“No state shall expel, return (refouler) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” –United Nations Convention Against Torture (art. 3-1, 1984).
Twenty years ago, in the Punjabi countryside I sat on a charpai, sipping tea and listening to a harrowing tale from a young man, just a little older than myself. Let’s call him Gurmeet Singh, which is not far from his name. Gurmeet looked decades older, aged as he was by his long sojourn in an Indian prison. A part of the Sikh Students’ Federation, Gurmeet had gone underground into the insurgency that wanted to carve out Khalistan from the Indian republic. I don’t know how many people died in this insurgency because the Indian government remains chary about it. By the 1990s, the Khalistan movement dissolved, partly because of the collapse of the agenda of its organizations, the repression of the State and the toll that violence takes in a society. Few of Gurmeet’s neighbors wanted to continue to support what they had once seen as essential and now only saw as an inconvenient tragedy.
As Gurmeet told me his story, I remember being transfixed by his hands. The nails were contorted, and his fingers gnarled. I asked him about them, but he looked through me and didn’t say a word. The marks of torture must remind him everyday of the pain, and of the humiliation. Nothing in his eyes said that he was reconciled to the present. Hatred and bitterness burned him, but there was no avenue for those feelings to manifest themselves. His own unit in the Khalistani struggle had been disbanded, broken up by the arrests and the disapproval of their families.
I remembered Gurmeet’s fingers when I read a remarkable set of sentences from the CIA’s main counter-terrorism man, Vincent Cannistraro, “Egyptian jails are full of guys missing toenails and fingernails. It’s crude, but highly effective, although we could never condone it publicly. The Egyptians and Jordanians are not that squeamish” (2005). Those sentences underscored the tactic most commonly used by the Atlantic powers after 9/11 to deal with “terror suspects.” Picked up in the chaotic battlefields and towns of Afghanistan or else in mosques and airports from Thailand to Peru, these suspects went from one country’s jurisdiction into the shadow world of private charter aircrafts, sprinted off in orange jumpsuits into that archipelago of shadowy prisons from Central Asia to Eastern Europe, through the Middle East and North Africa to Guantanamo.
Court filings in an obscure court case in Columbia County, New York, between Richmor Aviation (which supplied jets to the government) and SportsFlight Air (which booked the jets for DynCorp) show us where the flights went. The array of cities where the ghost planes landed is dizzying: Amman, Bangkok, Bucharest, Cairo, Damascus, Djibouti, Dubai, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Islamabad, Kabul, Rabat, Rome, Shannon, Sharm el-Sheikh, Tenerife and Tripoli.
It is fitting that Tripoli ends the list. Documents found in Qaddafi’s External Security man Moussa Koussa’s office detail the rendition of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Abu Munthir. MI6, Britain’s external secret service, was deeply involved here because Abu Munthir had been arrested in Hong Kong, its old colonial bailiwick. It is also via Tripoli that the decision was made to bring in Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi to a prison in Libya. Al-Libi, trainer for al-Qaeda, was captured in Pakistan in November 2001, questioned in Bagram by the FBI, turned over to the CIA, transported to a “black site” on the USS Bataan, extraordinarily rendered to Egypt, tortured, confessed about an al-Qaeda-Saddam Hussein connection and spilled the false beans about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It was al-Libi’s “confession” that Colin Powell fed to the world in his UN speech to promote the war on Iraq. When his work was done, al-Libi was turned over to the Libyans, and according to Lisa Hajjar, he was personally visited by Mubarak’s henchman Omar Suleiman in May 2009. As Suleiman boarded his plane in Tripoli, al-Libi conveniently committed suicide. In 2011, with Qaddafi’s regime near collapse, Moussa Koussa also boarded a flight, this one from Tunisia and with MI6 help, to London.
The al-Libi example, it seems, became a pedagogical tool in the hands of the enhanced interrogators at the CIA. Moazzam Begg, who was picked up in Afghanistan and taken eventually to Guantanamo before being released after a long campaign in Britain, recalls how he learned of al-Libi, “I first came across the name of al-Libi when CIA agents in Bagram, in 2002, told me that I would meet the fate of al-Libi if I did not co-operate. They told me they would send me to Egypt — or Syria (as in the case of Maher Arar) — as they had sent him. They told me that he ‘broke’ within days and I would do the same. I was terrified by the threat and I told British MI5 officers who came to interrogate me in Bagram. They responded by telling me that the only way out was to co-operate fully with the Americans.”
Neither the MI6 nor CIA interrogators seemed squeamish. They knew what would happen to their charges. In keeping the form of production of our day, they outsourced the actual labor of the torture down the global supply chain of enhanced violence and intelligence gathering. It was convenient to allow Arabs and Afghans, Poles and Romanians to do the actual violence; it suited the “racial” liberalism of the Atlantic agencies to pretend that they found distasteful what their inferior colleagues seemed to relish.
A United Nations report that has not yet been fully released shows us that the “coalition” in Afghanistan has decided to save gas and diplomatic fuel by turning over torture-ready prisoners to the Afghan archipelago. Hastily, and disingenuously, NATO decided to suspend transfer of prisoners to the Afghan National Department of Security’s prisons in Heart, Khost, Lagman, Kapisa and Takhar, to the Afghan police prisons in Kunduz and Tarin Kowt and to the Counter-Terrorism prison known, chillingly as Department 124.