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.
In late 2002, an FBI agent recounted that one detainee at Guantanamo Bay had been subjected to "intense isolation" for more than three months and that his cell was constantly flooded with light. The agent reported that "the detainee was evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma," including hearing voices, crouching in a corner for hours and talking to imaginary people.
According to the e-mails, military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay tried to hide some of their activities from FBI agents, including having a female interrogator rub lotion on a prisoner during Ramadan -- a highly offensive tactic to an observant Muslim man.
Habib was taken to the Guantanamo Bay prison in May 2002.
Three Britons released from the prison -- Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul -- have said Habib was in "catastrophic shape" when he arrived. Most of his fingernails were missing, and while sleeping he regularly bled from his nose, mouth and ears but U.S. officials denied him treatment, they said.
Habib's attorney, Joseph Margulies, said Habib had moved to Australia in the 1980s but eventually decided to move his family to Pakistan. He was there in late 2001 looking for a house and school for his children, Margulies said. U.S. officials accuse Habib of training and raising money for al Qaeda, and say he had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Australian media have reported that authorities in that country cleared him of having terrorist connections in 2001 and have quoted his Australian attorney as saying he was tortured in Egypt.
On Oct. 5, 2001, Pakistani authorities seized Habib, and over three weeks, he asserts in a memorandum filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, three Americans interrogated him.
The petition says he was taken to an airfield where, during a struggle, he was beaten by several people who spoke American-accented English. The men cut off his clothes, one placed a foot on his neck "and posed while another took pictures," the document says.
He was then flown to Egypt, it alleges, and spent six months in custody in a barren, 6-foot-by-8-foot cell, where he slept on the concrete floor with one blanket. During interrogations, Habib was "sometimes suspended from hooks on the wall" and repeatedly kicked, punched, beaten with a stick, rammed with an electric cattle prod and doused with cold water when he fell asleep, the petition says.
He was suspended from hooks, with his is feet resting on the side of a large cylindrical drum attached to wires and a battery, the document says. "When Mr. Habib did not give the answers his interrogators wanted, they threw a switch and a jolt of electricity" went through the drum, it says. "The action of Mr. Habib 'dancing' on the drum forced it to rotate, and his feet constantly slipped, leaving him suspended by only the hooks on the wall . . . This ingenious cruelty lasted until Mr. Habib finally fainted."
At other times, the petition alleges, he was placed in ankle-deep water that his interrogators told him "was wired to an electric current, and that unless Mr. Habib confessed, they would throw the switch and electrocute him."
Habib says he gave false confessions to stop the abuse.
The State Department's annual human rights report has consistently criticized Egypt for practices that include torturing prisoners.
After six months in Egypt, the petition says, Habib was flown to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
U.S. intelligence officials have said renditions -- and the threat of renditions -- are a potent device to induce suspected terrorists to divulge information. Habib's petition says the threat that detainees at Bagram would be sent to Egypt prompted many of them to offer confessions.
His petition argues that his "removal to Egypt would be unquestionably unlawful" in part because he "faces almost certain torture."
The U.N. Convention Against Torture says no party to the treaty "shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."
"The fact that the United States would contemplate sending him to Egypt again is astonishing to me," said Margulies, the attorney.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
October 2001.Mamdouh Habib's wife, Maha, holds a photo of her family at her home in Sydney. U.S. officials have accused her husband of being a trainer for al Qaeda and of having advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.