Mark Wilson/Getty Images

ACLU sues CIA contractors on behalf of torture victims

New lawsuit takes aim at the two psychologists who set up the torture program carried out by US intelligence agents

Suleiman Abdullah Salim searches for things that help him avoid flashbacks of his torture by the CIA. Fishing and music, especially reggae songs, work especially well.

But even when listening to Jamaican tunes or casting a line, the Tanzanian fisherman still has questions. “Why they beat like that?” he asked in the documentary "Here Rain Never Finishes" that highlighted his case. It would have been “better to die,” he added.

Now Salim may get some answers. He and two other men who were tortured by the CIA have filed a lawsuit against the two psychologists who put into place the spy agency’s interrogation program following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The three victims were slammed into walls, placed in coffin-like boxes, forced to endure extreme temperature, starved, subjected to water torture, sleep deprived and chained in stress positions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing the men.

Salim and the other two men were never charged with a crime. The case is the first lawsuit calling for accountability based on the Executive Summary of the Senate’s torture report.

Torture architects

On the CIA’s behalf, the two contractors James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen – identified in the Senate torture report by their pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar – developed, operated, and assessed interrogation operations. The methods of torture were approved by lawyers at the Justice Department

Mitchell and Jessen developed "novel interrogation methods" first used against Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi national currently held in the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, and then on CIA prisoners.

Their theory of interrogation was based on "learned helplessness”; if subjected to methodical abuse, those abused would relent to demands for information. Neither psychologist, however, had any experience as an interrogator, in counterterrorism, “or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise,” according to the Senate report.

The tortured men

Salim had married a Somali woman and was working in her country when he was rendered by the CIA to Afghanistan, where he was held at several sites: “COBALT,” “Salt Pit” and Bagram Air Force Base — in total for more than five years.

Salim’s torture began during his rendition. His clothes were cut from his body and an object was forcibly inserted “into his anus, causing him excruciating pain,” according to the lawsuit.

On one occasion at the black site “COBALT,” a chain with a large ball at the end was attached to Salim’s waist. He was forced to walk around the room naked and hooded until he collapsed.

Another time, he was taken into a room with a wooden wall. A collar was placed around Salim’s neck, and, “using the leash, the interrogator threw Mr. Salim against the wooden wall. Mr. Salim crashed into the wall, and as he rebounded, the interrogator struck Mr. Salim in the stomach,” the suit claims.

At Bagram, he was held in solitary confinement in small cages, never seeing daylight, according to the ACLU.

Salim was eventually released with a simple letter saying that he posed no threat to the United States.

The other two men party to the lawsuit experienced similar torture.

Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, a Libyan, was held and torture for more than two years by the CIA. He was then sent to Libya in 2005 and tortured and sentenced to life in prison there in a “sham” trial, according to his lawyers. He was not freed until Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011.

Gul Rahman was an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan with his family. He was kidnapped in a U.S.-Pakistan operation while in Islamabad for a medical appointment and taken to a CIA black site in Afghanistan, according to the ACLU. He was tortured to death.

“An internal CIA review and autopsy assessed that Rahman likely died from hypothermia — in part from having been forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants,” according to the Senate report. “Other contributing factors were identified as dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to ‘short chaining',” the report stated. His body has not been returned to his family.

Jensen, without confirming or denying his role in interrogations, told Al Jazeera: “It’s easy using hindsight to suggest we could’ve done it differently, this wasn’t necessary. It’s easy to do that. I completely understand it — hindsight bias, we call it in psychology — it happens. It’s why people think we should’ve been able to predict 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.”

The contractors received $81 million prior to the contract's termination in 2009, according to Senate report.

“They claimed that their program was scientifically based, safe, and proven, when in fact it was none of those things. The program was unlawful and its methods barbaric,” Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU who is representing the men, said in a press release. “Psychology is a healing profession, but Mitchell and Jessen violated the ethical code of ‘do no harm’ in some of the most abhorrent ways imaginable.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington State under the Alien Tort Statute — which allows federal lawsuits by non-U.S. citizens for wrongful acts committed in violation of international law.

Salim now lives in Zanzibar in his home country with his second wife and their three-year-old daughter.

“The terrible torture I suffered at the hands of the CIA still haunts me,” Salim said in a press release. “This lawsuit is about achieving justice. No person should ever have to endure the horrors that these two men inflicted.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter