U.S. authorities in late 2001 forcibly transferred an Australian citizen to Egypt, where, he alleges, he was tortured for six months before being flown to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to court papers made public yesterday in a petition seeking to halt U.S. plans to return him to Egypt.
Egyptian-born Mamdouh Habib, who was detained in Pakistan in October 2001 as a suspected al Qaeda trainer, alleges that while under Egyptian detention he was hung by his arms from hooks, repeatedly shocked, nearly drowned and brutally beaten, and he contends that U.S. and international law prohibits sending him back.
Habib's case is only the second to describe a secret practice called "rendition," under which the CIA has sent suspected terrorists to be interrogated in countries where torture has been well documented. It is unclear which U.S. agency transferred Habib to Egypt.
Habib's is the first case to challenge the legality of the practice and could have implications for U.S. plans to send large numbers of Guantanamo Bay detainees to Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other countries with poor human rights records.
The CIA has acknowledged that it conducts renditions, but the agency and Bush administration officials who have publicly addressed the matter say they never intend for the captives to be tortured and, in fact, seek pledges from foreign governments that they will treat the captives humanely.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Habib's allegations, which were filed in November but made public only yesterday after a judge ruled that his petition contained no classified information. The department has not addressed the allegation that he was sent to Egypt.
An Egyptian official reached last night said he could not comment on Habib's allegations but added: "Accusations that we are torturing people tend to be mythology."
The authority under which renditions and other forcible transfers may be legally performed is reportedly summarized in a March 13, 2002, memo titled "The President's Power as Commander in Chief to Transfer Captive Terrorists to the Control and Custody of Foreign Nations." Knowledgeable U.S. officials said White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales participated in its production.
The administration has refused a congressional request to make it public. But it is referred to in an August 2002 Justice Department opinion -- which Gonzales asked for and helped draft -- defining torture in a narrow way and concluding that the president could legally permit torture in fighting terrorism.
When the August memo became public, Bush repudiated it, and last week the Justice Department replaced it with a broader interpretation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which prohibits the practice under all circumstances. The August memo is expected to figure prominently in today's confirmation hearing for Gonzales, Bush's nominee to run the Justice Department as attorney general.
In a statement he planned to read at his hearing, made public yesterday, Gonzales said he would combat terrorism "in a manner consistent with our nation's values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations."
Also yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union released new documents showing that 26 FBI agents reported witnessing mistreatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees, indicating a far broader pattern of alleged abuse there than reported previously.
The records, obtained in an ongoing ACLU lawsuit, also show that the FBI's senior lawyer determined that 17 of the incidents were "DOD-approved interrogation techniques" and did not require further investigation. The FBI did not participate in any of the interviews directly, according to the documents.
The new ACLU documents detail abuses seen by FBI personnel serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, including incidents in which military interrogators grabbed prisoners' genitals, bent back their fingers and, in one case, placed duct tape over a prisoner's mouth for reciting the Koran.