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The verdict expected Wednesday in a landmark case may present a historic legal challenge to the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) rendition program, Human Rights Watch said today.
The trial in Milan of 26 Americans in absentiaand seven Italians for the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian imam began in 2007.
The Italian justice system's vigorous prosecution of abusive CIA rendition operations stands in stark contrast to the inactivity of the US Department of Justice. Although the Obama administration has opened a preliminary investigation of CIA interrogation abuses, the review is narrowly focused and does not cover CIA renditions or senior Bush administration officials most responsible for abuses.
"There should be dozens of CIA rendition cases in the US courts, but unfortunately there are none," said Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch. "By meticulously investigating the facts and surmounting formidable obstacles, Italian prosecutors have set an example that US prosecutors should follow."
Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, was abducted as he was walking down the street in Milan on February 17, 2003 in what is believed to have been a joint operation by the CIA and Italian military intelligence. After being driven by his captors to Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy, Abu Omar was allegedly put on a plane and flown to Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, and from there to Egypt.
In a December 2007 interview, Abu Omar told Human Rights Watch that he was violently abused upon his arrival in Egypt. "You cannot imagine," he said. "I was hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electrical shocks."
"I was brutally tortured," he continued, "and I could hear the screams of others who were tortured too."
While in one prison in Egypt, Abu Omar wrote an 11-page letter that described his torture in graphic detail. He was finally released from prison without charge in February 2007.
An Italian court issued indictments against those believed responsible for the cleric's abduction in June 2005, but the case moved forward slowly, in part because successive Italian governments viewed the prosecution as a hindrance to Italian-US relations. Notably, both the Berlusconi and Prodi governments refused to seek the extradition of the 26 Americans being prosecuted in the case.
The Italian government also tried to block the case by challenging much of the evidence that implicated the defendants in the case, claiming that its use could endanger national security. In March 2009, in an important setback for the prosecution, Italy's Constitutional Court barred much of this evidence from being admitted at trial, ruling that it was protected by the state secrets doctrine.
The Italian defendants include Gen. Nicolo Pollari, the former head of SISMI, Italy's military intelligence service, who was forced to resign over Abu Omar's abduction and rendition, and Pollari's former deputy, Marco Mancini.
The American defendants consist of 25 alleged CIA operatives - including former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady and former Rome CIA station chief Jeffrey Castelli - as well as US Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Romano, who was stationed at the Aviano military base at the time the events occurred.
In his closing argument, the lead Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, called for long sentences for a number of the defendants, including a term of 13 years in prison without parole for Castelli and Pollari, and 12 years for Lady.
The seven Italian defendants in the case are being tried in person, while the 26 American defendants, including 25 alleged CIA agents, are being tried in absentia. Most of the American defendants have court-appointed Italian lawyers, but two of them, Romano and Sabrina De Sousa, have hired private counsel.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that trials in absentia do not afford defendants an adequate opportunity to present a defense as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Should the Italian law enforcement authorities ever gain custody over the American defendants, Human Rights Watch believes that they should be granted a retrial.
During the Bush administration, responsibility for the CIA's rendition program lay at the highest levels of government. In the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed a classified presidential directive giving the CIA expanded authority to arrest, interrogate, detain, and render terrorist suspects arrested abroad. During Bush's two terms in office, the US is believed to have rendered terrorism suspects to the custody of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Libya, and Syria, and other countries.
The exact number of people rendered by the CIA to foreign custody since 2001 is unknown. Then CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed in a 2007 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations that fewer than 100 people had been rendered abroad since the September 11 attacks: "mid-range two figures," he said.
"The CIA's rendition program should be on trial in the United States," Mariner said. "It's not too late for the Obama administration to follow the Italian prosecutors' lead and launch serious criminal investigations."
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.
"Both countries show striking parallels in their attempts to harass and intimidate into silence all actual or perceived government critics and opponents."
As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the chief guest at his nation's 74th Republic Day celebrations, Amnesty International on Thursday led calls for both right-wing leaders to "address the ongoing human rights and impunity crises" in their respective countries.
Meeting ahead of events commemorating the adoption of India's constitution—including a military parade in which members of the Egyptian army marched—Modi and El-Sisi agreed to elevate bilateral ties to a "strategic partnership," while calling for a "coordinated and concerted" effort to combat "terrorism."
