Habib torture: what Canberra knew

Friday, June 22, 2007

The June 11 edition of ABC TV's Four Corners confirmed what Australian former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib has claimed since his January 2005 release without charge: that the Australian authorities were complicit in his abduction and torture.

Habib was arrested in Pakistan in October 2001. After a month, during which he was interrogated and beaten, he was flown, gagged, blindfolded and chained, to Egypt as part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program.

After six months of torture, the CIA flew Habib to Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo Bay. Since his return to Australia, he has had his passport confiscated, been vilified by politicians and the corporate media, and subjected to continual police harassment.

Habib's ordeal began when he was taken from a bus in Pakistan by local police. While he was in Pakistan, he was interrogated by Pakistani and US personnel and, on three occasions, by an ASIO officer. Two Australian Federal Police officers were present at two of these interrogations. Habib told Four Corners that the ASIO officer had told him that he was going to be sent to Egypt.

Habib was put on a plane by masked members of the CIA's rendition team in a bizarre and brutal manner. He told Four Corners that after having his clothes cut off with scissors, an object forced into his rectum and being dressed in a nappy, "They give me a grey tracksuit and the same shoes I have ... and they start to make me like a spring roll, from the bottom to the top, all surrounded with chains ... after the handcuff and shackles. And they put some stuff in my mouth and they put on sticky tape, or a band-aid, and they put me in black stuff, like a ... black bag and they put goggles on the top. And they just roll me to the flight."

Strange as this account may seem, US lawyer Professor Joe Margulies, who has acted for many Guantanamo detainees, told Four Corners that this procedure was standard practice in CIA renditions.

Australian politicians and police have continually denied any knowledge of Habib's rendition to Egypt. However, Four Corners produced documentary evidence obtained under Freedom of Information laws proving the opposite. These included a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cable and a communication to the AFP in Canberra from their liaison officer in Pakistan, both stating that Habib had been transferred to Egypt and both dated November 19, just two days after it took place.

Despite the Australian denials, in February 2002, two ASIO agents traveled to Egypt and discussed Habib's presence there with Egyptian intelligence. On the basis of this discussion, DFAT wrote to Habib's wife, Maha, saying it had "credible advice" that he was "being treated well".

What "being treated well" meant was graphically shown by Habib's account to Four Corners of what he suffered in Egypt, including beatings, electrocution, being burned with cigarettes, having his finger and toe-nails pulled out, assault by dogs, being locked in a box, kept in a cell where he couldn't lie straight, sexual humiliation, being kept in a flooded cell where he had to stand on the tip of his toes to avoid drowning, and watching another prisoner being kicked to death, among other horrors.

Further evidence of Australian complicity lies in the fact that Habib's Egyptian interrogators asked questions about the identity of names on telephone SIM cards taken by ASIO in raids on his Sydney home.

In April 2002, after Habib was flown to Afghanistan, Canberra acknowledged his capture for the first time. The then attorney-general, Darryl Williams, described him as being "in good health". A month later, US military doctors examining Habib on his arrival at Guantanamo Bay described him as having been tortured.

Of course, US involvement in torture is nothing new. The US Army's School of the Americas has trained generations of torturers for US client regimes in Latin America and many Latin American torture victims have testified that US personnel supervised their abuse.

Furthermore, Australian participation in illegal US operations involving torture and extrajudicial killing also has historical precedents: for example, Australian personnel took part in the CIA's Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War, in which tens of thousands of civilians were assassinated and an even greater number tortured.

The practice of rendition — the transfer of prisoners to third countries where they can be tortured — began in the 1990s and became widespread after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. The number of victims is unknown but is estimated to be in the hundreds. Several countries have been used as destinations for rendition, but Egypt has been the major one due to the closeness of its regime to the US and its security forces' track record in sadism.

As well as sending victims to countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Uzbekistan, outsourcing torture to local security services, other operations have involved renditions to "black sites" — secret prisons in various countries that are run directly by the CIA. An inquiry by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, brought about by protest movements, has uncovered secret CIA prisons in Poland and Romania, as well as the collusion of the security services of EU countries in rendition operations. Other rendition operations have involved abducting people in Europe and sending them directly to Guantanamo Bay.

While rendition has been justified as a means of preventing terrorist attacks, the evidence suggests the opposite is the case. For example, on August 5, 1998, an Arab-language newspaper in London published a letter from the International Islamic Front for Jihad that threatened retaliation against the US, in a "language they will understand", for the rendition of four militants from Albania to Egypt (two of whom were hanged). Two days later, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up, killing 224 people.

There has even been opposition to the practice from within the CIA and FBI because information gained under torture is generally unreliable — torture victims will confess to anything in a bid to stop the torture.

However, it is precisely the ability to extract false information that makes torture useful to its practitioners. For example, the "evidence" of links between al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, since discredited but a vital part of Washington's justification of its invasion, was a confession extracted under torture from al Qaeda leader Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi after his rendition to Egypt.

Since Habib's release, Coalition ministers and their media mouthpieces have continued to refer to the US's "credible evidence" that Habib had prior knowledge of the September 11 attacks. This "credible evidence" is the confessions he made during his torture in Egypt. While in Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks was shown pictures of Habib being tortured in Egypt to encourage him to enter a guilty plea.

The framing of Hicks and Habib was used to justify the introduction of draconian "anti-terror" laws. There are currently 24 people being held in Guantanamo Bay-like conditions in Australian jails awaiting trial under these laws. That the most recently arrested of these are Tamil refugees whose "crime" is to believe that their homeland has a right to self-determination shows the political nature of these laws.

The use of "anti-terrorism" discourse in laws being enacted to criminalise protests during the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Sydney is a further indication as to why the Howard government has an interest in using torture to fabricate a "terrorist" threat.

Mass protest movements helped secure Habib's release and Hicks's repatriation to Australia. However, justice will only be done when Habib and Hicks are fully exonerated and compensated for their ordeals, and those responsible for these injustices to these two men are held to account.

In Italy, the civil liberties movement has won an important victory in this regard. On June 7, 26 US agents (in absentia) and seven Italian secret police agents were indicted for the 2003 abduction in Milan of Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr and his rendition to Egypt where he was tortured horrifically.

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