By William Fisher 6/12/07

    Six prominent human rights groups are charging that US authorities are secretly holding 39 terror suspects. One of the groups, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, has filed a lawsuit in US federal court demanding the disclosure of information concerning disappeared detainees, including ghost detainees and unregistered prisoners.

    “What we’re asking is where are these 39 people now, and what’s happened to them since they ‘disappeared’?” said Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, one of the organizations in the coalition.

    The new report, titled “Off the Record: U.S. Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the ‘War on Terror'” – reveals the names of “the disappeared” – some for the first time. The organizations said their information was based on interviews with former prisoners and officials in the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

    The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declined to comment specifically about the report, but a spokesman said, “We act in strict accord with American law, and … our counterterror initiatives – which are subject to careful review and oversight – have been very effective in disrupting plots and saving lives.”

    The spokesman added, “The United States does not conduct or condone torture.”

    The report acknowledged that information on the missing detainees was incomplete in some cases.

    For example, some detainees had been added to the list after Marwan Jabour, an Islamic militant who claims to have spent two years in CIA custody, recalled being shown photos of them during interrogations, the report said. It added that others were identified only by their first or last names, such as “al-Rubaia,” who was added to the list after a fellow inmate reported seeing the name scribbled onto the wall of his cell.

    But coalition spokespersons said information on at least 21 of the detainees had been confirmed by two or more independent sources.

    President Bush acknowledged the existence of secret detention centers in September 2006, after The Washington Post revealed their existence. But the president said that the prisons were then empty, adding that 14 terrorism suspects the CIA had been holding, including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US, had been transferred to military custody at Guantanamo Bay for trials.

    The Post’s article, whose authors were awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, did not identify the locations of the secret prisons, but it has been widely reported that the so-called “black sites” were in former USSR-client countries in Eastern Europe.

    But a spokesperson for the human rights coalition said she wasn’t convinced the sites were ever emptied, and claimed a program of secret detentions was ongoing.

    She said, “We wanted (the detainees’) names in the public eye because of the impression that this is over, this is finished, and they’re not doing this anymore. That’s clearly not the case.”

    Detainees on the list include Hassan Ghul and Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi, both of whom were named in the 9/11 Commission report as al-Qaida operatives.

    Another is Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, a jihadist ideologue who has been named as one of the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists.” US officials have confirmed that Nasar was seized in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta in November 2005, and the activists’ report said that he was taken into US custody after his arrest, citing unnamed Pakistani officials. His current location is unknown.

    Also missing is Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman, the son of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “Blind Sheik” behind the first plot against the World Trade Center in New York, the report said.

    Most of the 35 other detainees mentioned in the report have been previously identified, with the exception of four Libyans, who are alleged to be members of the al-Qaida-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

    The report says they were handed to US authorities and have not been heard from since.

    It also highlights aspects of the CIA detention program that it claims the US government has actively tried to conceal, such as the locations where prisoners may have been held, the mistreatment they endured, the countries to which they may have been transferred for proxy detention, and the detention and abuse of spouses and children to gain information.

    The other groups involved in preparing the report are the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York; Amnesty, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University’s School of Law, and Human Rights Watch – all based in the US – and Reprieve and Cageprisoners, both based in the UK.

    The issue of “ghost prisoners” has been a consistent source of criticism of the Bush administration’s detention policies and practices by the human rights and legal communities since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

    The administration denied it was holding “ghost prisoners,” but during a 2004 press briefing, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld disclosed for the first time that, in response to a personal request from then-CIA Director George Tenet, he had instructed the US military to hold a prisoner at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison without recording his name.

    This practice is banned by the terms of the Geneva Conventions and was fiercely criticized at the time by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is supposed to have identification of and access to all detainees.

    The CCR lawsuit, filed after the government refused to comply with several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, seeks documents that provide information about government authorization of secret detention and extraordinary rendition policies and practices, the involvement of private contractors and non-governmental actors, the location of the prisons and identity of the prisoners, the types of interrogation methods used at the sites, and injuries suffered by detainees.

    In a related development, the Italian government opened the trial of 33 suspected US and Italian intelligence agents for allegedly kidnapping an Egyptian cleric.

    Twenty-five suspected CIA operatives, a US military officer, Italy’s former spy chief, Nicolo Pollari, and six other Italians are accused of kidnapping Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr in 2003. The case is the first over a practice called extraordinary rendition, in which the US sends suspected terrorists to other countries without trial.

    The US government says it will not extradite the Americans allegedly involved to stand trial in Italy.

    Defense lawyers have asked the Milan judge hearing the case to delay proceedings pending a ruling from Italy’s constitutional court. Judge Oscar Magi said he will rule on June 18, the trial’s next meeting date, whether to proceed with the case or wait for the high court to determine if documents and testimony used as evidence are covered by state secrecy rules.

    The defendants are accused by prosecutors of involvement in the abduction of Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. The cleric was flown to Egypt and tortured during questioning, prosecutors say.

    Meanwhile, The Bush administration’s attempts to invent a new legal system for holding and trying terrorism suspects suffered another setback when war-crimes charges against two al-Qaeda suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay prison were dismissed by two different military judges.

    The judges ruled that the administration had not legally established that the accused were “unlawful enemy combatants” and thus subject to trial by Guantanamo’s military commissions. More than five years after President Bush rejected the Geneva Conventions and the US court-martial system for handling al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, the first trial of a detainee once again has been put off indefinitely.

    The judges’ decisions opened the way for Congress to revisit the Military Commission Act, hurriedly passed in 2006 after the Supreme Court ruled that the administration had no authority to hold prisoners in the absence of a basis in law.

    The administration’s latest difficulty stems from the fact that the two men it was trying to put on trial, Salim Ahmed Hamdan and Omar Khadr, had been judged by Guantanamo’s parallel system of Combatant Status Review Tribunals to be “enemy combatants” only, without the designation “unlawful.”

    Capt. Keith J. Allred, one of the military judges, ruled that Hamdan had never received “an individualized determination” that he was an unlawful combatant, as required under Geneva. Without that, detainees are entitled to be treated as prisoners of war. The judge also found that the standard for “enemy combatant” used by the status tribunals was broader than that for “unlawful combatant” as established by Congress for purposes of the military commissions.

    Congress is currently considering two new pieces of legislation to mitigate the legal quagmire at Guantanamo. One, already voted out favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee under the bipartisan sponsorship of Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) and Patrick Leahy, (D-Vermont), would restore the right of habeas corpus to Guantanamo prisoners, allowing them to appeal their detentions to US federal courts.

    The other, which has been attached to the Senate’s version of the annual defense authorization bill by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Michigan), would reform the tribunal process at Guantanamo by requiring that detainees be represented by lawyers and have access to the evidence against them. The measure would also curtail the use of evidence obtained by coercion and require that the tribunals be headed by judges.

    Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program Sunday, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said he thought Guantanamo should be closed immediately and its remaining approximately 380 prisoners be detained and tried either through the courts martial process or through regular civilian courts.

    President Bush has also said he would like to see Guantanamo closed, but has thus far taken no action to do so.

For more articles see: The World According To Bill Fisher.