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The Human Cost of America's 'War on Terror'
Published on Thursday, June 26, 2003 by the lndependent/UK
The Invisible
The human cost of the 21st century's first war is already enormous. In addition to those who have died, staggering numbers have been detained around the world in violation of their human rights and international law. Paul Vallely investigates their fate, and asks whether this suspension of due process in the name of defending democracy can ever be justified
by Paul Vallely

Privately, the Americans admit that torture, or something very like it, is going on at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where they are holding an unknown number of suspected terrorists.

Al-Qa'ida and Taliban prisoners inside this secret CIA interrogation center - in a cluster of metal shipping-containers protected by a triple layer of concertinaed wire - are subjected to a variety of practices. They are kept standing or kneeling for hours, in black hoods or spray-painted goggles. They are bound in awkward, painful positions. They are deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights. They are sometimes beaten on capture, and painkillers are withheld.

The rhetoric of the "war on terror" is everywhere being used by governments as the pretext for untrammeled action against rebels and dissidents.

The interrogators call these "stress and duress" techniques, which one former US intelligence officer has dubbed "torture-lite". Sometimes there is nothing "lite" about the end results. The US military has announced that a criminal investigation has begun into the case of two prisoners who died after beatings at Bagram. More covertly, other terrorist suspects have been "rendered" into the hands of various foreign intelligence services known to have less fastidious records on the use of torture.

What is perhaps most disturbing about all this is that the US officials who have leaked the information have not done so out of a need to expose something that they see as shameful. On the contrary, they have made it clear that they wanted the world to know what is going on because they feel it is justified.

No fewer than 10 serving US national- security officials - including several people who have been witnesses to the handling of prisoners - came forward to speak to The Washington Post, which has published the most graphic account of what is going on in Bagram, and in several other unnamed US interrogation centers across the world. "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, one told the paper, "you probably aren't doing your job". He and the others involved are, in effect, saying: we are doing these things because we have to, and we want the world to know.

In one sense, there is nothing new in this. British forces used five similar techniques - hooding, forced standing, deprivation of sleep, subjection to noise, and deprivation of food and drink - in Northern Ireland. (The European Court of Human Rights ruled, in 1978, that these did not constitute "torture", but found that such methods were "inhuman and degrading", and therefore illegal under various treaties.) But there is a key difference. Where the British authorities were shamefaced about such practices, leading figures in the US are today aggressively unapologetic.

The changed mood is clear in official circles. "After 9/11, the gloves came off," the head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, Cofer Black, told a joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees. One Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, has even raised the idea that - despite the fact that the US is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment - permission for torture could be granted by judicial warrant.

To be concerned about this is not to minimize the threat posed to the civilized world by organizations such as al-Qa'ida - amorphous, mercurial, and motivated by a fanatical fundamentalism that sees martyrdom as a prize, not a price. America has the crater that was the World Trade Center at its heart as a constant reminder of the gravity of that threat.

Nor is it to deny the importance of the thorough interrogation of suspects. The CIA director George J Tenet estimates that worldwide attempts to capture or kill terrorists have eliminated about a third of the al-Qa'ida leadership - and of these successes, almost half have come about from information gained in interrogations. The captures of the al-Qa'ida leaders Ramzi Binalshibh in Pakistan, Omar al-Faruq in Indonesia, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in Kuwait and Muhammad al-Darbi in Yemen, were all partly the result of information gained in Bagram. An al-Qa'ida plot to blow up warships in the Straits of Gibraltar was reportedly foiled by information obtained from a detainee in Guantanamo Bay.

CIA interrogation techniques are sophisticated and successful. Detainees are confronted with a thick file, often containing only dummy text, to give the impression that so much is already known that resistance is futile. Lies about al-Qa'ida are told to generate uncontrolled indignation in which key intelligence is let slip. In a technique known as "the Spinoza method", the captive is relentlessly questioned on events he cannot know anything about - leading him to tell what he does know by way of psychological compensation.

