The Ugly Truth About Prisoner ‘Rendition’

Countries that rely on "diplomatic assurances" that other countries will not torture transferred prisoners "are either engaging in wishful thinking or using the assurances as a figleaf to cover their complicity," charges a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"There is substantial evidence that in the course of the global ‘war on terrorism,’ an increasing number of governments have transferred, or proposed sending, alleged terrorist suspects to countries where they know the suspects will be at risk of torture or ill-treatment," the New York-based group said.

The report, "Still at Risk," said that in countries with "a serious and persistent" history of prisoner abuse, "diplomatic assurances do not and cannot prevent torture. The practice should stop."

Recipient countries have included Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan and Yemen, where torture is a systemic human rights problem. Transfers have also been carried out or proposed to Algeria, Morocco, Russia, Tunisia and Turkey, "where members of particular groups – Islamists, Chechens, Kurds – are routinely singled out for the worst forms of abuse."

The HRW report comes on the heels of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s proposal, following the London underground bombings, to deport people who advocate violence.

HRW said "the use of diplomatic assurances against torture is a global phenomenon, with sending countries in North America and Europe leading the charge."

It added, "The issue of diplomatic assurances against torture gained notoriety recently when U.S. officials acknowledged a large number of transfers of suspects to countries where torture is a serious human rights problem, claiming that U.S. authorities regularly sought and received diplomatic assurances of humane treatment from receiving governments prior to the transfers. In an increasing number of those cases, the suspects have credibly alleged that they were tortured."

According to Dr. Beau Grosscup, professor of international relations at California State University and an expert on terrorism, "Diplomatic assurances are trumped by the military, police and intelligence ‘counterinsurgency’ programs that the two Cold War superpowers instituted and still run in many of these countries that train police and military personnel in torture."

"The real attitude driving the ‘rendition’ efforts is: ‘Having paid to train them in torture, why not get our money’s worth’," he told IPS.

In a separate statement, HRW criticized the Aug. 10 memorandum of understanding reached between Britain and Jordan.

It said Britain "cannot deport security suspects to Jordan without violating the international prohibition against sending persons to countries where they face a serious risk of torture.." The agreement, HRW said, "does nothing to reduce that risk or to change the obligation not to expose people to torture."

"There is still torture in Jordan, especially with regard to security suspects," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. "All the good reasons that prevented the U.K. from deporting people to Jordan before Aug. 10 remain unchanged by this agreement."

Britain and Jordan are both parties to the Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment. "Under international law, the prohibition against torture is absolute and cannot be waived under any circumstances," HRW said.

Britain recently detained several foreign residents who may now face deportation. Jordan’s State Security Court, composed of one civilian and two military judges, had sentenced two of the men in absentia to 15-year and life sentences respectively for involvement in terrorist activities in 2000 and 2001. HRW pointed out that "criminals convicted in absentia have the right to a full retrial once they come into Jordanian custody."

HRW said that the Britain-Jordan agreement "represents an effort to get around the Convention against Torture’s strict non-refoulement obligation and has no mechanism for accountability."

"Jordan stands to gain custody of criminal suspects while Britain rids itself of unwelcome persons, and neither country has any incentive to monitor treatment or investigate allegations of abuse."

HRW’s Stork said, "Jordan’s General Intelligence Department, prisons and ordinary police stations all have known records of abuse. By seeking Jordanian promises to treat these returned persons differently, the UK is confirming that the risk of torture continues."

In September 2004, the National Human Rights Center, an official body, announced that Abdullah al-Mushaqaba had died in Juwaida Prison as a result of torture. Detainees of that same prison told the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Jordan, a local non-governmental group, in August 2005 that they were severely beaten.

Last year, the Center received 250 allegations of torture or ill-treatment in Jordanian detentions. These numbers do not include the General Intelligence Directorate, which did not allow any visits by non-governmental human rights monitors. The Intelligence Directorate is often the first place of detention for security detainees.

Human Rights Watch said that Britain plans to conclude similar agreements with other countries across the region, including Egypt and Algeria.

"Jordan, Egypt and Algeria all have a documented history of torture," said Stork. "Neither Britain nor any other country should consider returning people to such countries where they face the risk of torture."

The past two years have seen widespread exposure of the once-secret practice of "rendition" – sending or taking prisoners to third countries.

The December 2001 expulsions of two Egyptian asylum seekers from Sweden based on assurances against torture caused a national scandal after the men alleged that they had been tortured and ill-treated in Egyptian custody. It has been reliably reported that the men were kidnapped from Sweden by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and flown to Egypt on the agency’s leased Gulfstream jet.

The U.S. is also faulted for its pervasive use of diplomatic assurances in rendition and immigration cases, and to effect returns of detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

HRW also says that in Europe there is "an alarming and growing trend toward securing diplomatic assurances against torture and ill-treatment to effect extraditions, deportations, and expulsions, despite Europe’s claim to having the most advanced human rights protection system in the world."

Elisa C. Massimino, Washington Director for Human Rights First (HRF), points out that the United Nations Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, "alarmed at the erosion of the principle of non-refoulement (the ban on transfer to torture), passed a resolution on Aug. 4 to try to stem the backsliding."

"The resolution passed 19 to one," she added. "The only no vote? Lee Casey, of the United States."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.