by Preeti Kaur

A failure to hold suspected perpetrators of CIA torture accountable reveals a failure to learn lessons and engage in moral forms of detention practices going forward.
Just days after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington DC, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney argued on national TV that it was necessary for the U.S. to work on the “dark side” to spend time in the “shadows in the intelligence world.” The recently released U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on post 9/11 CIA torture has begun to shed light on the acts of horror and depravity that took place in the shadows of the war on terror.

Tip of the iceberg

The worst details of the CIA’s torture program still have not seen the light of day, said Walter Ruiz, defense counsel for Mustafa al-Hawsawi in ongoing military commission proceedings taking place at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Senator Feinstein (Intelligence Committee Chairwoman) affirmed that the released report was just a brief sample.

War Crimes

Nonetheless, the information that has been disclosed reveals forms of torture far worse than previously thought. Walter Ruiz described them as “war crimes”. Torture included, water boarding, water dousing, rectal feeding and rectal hydration (which may equate to sodomy) to foster “correct behaviour”.

Torture also included threats of rape, threats of raping or killing family members, stress positions, flinging detainees against flexible walls, and prolonged pre-trial administrative detention in secret prisons located in Afghanistan, Thailand, Morocco, Poland and Lithuania. Secret detention sites are given code names in the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report. For example, the Salt Pit in Afghanistan is referred to as “COBALT” and the secret prison in Lithuania is referred to as “VIOLET”.

Who did the CIA torture?

One individual subject to CIA torture is Abu Zubaydah, a stateless Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia and educated in India. Abu Zubaydah was subject to some of the worst forms of CIA techniques on a repeated basis, included at a secret detention site in Poland.

After completing his undergraduate education in India, Abu Zubaydah considered undertaking a master’s degree in the U.S. He wrote poetry and was keen to talk about current events and compare the differences and similarities between Islam and Christianity.  Abu Zubaydah eventually travelled to Afghanistan to fight against communist insurgents who remained after the withdrawal of the Soviet army (a withdrawal supported by the U.S.). In 1992, while fighting on the front lines, he was injured in a motor attack that left him with two pieces of shrapnel that remain embedded in his head to his day. He was declared unfit to fight. He lost the ability to speak for more than one year. His memory is compromised to this day. He cannot remember his parent’s names, and he cannot remember his former partner’s name.

The Bush administration widely alleged that Abu Zubaydah was the head of a military camp that trained terrorists (militias the U.S. had previously supported and funded in its war against the Soviets). However, the camp in question, Khalden, was closed in 2000 because the emir of Khalden (not Abu Zubaydah) refused to allow the camp to fall under the organisational control of al-Qaida.

The U.S. no longer alleges Abu Zubaydah was ever a member of al Qaeda or that he supported al Qaeda’s ideology. The U.S. no longer alleges that Abu Zubaydah was an associate of Osama bin Laden or that he was his senior lieutenant. The U.S. no longer alleges that Abu Zubaydah had any role in any terrorist attack planned or perpetrated by al Qaeda, including the attacks of 11 September 2001.

As has been well-documented, torture does not produce reliable evidence. Torture victims will say anything to stop torture. While torture does not produce reliable evidence, it may increase the risk of turning innocent individuals to U.S. opponents upon release. It is believed that, in relation to a number of current Guantanamo Bay detainees, the U.S. fears it has turned a number of innocent individuals to terrorists through its use of torture practices against them.

Illegal wars, occupations, interventions, detaining individuals without charge for inordinate amounts of time without granting them access to the outside world, torture and ill-treatment of “suspected terrorists” all fuel the rage that incites terrorism. In 2006, a National Intelligence Estimate stated that the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism. As a result, U.S. and allied governments continue on their same self-destructive path refusing to learn lessons, and attempting to shield themselves from accountability for past abuses, which may amount to war crimes.


In July 2014, Abu Zubaydah won a case against Poland at the European Court of Human Rights for the torture he suffered there. Yet, none of the architects of the CIA torture and secret rendition and detention programme have faced accountability. This must be addressed.

Survivors of torture practices have legitimate rights to justice, and those allegedly responsible must be subject to independent investigations. Where investigations reveal sufficient evidence, criminal charges must be brought. Suspected torturers must be prosecuted and punished. This is about justice, and about preventing future torture. The U.S. must hold itself to the same standards it advocates for others. A failure to engage in transparent accountability and justice processes, suggests a failure to want to learn and avoid the use of such immoral torture practices going forward.

Evidence extracted under torture

While shielding themselves from accountability, the U.S. is likely to be using unreliable evidence extracted under torture against those facing criminal charges at the military commission proceedings taking place at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For example, Mustafa al-Hawsawi has been accused of financing the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and providing media support to al Qaeda. His counsel, Walter Ruiz has consistently stated that that Mr al-Hawsawi’s role was overplayed. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report provides independent evidence of that.

Mr al-Hawsawi was captured in Pakistan by local security forces in 2003, and handed over to U.S. authorities sometime later. However, his detention was kept secret until September 2006, when his detention at Guantanamo Bay was officially recognized by then U.S. President Bush.

Until now, Mr al-Hawsawi’s location between 2003 and 2006 has been a closely guarded secret, though the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report suggests that he was detained and tortured for some time in the Salt Pit, Afghanistan, and a secret detention site in Lithuania, where he experienced torture including water dousing techniques, “indistinguishable” from waterboarding.

Mr al-Hawsawi required emergency medical care on at least one occasion between 2003 and 2006. He continues to suffer from the torture he experienced but has not received the rehabilitative care he requires (and has a right to under international human rights law). This has made his attendance in military commission proceedings difficult.

Continued Secrecy and Unfair Trials

Prior to the release of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, Senator Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on her committee. The CIA confirmed in July 2014 that it had. Senator Feinstein fought numerous obstacles the CIA engaged in to prevent the disclosure of its torture practices.

While the disclosure of the summary report is positive, the full report should be disclosed. It should – at the very least – be disclosed to defense counsel representing those facing criminal charges at the military commission in Guantanamo Bay.

Mr al-Hawsawi is still prohibited from relaying any of the details of his torture to the public. His thoughts and experiences have been deemed “classified” under a very restrictive protective order. The protective order was recently challenged at the military commission in Guantanamo Bay, for failing to comply with rights enshrined under the UN Convention against Torture. As a result, the protective order was amended. However, in practice, it continues to operate in the same way, precluding Mr al-Hawsawi from shedding further light on CIA torture practices. Defense lawyers are required to sign the restrictive protective order which also effectively precludes them from disclosing any information they may receive from their clients to third parties. Walter Ruiz asserts that the military commission proceedings currently taking place are a “degradation of due process.”

Mr al-Hawsawi faces capital charges which means – if convicted – he will be executed. This is an obscene result for a “trial process” which has been far from transparent. The military commission process has seen defense lawyers discovering (in April 2014) that the FBI secretly interviewed a defense-team security expert, and others on several of the five defense teams (one for each co-defendant) were also questioned. Defense teams suspect that at least one person might have even been an informant for the FBI.

Previously, defense counsel have learned of listening devices disguised as smoke detectors in attorney-client meeting rooms; CIA monitoring of the court room; the disappearance of large volumes of both defense and prosecution files from specially-designed military commission servers; and the accumulation of piles of rat feces and mold in defense attorney office space at Guantanamo Bay.

Walter Ruiz, counsel for Mr al-Hawsawi, said “Military commissions are designed for the explicit purpose of killing while fostering the illusion of justice.”


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