"The interrogations of Abu Zubaida [al-Qa'ida's head of external operations - see box] drove me nuts at times," said General Wayne Downing, the Bush administration's deputy national-security adviser for combating terrorism, until he resigned in June 2002. "He and some of the others are very clever guys. At times, I felt we were in a classic counter-interrogation class: they were telling us what they thought we already knew. Then, what they thought we wanted to know. As they did that, they fabricated and wove in threads that went nowhere.

"But, even with these ploys, we still get valuable information and they are off the street, unable to plot and co-ordinate future attacks."

But some interrogation techniques go further than many feel is acceptable. Amnesty International has written to President Bush protesting at reports that interrogators holding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - who, the CIA says, masterminded September 11, the Bali nightclub bombing, and much more - are also holding his two sons, aged seven and nine, as a bargaining tool. Mr Bush has not replied. There can only be "zero tolerance" when it comes to dealing with a man responsible for the deaths of thousands - and the threat to many more.

Yet, when it comes to the holding of children, or the business of torture, the following question arises: when is all this intelligence bought at too great a cost? It is not a question with an easy answer.

What is clear is that something is being eroded in our idea of what should be the ethical norms by which a civilized country acts. The shift is about more than simply a revision of the unwritten rulebook on torture. There is a new tolerance of the suspension of due legal process; of detention without trial; of refusing prisoners legal representation; and of imprisoning unconvicted suspects in harsh conditions. There is a new willingness to risk insults to religious minorities and foreigners - and the increased social tension that this inevitably produces.

Such shifts are not restricted to the US. All across the globe - from China to Chechnya, Israel to Indonesia, the UK to Uzbekistan - similar changes have occurred. The rhetoric of the "war on terror" is everywhere being used by governments as the pretext for untrammeled action against rebels and dissidents. Continent by continent, the figures of those "missing" in the so-called war on terror mount to a staggering minimum, according to our calculations, of 12,117 individuals. Were we to have included prisoners of war in Iraq in the calculation, it would be more than 15,000.

The Pentagon reported on May 28, 2003 two new suicide attempts by prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, raising further concern from human rights groups as the total number of suicide tries reached 27. Camp Delta in the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay is seen from the Cuban military observation post on Picote Hill, September Photo by Rafael Perez/Reuters
Nowhere is this new paradigm of diminished human rights more clearly epitomized than in Guantanamo Bay, the US naval base in Cuba, which has become the main prison for al-Qa'ida and Taliban suspects. The 680 detainees are in a legal limbo. The American military has refused to consider them prisoners of war, even though a majority were captured on the battlefield. They have not even been charged, let alone tried or convicted. They have no access to lawyers. Interrogation is sporadic and varies in length and intensity.

When, last year, three detainees - the British citizens Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, and the Australian national David Hicks - tried to take the US authorities to court, the presiding judge ruled that the US courts had no jurisdiction over Guantanamo inmates. Instead, an order by President Bush has established military tribunals as the forum for dealing with those accused of terrorism such as the September 11 attacks. Ten detainees are due to appear, in secret, before these tribunals soon, US officials said this month.

Yet, even though US officials privately admit that as many as 10 per cent of those detained may well be innocent - some 41 people have been released so far, including two farmers in their mid-seventies who the US authorities eventually admitted had just been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time - they are all kept in punitive conditions of confinement.

Those released spoke for the first time last week of their treatment. For the initial few months they were kept in small wire-mesh cells, about 6ft by 8ft, covered by a wooden roof, but open at the sides to the elements. The prisoners were taken out only once a week for a one-minute shower. In the fifth month of their imprisonment, they went on hunger strike and were thereafter allowed to shower for five minutes and exercise for 10 minutes once a week, walking around the inside of a 30ft-long cage.

