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Torture, Rendition, and other Abuses against Captives in US Custody

Legal Proceedings

Project: Prisoner Abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Elsewhere
Open-Content project managed by Derek, KJF, mtuck

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Ben Wizner, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) representing five plaintiffs suing a Boeing subsidiary for participating in their extraordinary rendition and torture (see February 9, 2009, says it is remarkable that the Obama administration is opposing the lawsuit. Wizner notes that the entire claim of “state secrets” advocated by the Justice Deparment in its quest to have the lawsuit thrown out is based on two sworn declarations from former CIA Director Michael Hayden. One was made public and one was filed secretly with the court. In those declarations, Hayden argued that courts cannot become involved in the case because to do so would be to disclose and thus degrade secret CIA programs of rendition and “harsh interrogation.” Wizner notes that President Obama ordered those programs shut down (see January 22, 2009). He says it is difficult to see how the continuation of the lawsuit could jeopardize national security when the government claims to have terminated the programs that are being protected. Salon pundit Glenn Greenwald writes: “What this is clearly about is shielding the US government and Bush officials from any accountability. Worse, by keeping Bush’s secrecy architecture in place, it ensures that any future president—Obama or any other—can continue to operate behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy, with no transparency or accountability even for blatantly criminal acts.” (Greenwald 2/9/2009)

The Justice Department is holding back on publicly releasing an internal department report on the conduct of former department officials involved in approving waterboarding and other torture techniques. The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), led by H. Marshall Jarrett, completed the report in the final weeks of the Bush administration. The report probes whether the legal advice given in crucial interrogation memos “was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys.” According to knowledgeable sources, the report harshly criticizes three former department lawyers: John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, all former members of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel. But then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his deputy, Mark Filip, objected to the draft. Filip wanted the report to be “balanced” with responses from the three principals. The OPR is now waiting on the three to respond to the draft’s criticisms before presenting the report to Attorney General Eric Holder. “The matter is under review,” says Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller. The OPR report could be forwarded to state bar associations for possible disciplinary actions against any or all of the three. But Bush-era officials feel the probe is inherently unfair. “OPR is not competent to judge [the opinions by Justice Department attorneys]. They’re not constitutional scholars,” says a former Bush lawyer. Mukasey criticized the report, calling it “second-guessing” and says that Yoo, Bybee, and Bradbury operated under “almost unimaginable pressure” after 9/11, and offered “their best judgment of what the law required.” OPR investigators looked into charges by former OLC chief Jack Goldsmith and others that the legal opinions provided by the three were “sloppy,” legally dubious, and slanted to give Bush administration officials what they wanted. (Isikoff 2/14/2009; Isikoff 2/16/2009) Some of the report is later leaked to the press (see February 22, 2009).

