The Kingdom of Silence: Literature from Tadmor prison

Linah Alsaafin reports: “When death is a daily occurrence, lurking in torture, random beatings, eye-gouging, broken limbs and crushed fingers… [When] death stares you in the face and is only avoided by sheer chance…wouldn’t you welcome the merciful release of a bullet?”

This was taken from a report smuggled out in 1999 to Amnesty International by a group of former Syrian prisoners who had spent years in the infamous Tadmor (Arabic for Palmyra) prison, where unimaginable acts of torture took place against both dissidents and criminals alike.

Tadmor prison fell to the Islamic State group as it captured the city of Palmyra from government forces earlier this week, but the significance of its seizure has been overshadowed by widespread fears that IS could raze the UNESCO World Heritage site just south of the modern town. In fact the capture of the prison could be a much more important development, according to analysts and former inmates of the jail.

The prison, which used to be a French military barracks, is located in the desert in eastern province of Homs and is around 200 kilometres away from the capital Damascus. As previously reported by Middle East Eye, the massacre of hundreds of prisoners in 1980 after a foiled assassination attempt on then president Hafez al-Assad exacerbated the prison’s symbolic status of repression.

Human rights reports were not the only medium to document what took place in what has been described as one of the worst prisons in the world.

The vicious reality of Tadmor, where the blood of those massacred in 1980 was not cleaned up resulting in the mass spread of gangrene amongst the rest of the inmates, created literary works written by survivors and former inmates that narrated their daily lives in stark detail. Whips were given human names, friendships were struck between prisoners and rats and cockroaches, and torture sessions were opportunities to experiment with excruciating devices.
[Continue reading…]

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Qatar refuses to let Nepalese workers return to attend funerals after quake

The Observer reports: Nepalese workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have been denied leave to attend funerals or visit relatives following the earthquakes in the Himalayan country that have killed more than 8,000 people, its government has revealed.

The government in Kathmandu has also for the first time publicly criticised Fifa, world football’s governing body, and its commercial partners. It insists that they must put more pressure on Qatar to improve conditions for the 1.5 million migrants employed in the Gulf state as part of the World Cup construction boom.

About 400,000 of the workers on the project are from Nepal, with the rest mainly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Tek Bahadur Gurung, Nepal’s labour minister, said: “After the earthquake of 25 April, we requested all companies in Qatar to give their Nepalese workers special leave and pay for their air fare home. While workers in some sectors of the economy have been given this, those on World Cup construction sites are not being allowed to leave because of the pressure to complete projects on time. [Continue reading…]

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CIA: Secrets, politics and torture

Watch the full documentary detailing the CIA’s torture program here.

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Wanted in Saudi Arabia: Executioners

The New York Times reports: Job seekers in Saudi Arabia who have a strong constitution and endorse strict Islamic law might consider new opportunities carrying out public beheadings and amputating the hands of convicted thieves.

The eight positions, as advertised on the website of the Ministry of Civil Service, require no specific skills or educational background for “carrying out the death sentence according to Islamic Shariah after it is ordered by a legal ruling.” But given the grisly nature of the job, a scarcity of qualified swordsmen in some regions of the country and a rise in the frequency of executions, candidates might face a heavy workload.

Saudi Arabia’s justice system punishes drug dealing, arms smuggling, and murder and other violent crimes with death, usually by beheading in a public square.

Although the law also mandates that thieves in some cases have their hands cut off, that punishment is rarely carried out because judges consider it distasteful, according to Saudi lawyers.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia beheaded a man for a drug offense, making him the 85th person to be executed this year, according to a count by Human Rights Watch based on Saudi government statements. That is almost as many people as the country executed in all of last year, when 88 people were beheaded. Thirty-eight of this year’s executions, including the one on Sunday, were for drug-related crimes with no allegations of violence, according to Adam Coogle, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In the United States, 35 prisoners were executed in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Arrested for reporting on Qatar’s World Cup labourers

Mark Lobel reports for BBC News: We were invited to Qatar by the prime minister’s office to see new flagship accommodation for low-paid migrant workers in early May – but while gathering additional material for our report, we ended up being thrown into prison for doing our jobs.