Even if the confinement of unconvicted men is essential to the security of the Western world, it is not clear on what grounds their imprisonment should be so harsh. It is like an Alice-in-Wonderland world of punishment first, trial later - if ever.

But Guantanamo Bay is far from the only place where basic human rights are suspended. Earlier this month, the US Department of Justice's internal watchdog, Inspector General Glenn Fine, issued a hard-hitting report on the treatment of aliens held on immigration charges in connection with the investigation of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

He found more than 1,200 people had been detained, and 766 held for prolonged periods using immigration charges as a pretext. The Justice Department has refused to release names of the detainees, and has conducted hearings against them in secret. The FBI had failed to distinguish between suspected terrorists and illegal aliens uncovered in its trawl. No more than a handful have been charged with a terrorism-related crime, and many were kept in detention even after their immigration cases had been resolved and they had been ordered to be deported to their home countries.

Many are detained under highly restrictive conditions, including "lock down" for at least 23 hours a day in permanently illuminated cells; handcuffs, leg-irons, and heavy chains; a limit of one legal phone call per week and one social call per month. FBI officials frustrated the efforts by detainees' attorneys, families, and even law enforcement officials, to determine where the detainees were being held, and a pattern of physical and verbal abuse was uncovered at one detention center in Brooklyn, New York. "While our review recognized the enormous challenges and difficult circumstances confronting the Department in responding to the terrorist attacks, we found significant problems in the way the detainees were handled," said Inspector General Fine.

In this country, human-rights groups such as Amnesty and Liberty have made similar complaints about the UK. By contrast with European countries such as the Netherlands, France and Italy - where suspected terrorists have, by and large, been charged and taken through the courts - new legal measures have been introduced in Britain under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA), which permit the Home Secretary to designate a foreigner a suspected terrorist, and deport or detain them without trial. In addition, the UK, uniquely, has opted out of the section of the European Convention on Human Rights that guarantees everyone the right to a fair trial. Most recently, the Home Secretary announced that people could be held for 14 days without charge under the 2000 Terrorism Act.

Most of those detained under the 2001 act are held in Belmarsh or Woodhill top-security prisons, where they are classified as Category A and are subjected to the most restrictive regime - locked up for 22 hours a day in single cells 3m by 1.8m, whose access to natural light is limited by the wire mesh on the windows. They are conditions of detention that Amnesty says amount "to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".

"These people have not been charged or tried - some haven't even been interviewed by the police," says John Wadham of the civil-rights group Liberty. Moreover, he asks, if these people are so dangerous that they must be locked up so restrictively, why does the Home Office's system permit them to leave if they can find any country that will take them?

There is more to all this even than concerns about civil liberties. It raises levels of suspicion of foreigners and religious minorities in a way that is already having an impact on the lives of Muslims, and others, creating increased social and racial tensions. Anyone who is male, Muslim and Arab - as were the 19 hijackers on September 11 - is, to many people, automatically a terrorist suspect. This would be crassly comic were it not so serious, as in the case of the two men who stopped to pray in a Texas parking lot and were arrested for "suspicious activity"; or the Muslim detainees in New York served pork at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.

To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil.

US Attorney General John Ashcroft speaking of civil-liberty activists
There is more to this than ignorance and stereotyping. It breeds animus, too. Recent months have seen a Muslim interpreter banned from a British prison for refusing to remove her headscarf, or Muslim men strip-searched in front of female officers in a US detention center And another British prison put a detainee on "basic regime" for three weeks - which meant he lost one of the two hours to be spent out of the cell and a cut in visiting time. His offence? During a prayer service, a prison guard entered the room and told them to finish earlier than expected. When the man leading the prayers did not reply, because Islamic practice is that one is unable to speak in the middle of prayer, he was punished.

The problem goes beyond religion. A new xenophobia is abroad. In Connecticut, a resident told police that he had heard two "Arabs" talking about anthrax. Whereupon police officers arrested two Pakistani men suspected of having had the conversation at a gas station. They also hauled in an Indian businessman who was minding the station temporarily for his uncle, the owner. The man was held for 18 days and then released without charge or compensation.

