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Ten Years On

Operation Torture

by VIJAY PRASHAD

“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.

Little of what the UN report is supposed to contain is going to be a shock to anyone, least of all the U. S. or Canadian governments. The U. S. State Department’s Country Report on Afghanistan points out that Afghan prisons routinely use extremely enhanced interrogation techniques, such as “beating by stick, scorching bar, or iron bar; flogging by cable; battering by rod; electric shock; deprivation of sleep, water, and food; abusive language; sexual humiliation; and rape.” A U. S. State Department cable (07KABUL1578, Wikileaks) from May 10, 2007 describes what the Canadian embassy found when they visited a prison facility in Kandahar. There they heard torture allegations from two detainees, and one claimed “that he had been taken to a basement in the guest house of Kandahar Governor [Asadullah] Khalid, and that the Governor himself had tortured him with electric shocks. Canadian Embassy contacts tell us they have heard some other similarly ominous reports of such abuses by Governor Khalid.”

The UN report is more dangerous than the U. S. reports because it signals the violation of international law, something that, at least for now, worries the Canadians. The U. S. can’t be bothered. It might be worth remembering that Asadullah Khalid was a sharp critic of the NATO aerial bombardment in Kandahar in 2007.

The Afghan government has refused to accept the UN’s not-yet-released report. But the Afghan Human Rights Commission had already affirmed these reports by 2007. Here is a summary from the Afghan HRC of what was done to the “detainees”:

“They were whipped with electrical cables, usually a bundle of wires about the length of an arm. Some said the whipping was so painful that they fell unconscious. Interrogators also jammed cloth between the teeth of some detainees, who described hearing the sound of a hand-crank generator and feeling the hot flush of electricity coursing through their muscles, seizing them with spasms. Another man said the police hung him by his ankles for eight days of beating. Still another said he panicked as interrogators put a plastic bag over his head and squeezed his windpipe. Torturers also used cold as a weapon, according to detainees who complained of being stripped half-naked and forced to stand through winter nights when temperatures in Kandahar drop below freezing.”

I am thinking of Gurmeet Singh when I read this, wondering how his fingers were damaged, what technologies of modernity inflicted that pain on his body. I am thinking of Dick Cheney, who Obama rightly called the “crazy uncle in the attic,” as he does the talk shows to promote his book and to defend the necessity of torture. In his new book, Cheney describes how after some enhanced techniques, Abu Zubaydah’s “debriefings” went swimmingly. Cheney, like a caped crusader, ignores the niceties of the overt legal police for the covert legalities of the shadows – he never concedes that torture is illegal, but insists that he had legal opinions to show it was constitutional and besides it was effective. That the consensus opinion is not on his side is irrelevant, because it seems that the shadows continue to follow Cheney’s view.

Torture is treated like a homeopathic technique: a little violence used against violence might cure violence. “One inoculates the public with a contingent evil,” Roland Barthes astutely put it, “to prevent or cure an essential one.” But what happens when the torture is not the remedy, but if it indeed the malady: if it is torture of the body and the spirit that provokes and prepares the retaliations that have now become legion? It is easy to ask the question, as pundits have been doing ten years after 9/11, “are we safer now”? But the question fails. We are not safer, not those who live in Droneland, in the shadow of the archipelago of prison, in the clutches of what the Center for American Progress has called Fear Inc., the institutions of Islamaphobia that now infect U. S. society. There is no such thing as a little torture or a little illegal bombing, a little war, a little fear. As with bloodletting, torture weakens the body politic. It is another legacy of 9/11.

What does all this matter, asks Cheney, sitting on our collective shoulders, if a little torture maintains Order? But does it. Will the next terrorist come from the family of an Afghan farmer, tortured and returned to his family, a bag of bones with a vacant look on his eyes, whose son or daughter burns with anger and then takes up an old gun and rushes into the blinding light, searching for someone to kill?

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu