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African commission asked to take case challenging CIA rendition program

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Julie Tate
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 28, 2011; 6:57 PM

NAIROBI - A case filed before an African judicial body could open a new front in efforts by human rights groups to hold the CIA and its partners accountable for what they allege was the torture of innocent victims in secret "black site" prisons around the world.

The case involves Mohammed al-Asad, who said he was arrested in late 2003 at his home in Tanzania, blindfolded and flown to a secret prison in Djibouti. He said he was subjected to two weeks of torture and inhuman treatment in a clandestine CIA rendition and detentions program designed to nab suspected terrorists.

From Djibouti, human rights activists say, Asad was dispatched into a network of secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, before being jailed in his native Yemen. In 2006, Asad was released, without being charged with a terrorism-related crime.

On Monday, American and British human rights lawyers filed legal documents at the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, urging it to require the government of Djibouti to "answer for abuses it committed'' as part of the CIA's secret program. The case made public Monday was filed confidentially in December 2009.

Djibouti's embassy in Nairobi did not answer requests for a response, and a government spokesman in Djibouti was not reachable for comment. The CIA declined to discuss Asad's case and denied the allegations of abuse.

"It's safe to say - without commenting on this specific matter - that much of what has been alleged about the former CIA detention and interrogation program, which ended over two years ago, is simply incorrect," said CIA spokesman George Little.

The commission, based in the Gambia, is a quasi-judicial body that has jurisdiction over nations that have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which includes Djibouti.

If the commission accepts the case, it would represent the first international case to inquire into the role of an African country in the U.S. rendition program, human rights lawyers said.

"By serving as the doorway for the U.S. secret detention and rendition program in Africa, Djibouti directly violated the human rights of our client," said Jayne Huckerby, the research director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, based at New York University's School of Law, which along with Interights, a British human rights law organization, filed the case.

In a telephone interview from eastern Yemen, where he now lives, Asad said he believes he was arrested because of his links to an Islamic charity that was blacklisted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for allegedly funding terrorism. The al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Saudi Arabian charity, had rented space in a building Asad owned.

When Asad landed in Djibouti, he said, he was placed in a small cell, and not given a change of clothes for the two weeks he was there. A woman who identified herself as an American interrogated him, he said.

Asad said one guard told him he was in Djibouti and he also noticed a photograph of the country's president on a wall in the prison. Later on, Tanzanian authorities told his father that he had been taken to Djibouti, he said.

Asad said two guards entered his cell two weeks later and blindfolded him and tied his hands together with a piece of cloth. He said he was taken to the airport where his blindfold was ripped off; five black-clad men masked with balaclavas tore off his clothing and photographed him naked before assaulting him. They chained him, placed a hood over his head and forced him onto a small plane, Asad said.

"I am sure there was a powerful authority behind this kind of treatment," Asad said. "It definitely was the United States."

For the next 16 months, he said, he was held in three more CIA prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, where he endured more abuse. Throughout, Asad said, he had no access to lawyers, had no contact with his family, was never informed of any charge, and did not face a court. He was finally sent to Yemen, where he spent a year in jail before being released.

"I want those who treated me badly to be brought to justice," Asad said. "I lost everything, my business, my life. I want my rights back."

The efforts to bring Asad's case to Africa follow attempts by human rights activists to bring legal actions in U.S. courts involving other alleged victims of the CIA rendition program. Their cases were dismissed on the basis of the "state secrets doctrine" that bars lawsuits deemed to threaten U.S. intelligence secrets.

Margaret Satterthwaite, one of Asad's attorneys, said they had not tried to sue the U.S. government, "though this remains an option." She said they filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain documents pertaining to Asad from the CIA and other agencies. But most agencies, she said, responded that they could "neither confirm nor deny" holding records about Asad or denied they had any.

"The reason we have not sued the U.S. government is that Mohammed's goals are to seek justice in a forum that will actually hear him," Satterthwaite wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

The case before the African Commission was filed confidentially in December 2009, as a matter of courtesy to the country against which the proceeding is brought, said Satterthwaite. The body has taken preliminary steps to accept the case but still has not fully committed to proceed forward with actions against Djibouti.

Monday was the first time Asad's case has been made public, a move apparently intended to add pressure on the body to proceed forward.

"We do hope that making the case public will ensure that all parties involved in the case proceed as expeditiously as possible given the seriousness of the injustice Mr. al-Asad has suffered," Satterthwaite said.

John Sifton, a lawyer and private investigator who has worked on cases involving former CIA detainees, said human rights activists first "tried suing the CIA. Then the CIA's subcontractors. In both cases, U.S. courts threw the cases out.''

"Asad's attorneys are now using an African forum, on the grounds that an African country - Djibouti - was complicit in the CIA's acts,'' Sifton said. "This is a natural legal strategy, given that U.S. courts have closed their doors to the CIA's victims."

If Asad's case is accepted and Djibouti is held accountable, it could pave the way for other former CIA detainees who were later found to have no links to terrorism to file suit. It could also have direct bearing, Sifton said, on cases involving several Guantanamo Bay detainees. He noted that Asad was held at a CIA site with several detainees who are still at Guantanamo.

"Asad may be able to corroborate the forms of mistreatment and torture that were used on detainees, including ones who are still in custody," Sifton said.

raghavans@washpost.com Tate reported from Washington.

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