It is, of course, easy to pick up the glaring flaws in the system. It is in the nature of terrorism that its victory is against the ordinary decencies of daily life. Those who are charged with fighting terror have a potent argument when they say that - with an enemy that, by definition, refuses to fight fair - there may be times when the law-enforcers cannot fight fair if they are to win.

Suggestions to the contrary generate irritation and impatience. The US Attorney General John Ashcroft had a tetchy message for civil-liberties activists. "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty," he said, "my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil."

Yet there is a balance to be struck here. If common sense tells us that someone is a fanatical bomber, then it may seem madness to allow that person to proceed unchecked. The danger is that, for short-term gain, we risk making the world not a safer place but a more dangerous one by curtailing human rights, embittering minorities, undermining the rule of international law, and allowing governments that are violating the Geneva Conventions by their interrogation procedures, to hide from scrutiny.

There is a grim irony in the fact that Amnesty International can now visit any prison in the whole of Afghanistan, except one, Bagram - the one run by that great champion of openness and freedom, the United States.

There is danger, self-evidently, from terrorism. But there is danger, too, that we are being changed by our response to that terror. If the terrorists can goad us into undermining part of what it is that makes us different from them, then they will win a victory of a different kind.

Denied access to lawyers

Yaser Esam Hamdi was arrested during the war in Afghanistan, reportedly after surrendering to the Northern Alliance. He was detained in Guantanamo Bay until he was found to be a US citizen. He was transferred to a secret location in the US in April 2002. He is being held without access to a lawyer or his family.

In January 2003, a US court upheld the government's right to designate a citizen as an "enemy combatant" and hold him or her indefinitely, without charge and the ability to see a lawyer. Part of the basis for the court's decision was an affidavit by a military bureaucrat indicating Hamdi was a good intelligence resource for the government whose value would be lessened if he were given access to lawyers. The ruling dooms Hamdi to legal limbo unless the Supreme Court reverses it.

Other detainees have had access to lawyers denied, but the Hamdi case makes the practice legal.

Torture, Deportation and Imprisonment Without Trial
Tactics Used in the 'War Against Terror'


Abu Zubaida is said to be the most important terrorist in detention. Al-Qa'ida's head of external operations was shot in the groin during his capture in a joint FBI and Pakistan security forces operation in Faisalabad in March 2002. US security officials suggested that Zubaida's painkillers were used selectively in the beginning of his captivity. "His wound wasn't life-threatening," a military police officer said with a shrug. "He survived."

The admission gives some idea of the range of "stress and duress" activities which one former US intelligence officer has described as "torture-lite". The techniques are more psychologically tormenting than physically brutal but they include being tied in painful positions, subjected to deafening sounds and blinded by bright lights.


Lotfi Raissi was arrested in London the week after the September 11 attack. The US authorities sought his extradition claiming he was a flight instructor of some of the hijackers. Their evidence reportedly included video footage. The extradition warrant, however, was based on "holding charges" claiming Mr Raissi had failed to disclose, on an application for a US pilot's licence, a minor theft conviction. He was detained in prison for five months before a British judge threw the extradition application out, saying there was no evidence of any terrorist activity.

Amnesty says the US sought Mr Raissi's extradition because of his profile: a Muslim, an Algerian, a pilot and a flight instructor.


Adnan Abdelah claimed political asylum on his arrival in the UK in April 2001. He was arrested after bragging about the September 11 attacks and knowledge of bombs. At his trial in May 2002 at Newcastle Crown Court, Abdelah denied charges of membership of a proscribed organization (Hamas iz as-din-al-quezzem) and one charge of witness intimidation. On 23 May, the judge ruled there was no case to answer and directed the jury to clear Abdelah. He remained in immigration detention pending an asylum appeal, after which, on 19 December, he was deported to Morocco. The Attorney General has now referred the decision to acquit Abdelah to the Court of Appeal.