Mohamed returning to London.Mohamed returning to London. [Source: Lewis Whyld / Associated Press]Binyam Mohamed (see May-September, 2001, February 8, 2009, and February 9, 2009) is released from Guantanamo, and returns to Great Britain. He is flown to Britain on a private chartered Gulfstream jet similar to those used by the CIA in “extraordinary renditions.” His sister, Zuhra Mohamed, meets him at the RAF Northolt airbase in west London, and tells reporters: “I am so glad and so happy, more than words can express. I am so thankful for everything that was done for Binyam to make this day come true.” His lawyers claim that he has suffered severe physical and psychological abuse, some of which was inflicted in recent days. He suffers from what his lawyers call a huge range of injuries. Doctors have found Mohamed suffering from extensive bruising, organ damage, stomach complaints, malnutrition, sores to feet and hands, and severe damage to ligaments. His weight has dropped from around 170 pounds to 125 pounds. His lawyers say he suffers from serious emotional and psychological problems, which have been exacerbated by the refusal of Guantanamo officials to provide him with counseling. Mohamed’s British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, says his client had been beaten “dozens” of times, with the most recent abuse occurring in the last few weeks (see September 2004 and After). “He has a list of physical ailments that cover two sheets of A4 paper,” says Stafford Smith. “What Binyam has been through should have been left behind in the middle ages.” Mohamed’s American military lawyer, Lieutenant Colonel Yvonne Bradley, adds: “He has been severely beaten. Sometimes I don’t like to think about it because my country is behind all this.” Britain’s former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, an advocate for the closure of Guantanamo, says that allegations of abuse against Mohamed, a British resident, should be raised by Foreign Secretary David Miliband with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “If there are credible accounts of mistreatment then they need to be pursued,” Goldsmith says.
Care Provided upon Return - Upon his return to Britain, Mohamed will receive physical care and emotional counseling in a secure, secret location by a team of volunteer doctors and psychiatrists. He will be kept under a “voluntary security arrangement,” where he must report regularly to authorities, but will not be subject to charges or anti-terror control orders. The US dropped all charges against Mohamed last year, including allegations that he had participated in a “dirty bomb” plot. (Townsend 2/22/2009; Booth and Norton-Taylor 2/24/2009)
MI5 to Be Investigated? - At least one MI5 officer may face a criminal investigation over his alleged complicity in torturing Mohamed (see February 24, 2009). And Mohamed’s future testimony is expected to shed light upon MI5’s own participation in his interrogation and alleged torture; Mohamed may sue the British government and MI5, Britain’s counter-intelligence and security service, over its alleged complicity in his detention, abduction, treatment, and interrogation. If filed, Mohamed’s lawsuit could force US and British authorities to disclose vital evidence regarding Mohamed’s allegations of torture. (Townsend 2/22/2009)

Federal prosecutors charge Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the only “enemy combatant” held on US soil (see June 23, 2003), with criminal terrorism charges. Al-Marri is charged with two counts of providing material support to al-Qaeda and conspiring with others to provide material support to al-Qaeda, according to a press release from the Justice Department. He faces a maximum jail sentence of 30 years. US Attorney Rodger Heaton says: “The indictment alleges that Ali al-Marri provided material support to al-Qaeda, which has committed horrific terrorist acts against our nation. As a result, he will now face the US criminal justice system, where his guilt or innocence will be determined by a jury in open court.” Such a decision takes al-Marri out of the military commissions system and places him in the US criminal judicial system. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is representing al-Marri’s Supreme Court challenge to the “enemy combatant” designation, but criminal charges will not necessarily resolve that issue. Part of the discussion of whether to charge al-Marri centered on the evidence against him: al-Marri’s lawyers claim that much of the evidence against their client was obtained through harsh interrogation techniques and torture, which would render that evidence inadmissible in a US court. Some of the evidence may also be too sensitive to reveal in open court, having been gathered through classified intelligence operations. Lead counsel Jonathan Hafetz says: “[T]he decision to charge al-Marri is an important step in restoring the rule of law and is what should have happened seven years ago when he was first arrested (see February 8, 2002). But it is vital that the Supreme Court case go forward because it must be made clear once and for all that indefinite military detention of persons arrested in the US is illegal and that this will never happen again.” Amnesty International’s Geneve Mantri calls the decision to charge al-Marri “another crucial step in the right direction,” and adds: “If there are individuals who pose a real threat to the United States, the best, most effective means of dealing with them is the current system of justice. There are a number of outstanding questions about how the detainee cases will be reviewed and what the approach of the new administration will be, but Amnesty International welcomes this as an indication that they have faith in the US justice system and rule of law.” (US Department of Justice 2/27/2009; Johnson and Tate 2/27/2009; American Civil Liberties Union 2/27/2009) The ACLU wants the Supreme Court to ignore the criminal charges and rule on al-Marri’s petition for habeas corpus rights; the Justice Department says that the criminal charges render al-Marri’s lawsuit moot. (Lyle Denniston 2/26/2007)

Italy’s Constitutional Court bars the prosecution at the trial over the 2003 rendition of Islamist radical Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar—see Noon February 17, 2003) from using some evidence. That evidence, barred on state secrecy grounds, includes phone taps and testimony from agents with the Italian military intelligence service SISMI. At least partially because of this ruling, five of seven SISMI agents charged with involvement in the rendition will not be convicted (see November 4, 2009). (Reuters 11/4/2009)

