SAN FRANCISCO - The human rights group Amnesty International is appealing decisions by the United States government to withhold as secret information detailing the incarceration of so-called ghost detainees as part of the Bush administration's self-styled "war on terror."
The requests, which were submitted under the Freedom of Information Act with the help of the International Human Rights Clinic of New York University (NYU) School of Law, concern detainees who are--or have been--held by or with the involvement of the United States government, where there is no public record of the detentions.
Such individuals have also often been subjected to the practice commonly known as extraordinary rendition, which means they have been flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to a U.S.-allied nation where torture is legal and have been interrogated there.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of prisoners have been victims of torture in third countries. It's difficult to ascertain the exact number because the files remain classified.
NYU Professor Margaret L. Satterthwaite said the group originally requested the records back in April, filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the CIA, the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and the Marine Corps.
The law requires the government to hand over relevant records within 10 working days, but four months later, Satterthwaite said she has received almost nothing.
"We're trying to be optimistic because we really do believe the government has an obligation to come forward with the records if it has them," Dr. Satterthwaite told OneWorld.
Last week, she filed an appeal.
"If it's required we may have to file a lawsuit," she said.
Still, despite official secrecy from the U.S. government, journalists and human rights groups have been able to piece together a picture of the Bush administration's policy of what has become known as "ghosting" detainees.
Last month, for example, Amnesty International issued a report on extraordinary rendition in the Kingdom of Jordan, which it said had become a hub of CIA-sponsored torture.
According to Amnesty, types of torture included being beaten while being made to run around a courtyard; "falaqa," whereby the soles of the victim's feet are repeatedly beaten with a stick; being stripped in front of others; being made to behave like a particular animal; sleep deprivation; being threatened with rape, electric shocks, or being attacked by dogs; and being kept for prolonged periods in incommunicado detention, without visits from family members or a lawyer and often without the family being told of one's arrest.
Among the cases documented by the human rights group was that of 27-year-old Yemini national Salah 'Ali Qaru. He was arrested in Indonesia in August 2003 and held for nearly a month before being transferred to Jordan.
Qaru told Amnesty International he was taken off the plane at Amman, thinking he was on his way back to Yemen, and questioned by Jordanian intelligence officers. They asked him about Afghanistan, a country he said he had visited. He was taken into custody and interrogated about "jihad in Afghanistan."
He says he was routinely beaten, including with sticks, by Jordanian officials dressed in military uniforms; he was spat upon; verbally abused; threatened with sexual abuse and electric shocks; suspended upside-down from the ceiling and subjected to falaqa; and forced to walk like an animal on his hands and feet. When he refused, he said, they stretched him out on the floor and walked on him, putting their shoes in his mouth; he had cigarettes stubbed out on his arm; and he was forced to stand throughout the night while being interrogated.
Sometimes, Qaru said, his interrogators held plates of food near his face while they ate, although he was not fed. Often he could not lift his legs because of the pain caused by the torture and today, nearly three years later, Salah 'Ali Qaru continues to suffer physically, being unable to walk long distances or carry heavy loads.
Qaru's detention and torture in Jordan lasted about 10 days, following which Jordanian guards hooded and shackled him, stuffed foam into his ears, and drove him to an airstrip from which he was then flown out of Jordan to another place of detention, a so-called CIA "black site," possibly in Afghanistan.
The Bush Administration admits the U.S. government has been flying prisoners around the world for interrogation, but denies anyone is being tortured.
''The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured," Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told reporters last December. ''Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured."
''The United States, and those countries that share the commitment to defend their citizens, will use every lawful weapon to defeat these terrorists," she added, ''Sometimes these efforts are misunderstood."
But critics say there's nothing to misunderstand.
"It's despicable," retired CIA national intelligence officer William Christison told OneWorld. Before retiring, Christison headed up the agency's Office of Regional and Political Analysis. "I do not want to conceive a United States government that would do this."
Christison believes the practice of "ghosting detainees" and transferring them to "black sites" for torture opens the door to America's opponents mistreating U.S. citizens when they're in custody. "We should always follow the Geneva Conventions," he said. "It's in our own interest."
"We are going to pay for this in coming generations," he added. "We as a nation are not going to get over having done this and increasingly you're going to see this kind of treatment doled out to American citizens in the future."
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