Some terrorists, after being held under immigration laws, are dealt with through normal processes in criminal courts. Two Algerian asylum-seekers living in Leicester, Baghdad Meziane, 37, and Brahim Benmerzouga, 30, (left) were held by immigration officials for four months but were then charged under the Terrorism Act 2000 with criminal offences in connection with a plan to bomb the US Embassy in Paris. The men were subsequently jailed for 11 years for financing Islamic terrorism. An appeal is pending for both cases.

Civil rights groups want all detainees to be subjected to full legal process, like this, or released.


José Padilla, who also used the name Abdullah al-Mujahir, is a US citizen arrested at Chicago's international airport in May 2002 in connection with an alleged conspiracy to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" on a US city. But he was transferred to military custody at a naval base on the basis of an order by President Bush designating him an "enemy combatant".

A US district court has upheld the President's authority to do this, but ruled Mr Padilla was entitled to access to a lawyer. The government has appealed, arguing that this would hinder its ongoing interrogation of him. Mr Padilla has no access to his attorney pending the appeal."Padilla's case is troubling," says Amnesty, "as he was arrested on suspicion of a crime which would place him within the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system."


Mahmoud Abu Rideh came to the UK in 1995 and was granted refugee status in 1997. The Home Office accepted that he had been the victim of torture while imprisoned in Israel. He was arrested as a terrorist suspect in December 2001 and was detained at Belmarsh high security unit. Like the other terrorist suspects he was locked in his cell for 22 hours a day.He became suicidal and carried out acts of self-harm. Belmarsh authorities branded him a troublemaker; Amnesty said the conditions of his detention amounted to cruelty.

It was planned to transfer him to Broadmoor. Psychiatrists opposed this but were over-ruled and he was transferred to the top security mental hospital. In January 2003, Mahmoud was sent back to Belmarsh. He is now on a hunger strike.

Missing Presumed Guilty:
Where Terror Suspects are Being Held


402 arrests under the Terrorism Act 2000. 49 have been charged, mostly with immigration offences, and are awaiting trial; five have been convicted - three for membership of banned organizations Another 15 are detained as a "risk to national security" under Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001. They can't be deported because of death penalty or torture in their home country, though two have since left the UK of their own volition. Rest are locked up for 22 hours a day in single cells, at Belmarsh top-security prison and HMP Woodhill, with restricted access to lawyers and families.


1,200 detained, at least 484 still held. Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn has 84 detainees; Passaic County Jail in New Jersey has 400. Plus secret sites. US government refuses to release identities of detainees. Inspector General of US Department of Justice last week confirmed abuses reported by human rights groups: prolonged detention without charge, denial of access to legal counsel, and excessively harsh conditions of confinement including "lock down" for at least 23 hours per day; handcuffs, leg irons, and heavy chains; and a limit of one legal telephone call per week.


The 680 men held Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, are described by the Americans as among the "hardest of the hard core" of al-Qa'ida terrorist suspects from more than 40 countries. Mainly Afghans and Pakistanis, about 150 Saudis and 83 Yemenis, but also nine Britons, some Australians, and six Algerians picked up in Bosnia. All are held without charge or trial; Washington insists Geneva Conventions don't apply; US courts refuse to exercise jurisdiction. Detainees live in wire cages and are subjected to CIA and MI5 interrogations. Senior defense officials have told US media off the record that as many as 10 per cent may be innocent. All are denied access to legal counsel. Only allowed out for two 15-minute exercise breaks a week. At least 28 suicide attempts to date.


50 held. The aftermath of September 11 brought a further crackdown on Basque separatists. Spain's anti-terror laws permit the use of incommunicado detention, secret legal proceedings, and pre-trial detention for up to four years.