Modi—who said Wednesday that he and El-Sisi "are in agreement that terrorism is the biggest threat to humanity"—has, like his Egyptian counterpart, been accused of using anti-terrorism laws to crush critics and silence dissent.
"The current human rights crises in India and Egypt are characterized by entrenched impunity and misuse of counterterrorism legislation to clamp down on civic space and peaceful dissent."
"The current human rights crises in India and Egypt are characterized by entrenched impunity and misuse of counterterrorism legislation to clamp down on civic space and peaceful dissent," Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
"Both countries show striking parallels in their attempts to harass and intimidate into silence all actual or perceived government critics and opponents. This unrelenting assault on human rights must end," he added.
\u201cThe Indian and Egyptian authorities must address the ongoing human rights and impunity crises in the two countries. Both show striking parallels in their unrelenting assault on rights. https://t.co/gbmoAkMnXT\u201d— Amnesty India (@Amnesty India) 1674710907
As Amnesty noted:
In recent years, authorities in both countries have severely repressed the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly and failed to address entrenched discrimination against religious minorities.
Human rights defenders, lawyers, political opponents, peaceful protesters, academics, and students, face arbitrary arrests and detention, unjust prosecutions, and other forms of harassment and intimidation solely for their peaceful exercise of their human rights in both India and Egypt.
"India and Egypt seem to have taken their long-standing bilateral cooperation to a different level where they share tactics to increasingly repress rights and freedoms," Amnesty International India board chief Aakar Patel said in a statement. "As the leaders of the two countries take the center stage, celebrations of the adoption of India's constitution 74 years ago should not overshadow the grim reality that the human rights situations in both countries have been on a downward spiral."
\u201c\u201cThe current human rights crises in #India & #Egypt are characterized by entrenched impunity and misuse of counterterrorism legislation to clamp down on civic space & peaceful dissent\u201d, @amnesty said today, as India hosts President Sisi as the chief guest at its Republic Day.\u201d— Nuria Tes\u00f3n (@Nuria Tes\u00f3n) 1674743767
Leading an open letter from Egyptian and Indian diaspora members published Tuesday by the Canadian alternative news site rabble.ca, Ehab Lotayef, Samaa Elibyari, and Jooneed Jeeroburkhan noted that India's constitution "guarantees full equality and rights to all Indians and declares the country a secular, socialist republic."
"However today's India is led by a Hindu ethno-nationalist party committed to converting it into a Hindu nation," the authors continued, and "the government of India has been called out by domestic and international human rights organizations for unleashing and engendering violence and detentions against Muslim, Dalit, and Christian minorities as well as any human rights defenders."
"Meanwhile, January 25 marks the start of the 17 days in 2011 which forced one of the region's longest-serving and most influential leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, from power," they continued. "We recall that moment of incredible exhilaration as all Egyptians aspired to more democracy and social justice. Unfortunately, on July 3, 2013, then-Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi staged a coup d'état that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, and returned the country to dictatorial rule."
\u201c"What is happening in Egypt and India should be of interest to all Canadians, even if they are not of Egyptian or Indian origin. Support for governments that violate fundamental rights diminishes democracy everywhere." https://t.co/sXAmcQlOba\u201d— Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (@Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East) 1674656645
"Since his ascent to power through dubious elections, El-Sisi has governed Egypt with an iron fist," the trio wrote. "Under his direct command, on August 14, 2013, two encampments of protesters in Rabaa and al-Nahda squares, demanding that President Morsi be reinstated, were dismantled by lethal force and more than 1,000 people were killed."
"To date, no one has been held accountable," the authors added. "Since then, all dissenting voices have been silenced and more than 60,000 political prisoners languish behind bars in abject conditions."
"It's high time for EPA to crack down on the toxic pollution from oil refineries that's threatening both wildlife and human health," said one environmental justice advocate.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to uphold its legal obligation to regulate the nearly half-billion gallons of toxic wastewater that petroleum refineries dump into the nation's waterways on a daily basis, according to an exhaustive study published Thursday.
The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a watchdog founded by former EPA enforcement attorneys, analyzed publicly available records and found that in 2021 alone, the 81 refineries across the U.S. that discharge into rivers, streams, and estuaries released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates, and other dissolved solids harmful to aquatic life; 15.7 million pounds of algae-feeding nitrogen; 60,000 pounds of selenium, which can cause mutations in fish; and other pollutants, including cyanide; heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc; and petrochemicals like benzene.