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) begins an investigation of the department’s lawyers who signed off on the Bush administration’s torture policies, in particular John Yoo (see Late September 2001 and January 9, 2002), Jay Bybee (see August 1, 2002 and August 1, 2002), and Steven Bradbury (see May 10, 2005, June 23, 2005 and July 2007). The OPR investigation will determine whether these lawyers shirked their professional responsibilities in deciding that particular torture techniques were, in fact, legal; if that conclusion is reached, then prosecutors could make the case that the lawyers knowingly broke the law. Today, the press learns that the OPR has obtained archived e-mail messages from the time when the memorandums were being drafted. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) has urged President Obama “not to rule out prosecutions of those who implemented the program” until the OPR report, along with a long-awaited report by the Senate Intelligence Committee (see April 21, 2009), become available. Former Bush White House lawyer Bradford Berenson says he has seen a surge in “anxiety and anger” among his former colleagues, and says they should not be investigated. (Savage 4/22/2009) The Justice Department will refuse to bring sanctions against Yoo, Bybee, and Bradbury (see February 2010).

Democratic Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and John Conyers (D-MI) say they intend to push for the impeachment of federal judge Jay Bybee in response to the report on torture issued by the Senate Armed Services Committee (see April 21, 2009). As the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President Bush, Bybee signed off on two memos that justified the use of torture (see August 1, 2002 and August 1, 2002). Nadler says that the purpose of the Bybee memos was never to give an honest legal analysis, but to provide legal cover for patently illegal actions in order to encourage those actions. Nadler says the charge against Bybee would be something approaching “conspiracy to abet torture.” Conyers, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says he intends to hold hearings to examine the role that Bybee and other Bush administration lawyers played in crafting Bush administration torture policies. “There are some who tried to do a get-out-of-jail-free card. Obviously, there are some that that’s all they were thinking,” he says, refusing to name anyone specifically. However, he says, “We’re coming after these guys.” (Grim 4/21/2009) Bybee will not be impeached, though he will be found to have exhibited “poor judgment” during his tenure in the Department of Justice (see February 2010).

Guantanamo detainee Rafiq al-Hami claims to have been tortured at several CIA-operated “black sites,” or secret prisons, months before Justice Department memos (see August 1, 2002 and August 1, 2002) authorized the torture of prisoners in US custody. Al-Hami’s lawyers file the lawsuit in a US District Court in Newark, New Jersey. “It’s impossible to claim that people who perpetrated torture relied on memos that didn’t exist,” says al-Hami’s lawyer Josh Denbeaux. “Rafiq was tortured before the memos authorizing torture were written.” Denbeaux and his father, Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, are lawyers for the plaintiff. Al-Hami, a Tunisian, says he was arrested in Iran in November 2001 and taken to Afghanistan. From there, he was transported to three CIA “black sites” where “his presence and his existence were unknown to everyone except his United States detainers,” and his name was not included on any publicly available list of detainees. The suit alleges, “He was told that no one knew where he was; that he would be secretly detained for 20 years, perhaps until his death, and no one would ever know.” This would make al-Hami a so-called “ghost detainee.” He says he was tortured beginning in December 2001. At various times, he says, he was stripped naked, threatened with dogs, shackled in “stress positions,” beaten with rifle butts, kicked, tormented with bright lights and music played at excruciating volumes, and exposed to extremes of temperature. Al-Hami also alleges that interrogators sprayed pepper spray on his hemorrhoids, causing intense pain. Al-Hami says the torture continued after he was transferred to Guantanamo in January 2003. He says he has no ties to any terrorist group, and was arrested by an Iranian seeking a bounty payment. The suit says that after intensive torture sessions, al-Hami “confessed” to training at an al-Qaeda camp for 10 days. Al-Hami’s lawsuit seeks $10 million in damages and names as defendants former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Navy Rear Admiral Mark Buzby, the former commander of the detention center at Guantanamo, and approximately 20 others. Josh Denbeaux says the allegations in the lawsuit were pieced together from al-Hami’s recollections, declassified documents, and information from human rights organizations. (Porter 4/23/2009; Ryan 4/23/2009) Civil rights activist Andy Worthington, author of The Guantanamo Files, will write, “It’s likely that all of al-Hami’s claims are true.” Worthington will note that the arrangement between the Iranian and US governments for al-Hami’s transfer remains unexplained. In his book, Worthington will spell the name of the detainee as “Alhami,” noting that the Defense Department spells the name “al-Hami” in its documents. (Worthington 4/27/2009)

