of detention was the time he “saw a detainee with his hands tied above his head to the top of a cage, with a hood placed over him, being punched and kicked repeatedly to the point that he was killed.”

Begg is among those calling for CIA officers who engaged in such severe beatings and other “enhanced interrogation” tactics like waterboarding to be prosecuted. He was disappointed though not surprised that the names of those officers were redacted from the Senate report.

While President Barack Obama has promised to curtail “enhanced interrogation” tactics and rendition circuits as well as close Guantánamo Bay, he has maintained that those intelligence officers were acting in good faith — in other words, according to orders — and would not face prosecution for their involvement.

On Tuesday, however, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, echoed Begg’s call, demanding that the names of those responsible be revealed and that everyone involved — up to officials in George W. Bush’s administration who guided the policies — face criminal prosecution. “It is no defense for a public official to claim that they were acting on superior orders,” Emmerson said in a statement. “CIA officers who physically committed acts of torture therefore bear individual criminal responsibility for their conduct.”

Begg noted that Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American POWs during World War II were successfully prosecuted for war crimes.

“You can’t imagine the president of the most powerful country in the world saying this about any other crime,” he said. “There has to be a process of accountability."

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CIA, Intelligence, Torture

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