STOCKHOLM -- The airport police officer was about to close his small precinct station for the night, when two men wearing suits walked in. The visitors said the special Swedish security police had just arrested two suspected terrorists -- very dangerous men -- and needed a place to hold them until a plane could take them away.
The airport policeman recounted in an interview that he agreed to let them borrow his cramped office that night, Dec. 18, 2001, and stepped out of the way. But there was something strange about this operation. The two men in suits, who were soon joined by two uniformed Swedish police officers, did not speak Swedish, he said, and their English sounded distinctly American.
Another oddity: When the suspects arrived a few minutes later, they were escorted by a half-dozen security agents wearing hoods.
The hooded agents took the suspected terrorists into the precinct's dressing room. Inside, the agents cut off the prisoners' clothes with scissors, changed the men into red overalls and bound them with handcuffs and leg irons. Then they were hustled out the door and onto the tarmac, where a U.S.-registered Gulfstream V jet was waiting.
The men with covered faces "were very quiet," recalled Paul Forell, the police officer on duty at Stockholm's Bromma Airport that night. "When they gave orders to each other, they kept their voices down. It seemed like they had done this before. They were very professional." Forell said he could not hear them well enough to get a feel for their nationality.
The plane's destination was Cairo. Its two unwilling passengers were Egyptian nationals who had applied for asylum in Sweden more than a year earlier, hoping to take advantage of its extensive programs for refugees facing political arrest or persecution in their home countries. After welcoming the men at first, the Swedish government reversed its position after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The deportation was carried out swiftly and outside Sweden's normal legal channels. Officials gave final approval to the expulsion order at 4 p.m. on Dec. 18, according to accounts issued later by the government. The men had been grabbed on the street without warning by 5 p.m. and were in the air by 9:47 p.m. Their lawyers were not officially notified of the expulsion until after the plane had departed, to prevent them from filing appeals.
Playing a central and secret role in the operation: the U.S. government, which provided the plane, some agents and other logistical support, according to classified documents recently released by the Swedish government, as well as interviews in Stockholm and Cairo.
The CIA refers to such cases as "extraordinary renditions," the fast and forcible transfer of foreign terrorism suspects to other countries, often their places of origin, where they can be detained or interrogated more freely, often without all the legal protections available in the country they left.
Details of such operations are almost always secret, and the United States has not acknowledged its role in the deportation of the two Egyptian men. But CIA officials have testified in Congress about engaging in about 70 renditions before 2001. Security analysts said the number has increased substantially since then, as the U.S. government has become more aggressive in its global hunt for people considered a threat to national security.
Critics have charged that the practice is vulnerable to abuse, noting that suspects are usually deported to countries that are friendly to U.S. intelligence agencies but also have records of permitting torture or other human rights violations. In organizing such transfers, the U.S. government is engaging in practices abroad that would be illegal and unconstitutional at home, those critics have said.
The fate of the two Egyptian men offers a rare glimpse into such a case, as well as an example of what can go wrong.
The Swedish government, for instance, agreed to deport the suspects only after receiving assurances from Egypt that they would be given fair trials and "not be subjected to inhuman treatment or punishment of any kind," according to a confidential memo prepared by Swedish diplomats six days before the expulsion.
Records and interviews show, however, that the agreement was broken almost as soon as the two men arrived in Cairo. Their lawyers, relatives and human rights groups said there is credible evidence that they were regularly subjected to electric shocks and other forms of torture. One suspect was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a military tribunal after a trial that lasted less than six hours. The other spent almost two years behind bars without being charged.