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari held without charge for seven years by the Bush administration on suspicion of being an al-Qaeda sleeper agent (see December 12, 2001 and June 23, 2003), pleads guilty to one felony count of providing material support to a terrorist organization. Al-Marri was released from the Naval Brig in Charleston on order of the Obama administration’s Justice Department and charged with multiple counts of supporting terrorism (see February 27, 2009). He faces up to 15 years in prison. Until accepting the plea, al-Marri has always denied any connection with al-Qaeda or with Islamist terrorism. Attorney General Eric Holder says of the al-Marri plea: “Without a doubt, this case is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we as a nation still face. But it also reflects what we can achieve when we have faith in our criminal justice system and are unwavering in our commitment to the values upon which the nation was founded and the rule of law.” Lawrence Lustberg, one of al-Marri’s lawyers, says his client agreed to the plea bargain “because he wanted to go home,” and because of fears that a jury trial might end up with al-Marri serving 30 years and not a maximum of 15. (Holder rejected earlier plea deals, insisting that al-Marri serve at least 15 years in prison.) Court papers show that al-Marri was an al-Qaeda agent, with close ties to alleged 9/11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Al-Marri admitted to attending al-Qaeda training camps between 1998 and 2001, and to coming to the US at Mohammed’s direction (see September 10, 2001). The plan was for al-Marri to stay in contact with Mohammed using code names—al-Marri was “Abdo” and Mohammed was “Muk,” apparently short for his nickname “Mukhtar” (see August 28, 2001)—and a Hotmail email account. Documents confirming this were found at an al-Qaeda safe house in Pakistan. Al-Marri’s attempts to contact both Mohammed and al-Qaeda financier Mustafa al-Hawsawi after the 9/11 attacks were unsuccessful. Al-Marri also conducted research on the effects of cyanide gas, and on potential targets for terrorist attacks, including waterways, dams, and tunnels. Al-Marri’s plea agreement says that he will be deported to Saudi Arabia or Qatar when his sentence is completed, or perhaps sooner. The judge in the case, Michael Mihm, has not yet ruled whether al-Marri will be given credit for the seven years he served in the Charleston brig. (Gerstein 4/30/2009; Schwartz 4/30/2009; Holder 4/30/2009)

Sabrina De Sousa, a CIA officer involved in the abduction of Islamist extremist Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar—see Noon February 17, 2003), files a legal action against the US government. The filing results from De Sousa’s displeasure at how her case is being handled by the government. De Sousa has been named as a CIA officer in Italy and accused by prosecutors in Milan of helping the rendition. However, the US government is not helping her defense, or the defense of the other 24 CIA officers accused of the kidnapping. In the suit, De Sousa attempts to force the State Department to invoke diplomatic immunity, halt the Italian prosecution, provide her with legal counsel in Italy, and pay her legal bills and other costs associated with the case. The action follows three years of fruitless private talks. (Stein 8/28/2009) De Sousa will say she knows of no other such suits by former US officials in a similar position. (Stein 5/15/2009) Her request will be partially granted just before the trial ends (see August 26, 2009).

