Tuesday, May 27, 2008

CRIKEY: Who knew what (and when) about Habib's torture?

ASIO head honcho Paul O'Sullivan told a Senate Hearing that Australia expressed its opposition to Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib being sent by the US to Egypt after he was arrested in Pakistan in 2001 - The Age and The Australian report the story today.

Here's an excerpt from Natalie O'Brien's report of the story in The Oz:

The current head of ASIO, Paul O'Sullivan, revealed during a Senate estimates hearing yesterday that his predecessor, Mr Richardson, was personally involved in discussions with the US State Department and the intelligence community about the "hypothetical" possibility of Mr Habib being taken to Egypt.

"The director-general of ASIO informed the US authorities that it was not the Australian government policy position to engage in practices of rendition," Mr O'Sullivan said.

Documents tabled in federal parliament last week revealed the rendition was discussed at a meeting in Canberra on October 23, 2001, between senior officials from the Prime Minister's office, ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney-General's Department, and they agreed "that the Australian government could not agree to the transfer of Mr Habib to Egypt".

Mr O'Sullivan said yesterday it was Mr Richardson, who is now the Australian ambassador in Washington, who conveyed that message to the US Government.
Habib is of Egyptian origin. He speaks fluent Arabic. Why would Australia object to a short holiday in the home country? Because the Howard government knew that Habib was going to be tortured.

They also knew about the Bush administration' s practice of extraordinary rendition - the outsourcing of torture to another country which lacks the strict laws against torture that would (at least in theory) enable a detainee to bring action under US law.

Habib's torture is mentioned by former British Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg in his memoir Enemy Combatant. He tells of a detainee who had been kidnapped by Indonesian security services and sent to Egypt where he was ...

... held in a tiny room and interrogated brutally for three months before being handed over to the Americans.

That detainee told Begg of ...

... the screams of another man [Habib] from a room nearby.

Begg himself recalls Habib as ...

... a man who was often made to stand but kept fainting and dropping to the floor.

Back in November 2005, hardly 10 months after Habib was finally released from Guantanamo, the Washington Post reported at great length of ...

... a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe.
The report is lengthy and well worth reading in full. Here's more from the report.

The hidden global internment network is a central element in the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism. It depends on the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, and on keeping even basic information about the system secret from the public, foreign officials and nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA's covert actions.

The existence and locations of the facilities -- referred to as "black sites" in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department and congressional documents -- are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country.

The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long.

While the Defense Department has produced volumes of public reports and testimony about its detention practices and rules after the abuse scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites. To do so, say officials familiar with the program, could open the U.S. government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad.

But the revelations of widespread prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. military -- which operates under published rules and transparent oversight of Congress -- have increased concern among lawmakers, foreign governments and human rights groups about the opaque CIA system. Those concerns escalated last month, when Vice President Cheney and CIA Director Porter J. Goss asked Congress to exempt CIA employees from legislation already endorsed by 90 senators that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody.

Although the CIA will not acknowledge details of its system, intelligence officials defend the agency's approach, arguing that the successful defense of the country requires that the agency be empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the U.S. legal system or even by the military tribunals established for prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

Even the Washington Post admits it engaged in self-censorship over the issue.

The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.
But it isn't just foreign governments helping the CIA by providing venues for its gulags. In their 2006 book Torture Taxi: On The Trail Of The CIA's Rendition Flights, AC Thompson and Trevor Paglen mention that even commercial airliners are contracted to transport suspects to and between CIA prisons.

The Oz reports:

The Prime Minister's Department told estimates last night it had no record of whether then prime minister John Howard was advised of the situation.
If ASIO knew but Howard didn't, on what basis would ASIO communicate Canberra's displeasure to the United States over Habib being the subject of extraordinary rendition?

At the very least, one can say that the Howard government's insistence on blindly supporting the Bush administration' s foreign policy agenda was often at the expense of Australian citizens.

Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, spent years being abused and tortured in Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan and then Guantanamo. After all that, he was released without charge. Whether the Australian government was complicit in all this remains to be seen. But the fact remains that someone in Canberra knew in advance what would happen to Habib.

An edited version of this story was first published in the Crikey daily alert for 27 May 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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