Rendition, or Outsourcing Torture?

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a major advocacy group, has filed the first challenge to "rendition," known by critics as "outsourcing torture," a practice used by U.S. intelligence agencies to deliver detainees to prisons in countries known to practice abuse.

"Torture is against the law in the United States," said Ron Daniels, CCRs’ executive director. "The (George W.) Bush administration should not be attempting to avoid the laws of this country by sending people to be tortured overseas where other countries will do their dirty work out of the public eye. This is a barbaric practice with no place in the 21st century."

Daniels appeared at a press conference held by Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, in support of Markey’s Torture Outsourcing Protection Act, legislation that would ban rendition.

The Justice Department, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency all declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

In January, Pres. Bush said that "Torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture."

But in March, former CIA official Michael Scheuer, the "anonymous" author of Imperial Hubris who was the head of the agency’s Bin Laden Unit, said about the practice of rendition, "The idea that we’re gonna suddenly throw our hands up like Claude Raines in Casablanca and say, ‘I’m shocked that justice in Egypt isn’t like it is in Milwaukee,’ there’s a certain disingenuousness to that."

"(Rendition is) convenient in the sense that it allows American policy makers and American politicians to avoid making hard decisions. Yes. It’s very convenient. It’s finding someone else to do your dirty work."

In the same month, Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales told the Washington Post that U.S. policy is not to send detainees "to countries where we believe or we know that they’re going to be tortured."

He said if a country has a history of torture, Washington seeks additional assurances that it will not be used against the transferred detainee. But he acknowledged that the government "can’t fully control" what other nations do. He said he does not know whether countries have always complied with their promises.

CCR has taken the lead in defending victims of rendition, from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the scandal-ridden Iraqi prisoner of Abu Ghraib.

For example, the group represents Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen the U.S. sent to Syria to be tortured and interrogated for nearly a year.

After working to obtain Arar’s release, CCR filed a lawsuit against the United States government in January 2004. The government has repeatedly attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed.

The government has claimed that evidence in Arar’s case should be considered "state secrets," and that the case should be dismissed because allowing Arar his day in court would jeopardize the security of the country. CCR will be filing a response to this "outrageous claim" early next week.

Maria LaHood, CCR attorney told IPS, "The government claims that it is beyond legal reproach because the reason that Arar was sent to Syria instead of Canada is a ‘state secret’ – a sweeping assertion that threatens the rights of all of us."

CCR has also represented other victims of rendition, including Australian Mamdouh Habib, who was sent by the U.S. to be tortured in Egypt before he was sent to Guantánamo, only to be released without charge two years later; and Ahmed Abu Ali, an American citizen who spent 20 months in detention Saudi Arabia.

His detention was reportedly at the behest of the U.S. government. Abu Ali was recently returned to the U.S. and arraigned in federal court on charges of participating in a conspiracy to assassinate Pres. Bush. He claims he was tortured in Saudi Arabia and never charged with a crime.

CCR’s Daniels said Maher Arar "has not been convicted of anything. Even the Syrians said they could find no connection to terrorism when they released him."

Arar said after his release, "I recently spent 10 1/2 months in a grave-sized cell in Syria, unsure why I was there, unsure how to get out. Fear paralyzed my wits when I needed them most. I was beaten and I was tortured and I was constantly scared. Every day I worried that I would never be released, that I would disappear into that concrete grave forever. Why was I being held? I still don’t really know."

The Canadian government is also investigating the Arar case, but the U.S. has refused to cooperate in that investigation.

Markey’s bill would require the State Department to annually compile a list of countries believed to torture and mistreat detainees and prohibits the United States from sending individuals to those countries. It also rejects current State Department practice of obtaining assurances from such countries that it will not torture a particular individual.

Introducing the bill last week, Rep. Markey said, "Extraordinary rendition is wrong because it violates international treaties that the United States has signed and ratified, including most notably Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits sending a person to another state "where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."

Torture, Markey said, "is morally repugnant whether we do it or whether we ask another country to do it for us. It is morally wrong whether it captured on film or whether it goes on behind closed doors unannounced to the American people."

The bill does permit legal, treaty-based extradition, in which suspects have the right to appeal in a U.S. court to block the proposed transfer based on the likelihood that they would be subjected to torture or other inhumane treatment.

The Bush administration’s rendition program has been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under White House authority that allowed it to act without case-by-case approval.

The still-classified directive was signed by Pres. Bush within days of the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

While the total numbers of those "rendered" during the Bush administration are unknown, former CIA director George Tenet testified to the 9/11 Commission in October 2002 that more than 70 people had been subjected to renditions prior Sep, 11, 2001. That number is thought to have increased substantially post-9/11.

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.