The CIA releases heavily redacted documents containing statements by Guantanamo detainees concerning their allegations of torture and abuse at the hands of CIA personnel. The documents are released as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The lawsuit seeks uncensored transcripts from Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) that determine if prisoners held by the Defense Department at Guantanamo qualify as “enemy combatants.” Previously released versions were redacted so heavily as to contain almost no information about abuse allegations; the current versions, while still heavily redacted, contain some new information. ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, the lead attorney on the FOIA lawsuit, says: “The documents released today provide further evidence of brutal torture and abuse in the CIA’s interrogation program and demonstrate beyond doubt that this information has been suppressed solely to avoid embarrassment and growing demands for accountability. There is no legitimate basis for the Obama administration’s continued refusal to disclose allegations of detainee abuse, and we will return to court to seek the full release of these documents.” The ACLU press release notes, “The newly unredacted information includes statements from the CSRTs of former CIA detainees,” and includes quotes from alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see Shortly After February 29 or March 1, 2003); alleged high-level al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida (see Mid-May 2002 and After); and accused terrorists Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (see (November 2002)) and Majid Khan (see March 10-April 15, 2007). These statements include details about their treatment, which the ACLU refers to as “torture and coercion”:
Abu Zubaida - “After months of suffering and torture, physically and mentally, they did not care about my injuries that they inflicted to my eye, to my stomach, to my bladder, and my left thigh and my reproductive organs. They didn’t care that I almost died from these injuries. Doctors told me that I nearly died four times.… They say ‘this in your diary.’ They say ‘see you want to make operation against America.’ I say no, the idea is different. They say no, torturing, torturing. I say ‘okay, I do. I was decide to make operation.’”
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri - “[And, they used to] drown me in water.”
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed - “This is what I understand he [a CIA interrogator] told me: you are not American and you are not on American soil. So you cannot ask about the Constitution.”
Majid Khan - “In the end, any classified information you have is through… agencies who physically and mentally tortured me.” (American Civil Liberties Union 6/15/2009)

