Amrit Singh of the Open Society Justice Initiative tells DW about her new report, which provides unprecedented detail about the reach of the CIA's rendition program and the collaboration of 54 foreign governments.
Amrit Singh is the author of a new 216-page report entitled "Globalizing Torture" by the New York-based NGO Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), which makes clear that the CIA's extraordinary rendition operation would not have been possible without the active cooperation of dozens of governments around the world, including Germany and 24 other European nations.
"The secret detention program and the extraordinary rendition program were highly classified, conducted outside the United States, and designed to place detainee interrogations beyond the reach of the law. Torture was a hallmark of both," she wrote in the report, published Tuesday (05.02.2013). "The two programs entailed the abduction and disappearance of detainees and their extra-legal transfer on secret flights to undisclosed locations around the world, followed by their incommunicado detention, interrogation, torture, and abuse."
Deutsche Welle: What are the new revelations in the report?
Amrit Singh: That so many countries were involved in these flagrantly illegal operations is new. The fact that there is this kind of complicity calls for accountability, not only from the US, but from all of its partner governments, for the kinds of human rights violations documented in this report. The other objective of this report was to try and find who were the human beings who were subjected to these operations - what were their names, where were they held, how were they treated? Of course, there may be many more governments that were complicit, and many individuals that were subjected, but we don't really know for sure until these governments have come forward and confronted the truth.
The image you get from the report is of a global network of governments coordinated by the CIA. Is that accurate?
The CIA is the centerpiece of it. I believe that there were some NATO agreements that were relevant, but I think that as a practical matter, the bilateral relations that the US had were key to the global network that it was able to sustain. And it is a global network. It's 54 governments - that's more than a quarter of all the countries in the world.
But these 136 individuals were terrorist suspects, weren't they?
Well, it depends on what you mean. Yes, the CIA conducted these operations as counter-terror operations, but many of the people documented in this report were picked up based on mistaken identity. Khaled El-Masri, for example, was a German national, picked up and abducted in Macedonia [on December 31, 2003], held and abused in Macedonian custody for 23 days and then transferred to the custody of the CIA, which then flew him to Afghanistan and abused him in CIA custody until May 2004. There are very important questions remaining about what the German government knew and what it did in respect to El-Masri's case.
Just last year, in December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights held a landmark decision that Macedonia had violated the European convention by participating in the secret detention of Khaled El-Masri, and the court found that the CIA's treatment of El-Masri at Skopje airport, while the Macedonian officials were standing around him, amounted to torture. That's a very significant finding - here is Europe's highest human rights court finding that the US tortured a German national on European territory, and finding that the complicit government - Macedonia - had violated the European convention. I think that decision really compels the US to come forward with some measure of acknowledgement, apology and compensation for Mr. El-Masri. And I think the decision also compels a response from the German government as to what it knew when, and what it did to stop his abuse.
Would you say that your report uncovers incompetence by the CIA and other security agencies?
Clearly there are a lot of individuals in this report who were abducted and tortured - I mean that by itself is incompetence. Also, it shows there were many individuals who were erroneously rendered, and there is a CIA Office of Inspector General report which apparently describes these erroneous renditions, but the Obama administration continues to withhold documents relating to these investigations.
Did rendition only start after 9/11?
Extraordinary rendition doesn't have an official definition, but it's generally used to refer to post-September 11 operations - these are renditions to foreign governments for purposes of detention and interrogation, often in circumstances where the person is at risk of torture. After September 11, the program radically expanded and the CIA gained authority to conduct these interrogations without much oversight, and the CIA began rendering large numbers of prisoners to foreign governments including those known to employ torture.
Has that changed since Barack Obama's election?
We don't know what Obama's policies on rendition are. We know that President Obama disavowed torture - in 2009 he specifically issued an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques and closing CIA secret detention sites. But that executive order was crafted to preserve the authority to keep people in short-term transitory detention prior to rendition. How that authority is being applied in practice is something we don't know, because the US administration continues to withhold that information.
At one point in the report you suggest that governments, specifically the UK and Australia, use financial compensation for rendered individuals to get out of facing courts.
It's unfortunate that at least in the United Kingdom it appears to be the method for the government not to disclose information that would shed light on its involvement in grave human rights abuses.
Do you know what happened to the individuals who were rendered?
We don't with respect to a lot of them. We know for example that Khaled El-Masri is still in Germany, but a lot of them just disappeared, and some of those in the report were brought to Guantanamo and are now facing military commission proceedings, but there were lots of others who were just let loose and probably just want to get on with their lives.
Dozens of prisoners were abused and tortured in US custody
But what's most important to a lot of them is the acknowledgement, because they have been branded as terrorists without basis, and been abused and tortured without any kind of redress. It's appalling that US courts have denied victims of US rendition and torture their day in court - that every single case brought by a rendition victim in a US court has basically been dismissed without the courts actually addressing the merits of the issue. That's why the European Court of Human Rights' decision is so important, because both as a legal matter and a matter of justice it is critical for courts to provide some measure of redress - also so that this does not happen again. Because if we just pretend that this happened in the past and we should move forward, countries will continue to torture and be complicit in torture with immunity. What's the constraining force there then?
Interview: Ben Knight