Infamous for torture. Has detained at least 35 terrorist suspects in the wake of the five simultaneous Casablanca suicide bombs. Another 100 have been "referred" there by US


Between 100 and "several thousand" al-Qa'ida suspects have been transferred from Afghanistan to Egypt, where the secret police use full-blown torture techniques. Hundreds of domestic suspects have been arrested and taken before military or state security courts since 11 September.


Between 100 and "several thousand" al-Qa'ida suspects have been transferred from Afghanistan to Jordan, where security services use torture including sleep deprivation, beatings on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes and extended solitary confinement.


Unknown number of detainees. During interrogations, US officials observe through one-way mirrors.


3,087 PoWs and interned civilians still held in 19 centers by coalition forces. The 5,905 other PoWs have now been released in accordance with Article 118 of the Third Geneva Convention. US forces are still rounding up "civilian" Iraqis suspected of involvement with paramilitary squads and may ship them to Guantanamo Bay.


An unknown number of prisoners are held in US base on the Indian Ocean island leased from the UK. US interrogators impersonate nationals of countries known to use torture, in an effort to disorientate captives.


30 people held under terrorism decrees. Since the Bali bomb, links have been assumed between local Islamist movements and al-Qa'ida. Police conduct public interrogations of suspects and use detainees in public re-enactments of the crime. New laws are imminent to allow police to detain suspected terrorists for questioning for up to six months. The broad definition of terrorism could include political dissenters.


At least 300 detained under the new 2002 Prevention of Terrorism Act. The law is used against Muslim separatists in Kashmir, but also against other Muslim activists.


At least 400 Chinese Muslims have been jailed since China took advantage of the "war on terror" to deepen its crackdown on ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province. China claims 500 members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), financed by Osama bin Laden, fought with the Taliban and in Chechnya. ETIM is now on the US State Department list of terrorist organizations


3,000 Taliban and al-Qa'ida prisoners are held in Bagram airbase and Jowzjan prison. Bagram is a CIA interrogation center, practicing"stress and duress" or "torture-lite". Prisoners are blindfolded and thrown into walls, kept standing or kneeling for hours, in black hoods or spray-painted goggles, bound in painful positions, subjected to loud noises and deprived of sleep, with a 24-hour bombardment of lights. At least two detainees have died after being beaten. Bagram is off-limits to the Red Cross.


"Thousands" imprisoned since September 11. Uzbekistan has used the "war on terror" to justify its longstanding campaign to eliminate Islamists. Western governments, particularly the United States, are now less critical of the Uzbek human rights record.


Some 1,300 people have vanished since September 11. Disappearances currently running at the rate of 60 a month. In first two months of this year there were 70 murders, 126 abductions, and 25 cases in which corpses were found. Prisoners are routinely beaten and tortured.


Georgian troops detained "several" suspected al-Qa'ida members last autumn and handed them over to the US after a raid on the Pankisi gorge - home to refugees fleeing Chechnya. Russia and the US both claim it is a haven for al-Qa'ida. A US-sponsored operation involves 60 US military personnel and British anti-terrorism experts.


At least one "war on terror" suspect has been held by Syria, which the US regards as a sponsor of terrorism and a user of torture. The alleged al-Qa'ida leader Mohammed Haydar Zammar was transferred there by US operatives. German government has been strongly critical of his detention, since Zammar holds joint German and Syrian citizenship.


900 Palestinians held in administrative detention, without charge or trial. Most have no access to lawyers. Israeli authorities characterize all armed Palestinian activity as terrorism, and justify Israeli military actions as a part of the global "war on terror". Last year, the Knesset passed the Illegal Combatants Law, which enables the military to hold individuals indefinitely on the basis of assumption rather than proven guilt.


There are a number of secret US detention centers overseas where due process does not apply. The CIA undertakes a "false flag operation" using fake decor and disguises meant to deceive a captive into thinking he is imprisoned in a country with a reputation for brutality, when, in reality, he is still in CIA hands. 

© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd


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