Attorney General Eric Holder announces he has appointed a federal prosecutor from Connecticut, John Durham, as a special prosecutor to investigate whether CIA interrogators broke any federal laws. (US Department of Justice 8/24/2009; Johnson 8/25/2009)
Decision Stems from CIA IG Report - The investigation is preliminary in nature, and will decide whether a full investigation is warranted. Holder bases his decision in part on a just-released 2004 report on torture by the CIA’s inspector general (see August 24, 2009) and a Justice Department recommendation that there should be an investigation of about a dozen cases of possible abuse and torture from Iraq and Afghanistan (see First Half of August 2009). According to the conclusion of the CIA report: “The enhanced interrogation techniques used by the agency under the CTC [Counterterrorist Center] program are inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights. Unauthorized, improvised, inhumane, and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques were used.” (Mazzetti and Shane 8/24/2009; MSNBC 8/25/2009) The review is also prompted by a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) into memoranda drafted by the department’s Office of Legal Counsel related to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The OPR report recommends the department re-examine previous decisions not to prosecute in some cases related to the interrogation of certain detainees. The aim of the preliminary review is to find whether federal offenses were committed in some detainee interrogations. (US Department of Justice 8/24/2009) According to the Washington Post, the review will focus on “a very small number of cases,” including one in which a CIA officer named Zirbel caused Afghan prisoner Gul Rahman to freeze to death at the Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan (see November 20, 2002) and the intimidation of al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri by a CIA officer named “Albert” using a handgun and drill (see Between December 28, 2002 and January 1, 2003). These cases and the others were previously referred by the CIA inspector general to the Justice Department for examination, but the department decided not to prosecute (see (August 2004) and Mid-October 2005). (Johnson, Markon, and Tate 9/19/2009; Goldman 9/7/2010)
Durham a Veteran Prosecutor - Durham has been investigating the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of interrogations that may have documented instances of torture (see January 2, 2008). Although Durham has a low public profile, he is a veteran of numerous high-level prosecutions, including cases against Boston-area organized crime figures, corrupt FBI agents, and former Governor John Rowland (R-CT). Durham is considered apolitical, and has worked closely with the Justice Department under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Connecticut defense lawyer Hugh Keefe calls him “the go-to guy for Justice whenever they get a hot case.” Former Connecticut prosecutor Mark Califano calls Durham’s approach to investigations “clinical,” and says he has “very rarely” concluded a case without bringing criminal charges. “He likes to make cases when there is evidence there,” Califano says. “You’ve got to balance whether that kind of information exists.… You can’t move forward if you don’t have the evidence.” (US Department of Justice 8/24/2009; MSNBC 8/25/2009; Johnson 8/25/2009) Boston prosecutors and defense attorneys have characterized Durham as “honest” and “tenacious.” Warren Bamford, who heads Boston’s FBI office, said Durham “kind of has blinders on in the sense that he doesn’t worry about the politics and all the other stuff that might be swirling around, and I think that’s really what makes him so successful.” (Murphy 1/7/2008) In a statement, Holder says, “Mr. Durham, who is a career prosecutor with the Department of Justice and who has assembled a strong investigative team of experienced professionals, will recommend to me whether there is sufficient predication for a full investigation into whether the law was violated in connection with the interrogation of certain detainees.” (Carlile 8/24/2009)
Senator: Durham a 'First-Rate' Choice - Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is enthusiastic about the choice of Durham. He says he has worked with Durham before, while Whitehouse was US Attorney for Rhode Island, and calls the prosecutor “very professional” and “a first-rate choice,” adding that Durham has “a very good grounding in this because he has been doing the investigation into the destruction of the torture tapes.” (MSNBC 8/25/2009)
No Acknowledged 'Break' with White House - Holder notes that he will be criticized for undermining the CIA, and may be going against abjurations by President Obama to “move forward” instead of focusing on past transgressions, but says the facts left him little choice. “As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law,” he says in a statement. “Given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.… I have concluded that the information known to me warrants opening a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas locations.” White House officials say Holder’s decision does not mark a break between the White House and the Justice Department on their policies toward interrogations. Deputy press secretary Bill Burton tells reporters that “ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the attorney general.… The president thinks that Eric Holder, who he appointed as a very independent attorney general, should make those decisions.” (Mazzetti and Shane 8/24/2009; Finn, Warrick, and Tate 8/24/2009; MSNBC 8/25/2009) Justice Department spokespersons refuse to say who will, and who will not, be investigated. (Roth 8/25/2009)

The response by media and public officials to the announcement of a preliminary investigation by the Justice Department into whether crimes were committed in the course of a small number of detention and interrogation cases by the CIA (see August 24, 2009) is mixed. The investigation is headed by special prosecutor John Durham. Reporter Michael Isikoff says that it will be “difficult to bring cases against agency operatives when you have the [former] attorney general of the United States [John Ashcroft] saying repetitive use of waterboarding is okay with him. He has no problem with it. The Justice Department has no problem with it—which is why some people say if we’re not going to have criminal investigations at the very top, the leadership that authorized these programs, at least have full disclosure so the American public can know the full story of what happened.” Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) criticizes the potential focus on interrogators and says the inquiry should focus on former Bush administration officials and Justice Department lawyers; he says the investigation could echo the Abu Ghraib investigation, where “lower ranking troops who committed abuses were hung out to dry.” Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, says the Justice Department inquiry risks disrupting current counterterrorism operations, and claims that abuse charges have already been “exhaustively reviewed.” (Mazzetti and Shane 8/24/2009; MSNBC 8/25/2009)
Lack of Accountability? - Joanne Mariner, the terrorism and counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch, says: “It’s heartening that the attorney general has opened a preliminary investigation of these crimes, but it’s crucial that its scope include senior officials who authorized torture. Lower-level CIA operatives—even if using so-called ‘unauthorized’ techniques—may still have relied on the letter or the spirit of high-level authorizations.” Human Rights Watch warns that if the investigation focuses solely on so-called “rogue” interrogators who acted without official authorization, but fails to investigate senior officials with responsibility for the interrogation program, it will lack credibility. The organization writes, “Such an approach would validate the Bush-era Justice Department memoranda that authorized torture.” It calls the US’s record on accountability for detainee abuse “abysmal.” (Human Rights Watch 8/24/2009)
Focusing on 'Low-Level Operatives'? - The American Civil Liberties Union’s Jameel Jaffer later says that Durham’s investigation seems to be far too narrow in scope, focusing solely on CIA interrogators and ignoring Bush administration officials who authorized torture and other abusive actions. (Roth 8/31/2009) This position is echoed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which states: “Responsibility for the torture program cannot be laid at the feet of a few low-level operatives. Some agents in the field may have gone further than the limits so ghoulishly laid out by the lawyers who twisted the law to create legal cover for the program, but it is the lawyers and the officials who oversaw and approved the program who must be investigated.” The center demands the appointment of “an independent special prosecutor with a full mandate to investigate those responsible for torture and war crimes, especially the high ranking officials who designed, justified, and orchestrated the torture program.” Another organization, Physicians for Human Rights, says that it “urges the administration to pursue any investigation up the chain of command to those officials who authorized and supervised the use of illegal techniques.” (Roth 8/24/2009) Several Democrats, including Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and two members of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and John Conyers (D-MI), issue statements urging the investigation to go beyond looking into the actions of CIA interrogators, and investigate the officials who authorized those actions. (Roth 8/24/2009)