Our arrest was dramatic.

We were on a quiet stretch of road in the capital, Doha, on our way to film a group of workers from Nepal.

The working and housing conditions of migrant workers constructing new buildings in Qatar ahead of the World Cup have been heavily criticised and we wanted to see them for ourselves.

Suddenly, eight white cars surrounded our vehicle and directed us on to a side road at speed. [Continue reading…]

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A Norwegian campaign to legitimize the use of psychedelics

The New York Times reports: In a country so wary of drug abuse that it limits the sale of aspirin, Pal-Orjan Johansen, a Norwegian researcher, is pushing what would seem a doomed cause: the rehabilitation of LSD.

It matters little to him that the psychedelic drug has been banned here and around the world for more than 40 years. Mr. Johansen pitches his effort not as a throwback to the hippie hedonism of the 1960s, but as a battle for human rights and good health.

In fact, he also wants to manufacture MDMA and psilocybin, the active ingredients in two other prohibited substances, Ecstasy and so-called magic mushrooms.

All of that might seem quixotic at best, if only Mr. Johansen and EmmaSofia, the psychedelics advocacy group he founded with his American-born wife and fellow scientist, Teri Krebs, had not already won some unlikely supporters, including a retired Norwegian Supreme Court judge who serves as their legal adviser.

The group, whose name derives from street slang for MDMA and the Greek word for wisdom, stands in the vanguard of a global movement now pushing to revise drug policies set in the 1970s. That it has gained traction in a country so committed to controlling drug use shows how much old orthodoxies have crumbled. [Continue reading…]

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Report says American Psychological Association collaborated on torture justification

The New York Times reports: The American Psychological Association secretly collaborated with the administration of President George W. Bush to bolster a legal and ethical justification for the torture of prisoners swept up in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror, according to a new report by a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists.

The report is the first to examine the association’s role in the interrogation program. It contends, using newly disclosed emails, that the group’s actions to keep psychologists involved in the interrogation program coincided closely with efforts by senior Bush administration officials to salvage the program after the public disclosure in 2004 of graphic photos of prisoner abuse by American military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

“The A.P.A. secretly coordinated with officials from the C.I.A., White House and the Department of Defense to create an A.P.A. ethics policy on national security interrogations which comported with then-classified legal guidance authorizing the C.I.A. torture program,” the report’s authors conclude. [Continue reading…]

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Predator drone strikes: A cure worse than the disease

Bruce Fein writes: Something is rotten in President Barack Obama’s classified, programmatic use of predator drones to target suspected international terrorists for death anywhere on the planet.

The targeting intelligence is suspect.

The program is secret, lawless, and unaccountable to Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American people.

The killings pivot on a principle that will haunt the United States in the future as predator drone capability spreads to China, Russia or otherwise.

And the program is compounding rather than diminishing the international terrorist threat against the United States by creating more revenge-motivated terrorists than are being killing; and, by serving as a calling card for international terrorist recruitment. That explains why high level military and intelligence officials in the Obama administration concede that 14 years after 9/11 the United States is more imperiled by international terrorism than ever before.

Depend upon it. If the predator drone program were suspended for six months on a trial basis, international terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia aimed at the United States would contract. The foundation would be laid for terminating the entire program and making the United States safer. [Continue reading…]

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How candidate of hope and change became president of kill lists, drone strikes, and immunity for torturers

Gregory D. Johnsen writes: Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 11, 2014, Dianne Feinstein, the 80-year-old chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, walked into the Senate chamber with a thick stack of papers and a glass of water. The Senate had just finished a rare all-night session a few minutes earlier, and only a handful of staffers were left in the room. Feinstein had given thousands of speeches over her career, but none quite like this.

“Let me say up front that I come to the Senate floor reluctantly,” she said, as she poked at the corners of her notes. The last two months had been an exhausting mix of meetings and legal wrangling, all in an attempt to avoid this exact moment. But none of it had worked. And now Feinstein was ready to go public and tell the country what she knew: The CIA had broken the law and violated the Constitution. It had spied on the Senate.

