Ending CIA rendition of terror suspects

It's time for the Bush administration, and those European governments that have aided its "renditions" of suspected terrorists, to come clean about the process and return to international, legal procedures that govern the treatment of detainees.

Renditions refer to the Central Intelligence Agency's process of secretly nabbing suspects in one country – with at least implicit, if not explicit, cooperation of agents for that government – and transferring them to another for interrogations.

The suspects are often "rendered" to secret prisons in countries such as Egypt, Syria, or Afghanistan. They may be placed in isolation, denied due legal process, and in some cases, allegedly tortured.

Until recently, European governments have been extremely critical of the US rendition process and have mostly denied hosting secret prisons and transit points in their countries.

But just this past weekend – in an indication that at least one European government's agents directly aided a CIA abduction – the government of Italy arrested two of its high-level intelligence officials for their alleged involvement with the CIA in the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian imam, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr.

Mr. Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was picked up near his home in Milan and flown to Egypt, where, he claims, he was tortured. In addition to the arrests of the Italian intelligence officials, prosecutors there issued arrest warrants for four more Americans as well (they'd previously issued warrants for 22 Americans in the case), three of them employees of the CIA and one from the military air base at Aviano, Italy.

Moreover, last month, German officials admitted they were told – although not until May 2004 – about the CIA's December 2003 abduction of Khaled al-Masri. The German citizen was allegedly nabbed by CIA agents while traveling through Macedonia, then transferred to Afghanistan, where he claims he was tortured during interrogations.

In another apparent rendition-gone-bad, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was changing planes in New York in 2002 when US authorities detained him and allegedly flew him to Syria, where he claims he was imprisoned and tortured for a year. Canada had to intervene on Mr. Arar's behalf to get him returned. An official Canadian government report on this case is expected to be released in September.

Several suspected terrorists are suing the US for damages.

Renditions aren't exactly new. They've been around since at least 1986, when President Reagan authorized the practice to deal with the terrorist suspects who might have been responsible for the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut.

The practice was again put into use by the Clinton administration to transport terrorists and drug lords to the US or other countries for prosecution. But it first made big news in February 1995, when US agents flew a manacled and blindfolded Ramzi Youssef from Islamabad to the US, where he was later jailed for life because of his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Then in 2002, President Bush decided that "enemy fighters" would not be considered "prisoners of war," as described by the Geneva Conventions, although they would be afforded comparable protections. Many experts argue that interpretation makes possible the practice of rendition, as well as other alleged abuses.

International rights groups – and now several governments – are calling for an end to the practice.

Amnesty International urgently requested complicit European governments to end what Amnesty calls a "see no evil" policy on CIA renditions.

European Union (EU) parliamentarians from Athens to London – a senator in neutral Switzerland compiled a detailed and damning report – are voicing disgust. The European Parliament voted last week to condemn the CIA for its antiterror operations in Europe.

British attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who represents 36 Guantánamo detainees, among others, names victims, locations of secret prisons, and dates of alleged transfers in the journal Index On Censorship. Mr. Smith reports that a few terrorist suspects who are actually dangerous were sometimes first transferred to Guantánamo, but then moved to secret detention elsewhere.

One senior British official called British Prime Minister Tony Blair's apparent support for rendition flights through British airports "massively damaging." Britain's attorney general agreed.

This reporter's experience in covering terrorism and wars since the Algerian revolution of 1954-62, including work in Jordan before and after 9/11, indicates that abusive questioning rarely yields valuable information. A detainee will often sign a confession to anything his tormentors want to hear, just to get relief.

Continuing US renditions, European condoning of these practices, and covering them up, weakens the war on terror. It dishonors all concerned. Results of official investigations should be published and full process of law restored by all concerned.

John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, covered the Middle East for more than 40 years. One of his books is "Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism."

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