The Department of Justice agrees to pay the legal fees of Sabrina De Sousa, a former CIA officer on trial in absentia in Italy over the kidnapping of Islamist extremist Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar—see Noon February 17, 2003). However, the decision comes shortly before the verdict in the trial is to be announced. De Sousa will comment: “Unbelievable! The United States Department of Justice just ‘approved’ an attorney to defend me, a month after the trial ended, knowing full well that an attorney at this stage will make little or no difference to the outcome or verdict.” Although DeSousa has been suing the government over the expenses since May (see May 13, 2009), the move appears to be related to a general decision by CIA Director Leon Panetta to pay the legal costs of officers caught up in investigations of post-9/11 CIA programs. However, it is unclear whether the other 24 CIA defendants in the case are having their expenses paid, although the 26th US defendant, an Air Force officer, is. De Sousa denies involvement in the rendition, but will not comment on her employment by the CIA. “I had hoped that the Obama leadership in the Departments of Justice and State would step in to do the right thing and ensure I was provided the immunity to which I was entitled rather than sacrifice me to protect the high-level officials who presumably sanctioned the incident,” she adds. “This sends a terrible message to those in our military and diplomatic corps who risk their lives overseas to protect the interests of our country.” (Stein 8/28/2009)

A lawyer acting for the US Air Force writes to Italian authorities telling them they do not have jurisdiction over Colonel Joseph L. Romano III, a military officer involved in the rendition from Italy to Egypt of Islamist radical Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (see Noon February 17, 2003). Romano is one of 26 Americans being tried in absentia in Italy over the kidnap; the rest are CIA officers. His role in the abduction was to facilitate Nasr’s transfer to an aircraft at Aviano Air Force Base. The letter sent by the lawyer, Colonel Roger M. Welsh, says that Italy’s lack of jurisdiction is the result of a NATO status of forces agreement signed by all its members in 1951. “Colonel Romano is subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the offenses alleged at the Tribunale of Milan are offenses that may be charged under various articles of the [code],” Welsh writes. “Therefore, the United States asserts its primary right to exercise jurisdiction over Colonel Joseph L. Romano III.” The letter is approved by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. According to Mark Zaid, an attorney for co-defendant Sabrina De Sousa, “The immunity decision was approved by the White House (yes, President Obama himself, as well as other cabinet members and the [National Security Council]) at the personal urging of Secretary of Defense Gates.” The prosecution of Romano and the other 25 began over three years ago and the verdict in the trial will soon be issued, so the move is what reporter Jeff Stein describes as a “Hail Mary pass.” “This action is being taken now because the trial is winding down and heading towards a verdict,” says Defense Department spokesman Bob Mehal. “All other efforts at diplomatic or legal solutions appear to have failed. There is no choice left but to assert at this point.” Zaid will say that Gates is properly trying to protect his subordinate, but complain that his client has been abandoned. “If the [US government] is willing to pay for Ms. De Sousa’s Italian legal defense, thereby essentially admitting that she was acting in the scope of her official employment while in Italy, why has the [US government] refused to invoke diplomatic immunity?” Zaid says. “What rationale exists to enable the Department of Defense to now invoke immunity for one alleged American conspirator but permit the [US government] to intentionally abandon another?” (Stein 9/23/2009)