“This is a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence community,” Feinstein said nearly 40 minutes later, as she drew to a close. This will show whether the Senate “can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”

Two hours later and a few miles away at a Council on Foreign Relations event near downtown Washington, the CIA responded. “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into Senate computers,” CIA Director John Brennan told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, shaking his head and rolling his eyes to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the charges, “nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”

Brennan was 58, but that morning he looked much older. He’d hobbled into the room on a cane following yet another hip fracture, and after some brief remarks he eased himself into a chair with obvious discomfort. Two years earlier in a commencement address at Fordham University, his alma mater, Brennan had rattled off a litany of injuries and ailments: In addition to his hip problems, he’d also had major knee, back, and shoulder surgeries as well as “a bout of cancer.” Years of desk work had resulted in extra weight and the sort of bureaucrat’s body that caused his suits to slope down and out toward his belt. “I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what the CIA did there,” Brennan said. “And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”

Mitchell, who had already asked him two questions about the allegations, pressed again. “If it is proved that the CIA did do this, would you feel that you had to step down?”

Brennan chuckled and stuttered as he tried to form an answer. Two weeks earlier, he had told a dinner at the University of Oklahoma that “intelligence work had gotten in my blood.” The CIA wasn’t just what he did; it was his “identity.” He had worked too hard to become director to give up without a fight. “If I did something wrong,” Brennan eventually told Mitchell, “I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”

But Obama was never going to ask for his resignation. Not then, and not months later when the CIA inspector general’s report came back, showing that the agency had done what Feinstein claimed. Brennan was Obama’s man. His conscience on national security, and the CIA director he’d wanted from the very beginning. Not even a chorus of pleas from Democratic senators, members of Obama’s own party, made any difference. John Brennan would stay, the untouchable head of America’s most powerful intelligence agency. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. court lets border patrol agents murder Mexicans with impunity

Guinevere E. Moore writes: A United States court has all but declared open season on Mexican nationals along the US-Mexico border. Border patrol agents may shoot foreign nationals in Mexico with impunity – provided that those at whom they aim are standing within feet of US territory.

According to a ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit last week, agents who shoot and kill people in Mexico while standing on US soil will never be held to account, except before their administrative agencies. No court will ever review these actions and the families of the victims will be left with no avenue for justice. An agent’s actions will not be governed or restrained by the constitution nor subject to review by US courts.

This isn’t a hypothetic situtation: all of this has already happened.

On 7 June, 2010, a US border patrol agent shot and killed a 15-year-old Mexican boy, Sergio Hernandez, who was standing on the Mexican side of the border. The border patrol agent who drew his firearm and shot Hernandez twice, including a fatal shot to the head, alleged that the boy had been throwing rocks.

After three days on administrative leave and an administrative review of his actions, the agent returned to his duties. No criminal charges were filed, and the United States has refused to extradite the agent to stand trial for murder in Mexico. [Continue reading…]

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Deep support in Washington for CIA’s drone missions

The New York Times reports: About once a month, staff members of the congressional intelligence committees drive across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., and watch videos of people being blown up.

As part of the macabre ritual the staff members look at the footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries and a sampling of the intelligence buttressing each strike, but not the internal C.I.A. cables discussing the attacks and their aftermath. The screenings have provided a veneer of congressional oversight and have led lawmakers to claim that the targeted killing program is subject to rigorous review, to defend it vigorously in public and to authorize its sizable budget each year.

That unwavering support from Capitol Hill is but one reason the C.I.A.’s killing missions are embedded in American warfare and unlikely to change significantly despite President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that a drone strike accidentally killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian. The program is under fire like never before, but the White House continues to champion it, and C.I.A. officers who built the program more than a decade ago — some of whom also led the C.I.A. detention program that used torture in secret prisons — have ascended to the agency’s powerful senior ranks. [Continue reading…]

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Giovanni Lo Porto was known as aid worker drawn to needy

The New York Times reports: When Giovanni Lo Porto was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in January 2012, the nongovernmental organization he worked for was inundated with emails from around the world expressing concern and care.