"Much of the water pollution from refineries is legal," EIP's report explains, "because EPA and the states have failed to set any limits on certain pollutants and have failed to update and modernize permit limits for other pollutants" despite the Clean Water Act's mandate that EPA does so. "But a portion of the problem is also illegal. As it turns out, EPA and state enforcement of existing permit limits for refineries is lax and rarely results in penalties for violations."
"Almost 83% of refineries (67 of 81) exceeded their permitted limits on water pollutants at least once between 2019 to 2021, according to EPA enforcement and compliance records," the report notes. "But only about a quarter of the refineries with violations (15 of the 67) were penalized during this period."
Other key findings of the report, titled Oil's Unchecked Outfalls, include:
"Oil refineries are major sources of water pollution that have largely escaped public notice and accountability in the U.S., and too many release a witches' brew of contaminants to our rivers, lakes, and estuaries," EIP executive director Eric Schaeffer said in a statement. "This is because of lax federal standards based on wastewater treatment methods that are nearly forty years old."
"The Clean Water Act requires EPA to impose more stringent standards that reflect the advanced wastewater treatment methods available today," said Schaeffer, former director of civil enforcement at EPA. "After decades of neglect, EPA needs to comply with the law and set strong effluent limits for refineries that protect public health and environment. EPA and the states also need to start enforcing the limits that exist and penalizing polluters."
EIP identified which refineries are the top dischargers of key pollutants. When it comes to selenium, the Chevron El Segundo Refinery in California and the Motiva Port Arthur Refinery in Texas are the worst offenders, each dumping more than 12 pounds per day into local waterways. The Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery in Illinois and the BP Cherry Point Refinery in Washington pour out more nickel than any other facility in the country. El Segundo is also the biggest discharger of nitrogen, at 4,351 pounds per day, followed by the PBF Delaware City Refinery’s 3,283 pounds per day. For total dissolved solids, the worst offenders are the ExxonMobil Baytown Refinery (347,345 pounds per day) and the Valero Corpus Christi Bill Greehey Refinery (291,527 pounds per day), both in Texas.
EIP also documented the worst refineries for permit violations from 2019 to 2021. The Hunt Southland Refinery in Mississippi exceeded its permitted pollution limits 144 times during that time period but faced just two Clean Water Act enforcement actions totaling $85,500. The Phillips 66 Sweeny Refinery in Texas, meanwhile, ran up 44 violations but was hit with just a single $30,000 fine.
"After decades of neglect, EPA needs to comply with the law and set strong effluent limits for refineries that protect public health and environment. EPA and the states also need to start enforcing the limits that exist and penalizing polluters."
"EPA's national discharge limits for refineries apply to just ten pollutants, including ammonia, chromium, and oil and grease," states the report. "These skeletal standards do not begin to address the variety and volume of dangerous contaminants found in the wastewater from refining processes."
For example, the report documents that refineries are "a notable source" of toxic "forever chemicals" (PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), in part because they use firefighting foams that contain them. Even though PFAS have been linked to numerous adverse health impacts, EPA's newly released plan for regulating industrial discharges does not establish limits on these synthetic compounds in refinery wastewater.
"EPA's current rules for refineries are almost 40 years old, based on outdated treatment methods, and do not even apply to most of the pollutants that refineries discharge," says EIP's report. "EPA needs to waste no further time and move quickly to update these standards and impose the more stringent discharge limits the law requires."
"The states and the EPA also need to penalize permit violations more consistently so that refining companies have an economic incentive to clean up waterways," the report continues. "Currently, most violations by refineries are not penalized at all, and when they are, the amounts are paltry compared to the profitability of the industry. More stringent enforcement will provide a financial incentive for violators to update their pollution control systems and improve their operations to protect public health and the environment."
Bruze Reznick, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, lamented that "once again, the U.S. government has turned a blind eye while oil and gas companies pollute our environment, including our sensitive marine ecosystems, and disproportionately harm our frontline communities."
"We must now put the spotlight on oil refineries' essentially unregulated water pollution and demand that EPA fulfill its duty under the Clean Water Act by setting, updating, and actually enforcing discharge limits for these refineries," said Reznick.
He was echoed by Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, who said that "it's high time for EPA to crack down on the toxic pollution from oil refineries that's threatening both wildlife and human health."
EIP researchers argued that "EPA's failure to require the cleanup of refinery wastewater is a part of a wider pattern."
