Rendition is one of those words that bureaucracies craft to hide official monstrosities. As an artistic term, rendition means “a performance of a dramatic role.” Webster’s 1913 dictionary defines rendition as “the act of surrendering fugitives from justice at the claim of a foreign government.” In its brand new usage, rendition has come to mean surrender of aliens. It is a quasi-legal practice under which US intelligence agencies “render terrorists” to friendly governments, mostly in the Islamic world, for detention and interrogation and more.
Ghastly stories have surfaced how Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and other Muslim states abuse and torture rendered men, inflicting more indignities on them than Muslim inmates have suffered at Guantanamo. Beatings, physical suspensions, electric shocks, and other cruel and degrading treatments have been reported. International human rights groups claim that in Uzbekistan two rendered prisoners were boiled to death. Renditions are now firmly associated with America, torture and Muslim states. (See, Jeffrey St. Clair’s Torture Air.).
More than anything else, the law (or lawlessness) around renditions is most intriguing. Rendered men cannot be lawfully extradited because they have committed no crime in the Muslim state to which they are rendered. Sometimes, the friendly government has no clue about the identity or activities of the person before he is rendered. Sometimes, the rendered man is not even a national of the receiving state. Hence the contrast between extradition and rendition is vivid. Extradition is an open procedure under which a fugitive is lawfully sent to a requesting state where he has committed a serious crime. Rendition is a covert operation under which even an innocent person may be forcibly transferred to a state where he has committed no crime. It is like a bully dispatching a helpless prey to another bully in another town.
Rendition is not even deportation. A person may be deported under US immigration laws for a variety of reasons including charges of terrorism. Deportation however implies that the person is in the United States. Rendition is not territorial. US agencies can abduct a Muslim anywhere in the world and render him to a friendly government. In December 2003, US agents pulled Khaled el-Masri from a bus on the Serbia-Macedonia border and flew him to Afghanistan where he was drugged and tortured. But the man was a tad lucky. Though born in Lebanon, el-Masri had obtained German nationality. Germany came to his rescue for he was no terrorist. El-Masri was released, though he would still be languishing in Afghan torture chambers if he were, say, the national of a Muslim state that does not care.
Defying international treaties and US laws, rendition works on dark fringes of legality. The Torture Convention specifies that no signatory state shall expel, return 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. The Convention is so strict in its prohibition of torture that it allows no exceptions under which any such transfer may be justified. Additionally, it is a crime under US laws to commit torture outside the United States. If the victim dies of torture, the crime is punishable with death. It is also a crime for US officials to conspire to commit torture outside the United States. Under both the Convention and US laws, therefore, rendition is strictly prohibited if the rendered person would be subjected to torture.
Sadly, such has become the nature of law in the United States that fertile minds trained in top law schools can find believable exceptions to even clearest provisions of law. Law is a game and talent lies in finding loopholes. Accordingly, the laws against shipping detainees to torture chambers tickle the legal imagination of government lawyers and, surely, they find ways to dodge legal texts. To escape the reach of law, US agents seek verbal assurances from friendly governments that no torture would be committed. Friendly governments nod and receive the cargo. No one winks an eye but all know the script. As soon as men are thrown into torture chambers, lips are sealed. US agencies do not ask and friendly governments do not tell what is being done to “terrorists.”
One might ask why the US is abducting and rendering men to friendly states. There are many answers. Sometimes, men are rendered because they have nothing more to tell to US agents but still out of caution they cannot be freed; it is cheaper for the US to detain these men in Muslim prisons than here in America. Sometimes, the rendered men need pressure’ to disgorge their stories, and the torture techniques employed in friendly states are just perfect to do the job. Sometimes, men are rendered as a loyalty test, just to make sure that Muslim intelligence agencies are indeed supportive of the US war on terror. Sometimes, it is safer to tuck away minor terrorists elsewhere because lawsuits in America may pester for truth and embarrass the government. No such pestering exists in friendly Muslim states where pro-American, autocratic governments are well removed from public accountability and would love to oblige their friends and masters.
And for American neo-conservatives, rendition stories are fun. Don’t be surprised if at dinner tables, they drink and laugh and talk about Muslims degrading Muslims. Some of them are even talking about closing the Muslim prison at Guantanamo. Thomas Friedman of New York Times, who vigorously supported the neo-conservative invasion of Iraq, recently wrote a column suggesting that the Guantanamo camp be shut down for it has become “corrosive” for America’s standing abroad. Many good-hearted Americans who have nothing to do with neo-conservatives also favor the closure of this eyesore.
Ironically, though, the timing for shutting down the Guantanamo Gulag is near perfect. The inmates have emptied their minds and their spirits are broken beyond repair. They are no longer useful though they are still considered dangerous. The time is ripe for their renditions. Men in orange, shown coiled in fetal position, will perhaps go home where, surely, no Quran will be desecrated but where their limbs will be hung on hooks, their genitals will be shocked with erratic electricity, and their fingernails will be plucked off with primitive pliers. America will get rid of its guilt, claiming moral superiority over the rest of the world. And the name of Islam will be further smeared with barbaric details coming from torture chambers, serving America, but maintained by friendly governments in not Kafir but Muslim states.
Ali Khan is a professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. His book, A Theory of International Terrorism, will be published in 2005 by Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.