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German NGO seeks arrest over CIA torture

June 7, 2017

A Berlin-based human rights organization has called on German prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant against Gina Haspel, appointed CIA deputy director in February. Haspel oversaw questioning of prisoners in Thailand.

Symbolbild - CIA
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) has called on German federal prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant against Gina Haspel, the deputy director of the CIA, who was appointed on February 2.

The ECCHR first pressed charges against unknown CIA operatives in December 2014, after the US Senate Select Committee published its report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program. Though she was a clandestine agent at the time, Haspel's appointment as deputy director meant that she could be identified.

According to the ECCHR writ sent to the prosecutors and published on the group's website on Wednesday, "some of the already known events can now be attributed to her." A spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor confirmed to DW that it had received the writ and said it would be evaluating it carefully.

USA | Washington Treffen Obama und Amtsnachfolger Trump
Trump has said he believes torture works, despite the evidenceImage: Getty Images/W. McNamee

"We always have to try and find an angle or a new incentive for the prosecuting authorities," said Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR general secretary. "The interesting thing about Haspel is the comparison between her now-known career and the mention of her activities in the torture report."

Catching an alleged torturer

What makes Haspel's case more intriguing is that, as a CIA deputy director, Haspel is also expected to travel to Europe - potentially putting her in an awkward position if there is a European arrest warrant out for her. "That makes her vulnerable," said Kaleck. "She might be subject to a prosecution action, and we want prosecutors to be ready."

The accusations against Haspel center around her time as "chief of base" of the "Cat's Eye" prison in Thailand in 2002. Here, Zayn Al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, famously became the first terrorist suspect to be subjected to the "enhanced interrogation" techniques that were later called torture by the US Senate.

Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times between August 4 and 23, 2002. The Senate report recorded that he "vomited, passed out and urinated on himself while shackled … lost consciousness and bubbles began gurgling from his mouth." Quoting CIA documents, the Senate added: "At times Abu Zubaydah was described as 'hysterical' and 'distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate.'"

Terrorist Abu Zubaydah
Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in the space of a monthImage: picture-alliance/AP

Waterboarding sessions "resulted in immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms" and "hysterical pleas." In at least one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah "became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth," it added.

The ECCHR alleged that Haspel had direct knowledge of the prisoner's treatment, and a cable dated July 15 that year confirmed that as chief of base, only Haspel had the authority to interrupt or stop Zubaydah's interrogation.

Zubaydah, a Saudi citizen alleged to be one of Osama bin Laden's senior lieutenants, spent four-and-a-half years in the CIA's secret prison network - including in Poland - and currently remains one of the last prisoners held without charge in Guantanamo Bay.

Afraid of coming to Europe?

The ECCHR has filed charges with prosecutors in different European countries before, when it was able to identify CIA agents by name, and has occasionally been successful in getting an arrest warrant issued. As a result, the CIA has previously warned named agents not to travel to Europe, where they could face arrest.

"There have been arrests before, in the case of the kidnapping of Khalid el-Masri," said Kaleck. "But, of course, what we want is not only those who have been named in the arrest warrants but their superiors - the former CIA directors and other more influential persons."

Khaled El-Masri
El-Masri, a German citizen, was kidnapped by the CIA after being mistaken for a terror suspectImage: AP

Haspel's appointment as deputy CIA director in February caused some consternation in the media and among human rights groups, with The New York Times suggesting that it showed that under President Donald Trump, the agency was being led by people with a "kinder view" of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques introduced following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

Kaleck agreed with this view.

"Obviously, if you have people like Gina Haspel in a position as a deputy director, that's a bad sign," he said. "The US didn't comply with their obligations under the anti-torture convention - they had the obligation to prosecute people like Gina Haspel, and even [former Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld, and the lawyers from the White House, and all the others who were part of this systematic torture."

After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he undertook a change of course in the CIA, though his administration also closed investigations into the deaths of two prisoners being held by the USA. Criminal charges have not been brought against any CIA operatives for mistreatment of prisoners.

"Obama didn't initiate a prosecution, but at least he did try to establish a certain distance between the notorious torture from before 2008 and then after it," said Kaleck. "It seems that the Trump government is again pushing these kinds of methods and this thinking that torture might result in something helpful - even though we have seen in the past 15 years that torture was only destructive in many, many regards."

In a Republican Party debate, Trump said he would "bring back waterboarding."

"I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding," then-candidate Trump said during a debate in February 2016.

There remains some debate about whether Zubaydah ever gave valuable information, but in July 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Polish government to pay Zubaydah 100,000 euros ($113,000) in damages.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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