"Most of the discharge limits in effect today for industries across the U.S. were established well before the end of the last century," the report points out. "According to the latest state water quality reports, about half of America's rivers, streams, and lakes, and a quarter of our estuaries are too polluted to support aquatic life, swimming, fishing, or to supply drinking water. The 1972 Clean Water Act promised to make all waters fishable and swimmable, but we are only halfway home to that goal more than fifty years later."
Without a "real, strong response" from the international community to Thursday's raid in the occupied West Bank, said one analyst, "Israel will continue to do what it wants without punishment."
An elderly woman was among at least nine Palestinian people killed in an early morning raid at a refugee camp in Jenin in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, in what President Mahmoud Abbas denounced as "a massacre from the Israeli occupation government, in the shadow of international silence."
The woman died of a gunshot wound in her neck, Middle East Eye (MEE) reported.
Heavily armed soldiers with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered the refugee camp in a commercial truck and shot at residents who were trying to block them. The IDF also used bulldozers in the raid and targeted an area that was used as a meeting place for residents. According to Al Jazeera, "dozens of armored vehicles and snipers" were involved in the raid.
"The sounds of bullets and gunfights were intense, and clouds of smoke covered the sky," Anas Huwaisheh, a correspondent at a local channel, told MEE. "The Israeli occupation cut off the electricity, the internet, and the cell phone network during the storming. This shows that it was planned."
At least 20 people were injured as of this writing, including four who were in critical condition.
\u201cIsraeli forces shot dead nine Palestinians and wounded at least 16 others during a raid on Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. \n\nThe attack is one of the deadliest days since Israeli raids intensified at the start of last year, and has been described as a \u201cmassacre\u201d.\u201d— Middle East Eye (@Middle East Eye) 1674741232
The raid made Thursday one of the deadliest days in the occupied West Bank since the IDF intensified its attacks early last year in response to the Palestinian resistance.
At least 29 Palestinians have now been killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem this month, including five children and 15 people from Jenin.
Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila accused the IDF of obstructing ambulances as emergency workers tried to take victims to a nearby public hospital and of "deliberately [firing] tear gas bombs at the hospital's children's department, choking children."
"There is an invasion that is unprecedented... in terms of how large it is and the number of injuries," Wissam Baker, the head of the public hospital, told Al Jazeera. "The ambulance driver tried to get to one of the martyrs who was on the floor, but the Israeli forces shot directly at the ambulance and prevented them from approaching him."
The IDF denied firing tear gas at the hospital deliberately but said soldiers fired the chemicals close enough to the hospital that it could have entered the children's ward.
Murad Khamayseh, a medic, told MEE that "it was almost impossible to go into the camp" to rescue victims.
"Israeli forces fired warning shots and signaled at the team to not approach the area," Khamayseh said. "As paramedics we have gotten used to this, but I honestly couldn't keep myself together after the things I have seen today."
Political analyst Aleef Sabbagh told Al Jazeera that the raid is likely "the first shot in a coming, larger Israeli operation" and warned that without a "real, strong response" to the attack and other incidents like the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last year, "Israel will continue to do what it wants without punishment."
"The targeting of ambulances and hospitals, preventing aid to wounded people, the field executions—even the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh—there has been no accountability," Sabbagh said.
Abu Akleh was shot to death while covering an IDF raid in Jenin last May; multiple investigations have determined the Israelis were responsible for her killing, either intentionally or unintentionally, but Israel said in recent weeks it would not cooperate with a U.S. investigation into the matter.
Jewish Voice for Peace said Thursday that the Jenin raid was "the result of unrestrained violence by the Israeli military."
\u201cThe massacre in Jenin is the result of unrestrained violence by the Israeli military: 9 killed in one day, including 2 children. We support the calls for a national strike across all Palestine.\u201d— Jewish Voice for Peace (@Jewish Voice for Peace) 1674749525
The group also called on the U.S. to "end its complicity in Israel's brutal violence and apartheid."
"Over and over, the Biden administration has refused to take action in response to Israel's blatant war crimes against Palestinians, all while continuing to send billions of dollars to the Israeli military," said Beth Miller, the group's political director. "Next week, Secretary Blinken is visiting Israel to continue normalizing relations with its far-right extremist and violent government. Enough is enough."
A general strike was called across the West Bank on Thursday to protest the raid at the refugee camp.