Most of the defendants are found guilty at a trial of dozens of US and Italian officials over the rendition of Islamist radical Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar—see Noon February 17, 2003). Twenty-three US officials are convicted, the most high-profile being former CIA officers Robert Seldon Lady and Sabrina de Sousa, as well as Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Romano. (Reuters 11/4/2009) Lady gets the heaviest sentence, eight years, whereas de Sousa, Romano, and the other Americans—Monica Adler, Gregory Asherleigh, Lorenza Carrera, Drew Channing, John Duffin, Vincent Faldo, Raymond Harbaough, James Harbison, Ben Amar Harty, Cynthia Logan, George Purvis, Pilar Rueda, Joseph Sofin, Michalis Vasiluou, Eliana Castaldo, Victor Castellano, John Gurley, Brenda Ibanez, Anne Lidia Jenkins, and James Kirkland—get five years. (Reuters 11/4/2009; International Commission of Jurists 11/24/2009 pdf file) Judge Oscar Magi finds three US officials not guilty as they have diplomatic immunity. They are the CIA’s former Rome station chief Jeff Castelli, whose “brainchild” the abduction was (see Before February 17, 2003), former first secretary at the US embassy in Rome Ralph Russomando, and former second secretary Betnie Medero. Prosecutor Armando Spataro says he may appeal the decision to grant them diplomatic immunity. Five agents of the Italian military intelligence service SISMI are also not convicted. The officials, including former SISMI head Nicolo Pollari, get off because evidence against them is suppressed on state secrecy grounds (see March 2009). However, two junior SISMI agents are convicted and sentenced to three years in prison as accomplices. (Reuters 11/4/2009)

The US Justice and Defense Departments announce that five detainees are to be moved from Guantanamo to New York, where they will face trial in ordinary civilian courts for the 9/11 attacks. The five are alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM), Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who helped coordinate the attacks, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who assisted some of the 19 hijackers in Asia, and Khallad bin Attash, who attended a meeting with two of the hijackers in January 2000 (see January 5-8, 2000). The five previously indicated they intend to plead guilty (see December 8, 2008). US Attorney General Eric Holder says: “For over 200 years, our nation has relied on a faithful adherence to the rule of law to bring criminals to justice and provide accountability to victims. Once again we will ask our legal system to rise to that challenge, and I am confident it will answer the call with fairness and justice.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was also involved in the decision on where to try the men. (US Department of Justice 11/13/2009) However, five detainees are to remain in the military commissions system. They are Ibrahim al-Qosi, Omar Khadr, Ahmed al-Darbi, Noor Uthman Mohammed, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. (McClatchy 11/14/2009) These five detainees are fighting the charges against them:
bullet Ibrahim al-Qosi denies the charges against him, saying he was coerced into making incriminating statements; (USA v. Ihrahm Ahmed Mohmoud al Qosi 7/16/2009 pdf file)
bullet Khadr’s lawyers claim he was coerced into admitting the murder of a US solider in Afghanistan; (Edwards 11/14/2009)
bullet Ahmed Muhammad al-Darbi also claims he was forced to make false confessions (see July 1, 2009); (al-Darbi 7/1/2009)
bullet Noor Uthman Mohammed denies most of the charges against him (see (Late 2004));
bullet Al-Nashiri claims he was forced to confess to trumped up charges under torture (see March 10-April 15, 2007). (US department of Defense 3/14/2007 pdf file)

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