“It was amazing how many emails we got saying, ‘We hope he’s well,’ ” said Simone Pott, a spokeswoman for the organization, Welthungerhilfe, one of Germany’s biggest agencies specializing in emergency and long-term aid. She remembered him as a “great colleague,” and “vibrant, full of life.”

His kidnapping prompted a huge response, she said. “He had friends all over the world.”

As those friends and colleagues learned Thursday that Mr. Lo Porto, 37, along with an American hostage, had been killed in a United States counterterrorism operation in Pakistan three months earlier, they recalled a driven and experienced aid worker who was drawn to those in need. Italian opposition parties used news of his death to criticize the country’s leadership and its involvement in the Middle East, and some of his supporters questioned whether enough had been done to secure his freedom. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s drone war has the precision of guesswork

The New York Times reports: Barack Obama inherited two ugly, intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he became president and set to work to end them. But a third, more covert war he made his own, escalating drone strikes in Pakistan and expanding them to Yemen and Somalia.

The drone’s vaunted capability for pinpoint killing appealed to a president intrigued by a new technology and determined to try to keep the United States out of new quagmires. Aides said Mr. Obama liked the idea of picking off dangerous terrorists a few at a time, without endangering American lives or risking the yearslong bloodshed of conventional war.

“Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,” he often told aides.

By most accounts, hundreds of dangerous militants have, indeed, been killed by drones, including some high-ranking Qaeda figures. But for six years, when the heavy cloak of secrecy has occasionally been breached, the results of some strikes have often turned out to be deeply troubling.

Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess. [Continue reading…]

Micah Zenko notes: Based upon the averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been an estimated 522 U.S. targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 9/11, which have killed 3,852 people, 476 (or 12 percent) of whom were civilians.

However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced. Moreover, even within traditional battlefields like Afghanistan or Iraq, the U.S. government refuses to provide information about harm caused to civilians. Last year in Afghanistan alone, the United Nations documented 104 civilian deaths “from aerial operations by international military forces.” There were no statements from the relevant military commanders or White House about any of these victims.

Earlier this month, during a question-and-answer session at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, CIA director John Brennan pledged:

“We, the U.S. government, the U.S. military, are very, very careful about taking action that’s going to have collateral civilian impact. A lot of these stories that you hear about — in terms of ‘Oh my god, there are hundreds of civilians killed,’ whatever — a lot of that is propaganda that is put out by those elements that are very much opposed to the U.S. coming in and helping.”

“Propaganda.” That’s how U.S. officials deride research that challenges their assertions.

Unfortunately, there have been hundreds of civilians killed by U.S. counterterrorism operations, despite the very real precautions that the CIA and military undertake to prevent them. This is why, as I have written often previously, the United States has an obligation to those American and non-American civilians killed by drones to commission a study into U.S. targeted killing policies similar to the extensive one conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Without a full and complete accounting of this lethal tactic that has come to define U.S. foreign policy throughout the world, we will always be forced to rely upon the selective pledges provided by U.S. officials. [Continue reading…]

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Waziristan: The world’s drone-strike capital

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American, Italian hostages killed in CIA drone strike in January

The Wall Street Journal reports: A U.S. drone strike in January targeting a suspected al Qaeda compound in Pakistan inadvertently killed an American and Italian being held hostage by the group, senior Obama administration officials said.

The killing of American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto is the first known instance in which the U.S. has accidentally killed a hostage in a drone strike.

The mishap represents a major blow to the Central Intelligence Agency and its covert drone program in Pakistan, which President Barack Obama embraced and expanded after coming to office in 2009.

The incident also underscores the limits of U.S. intelligence and the risk of unintended consequences in executing a targeted killing program which, according to human rights groups, endangers civilians. U.S. officials say the strikes are needed to combat al Qaeda. To mitigate the risks, officials say the CIA won’t launch missiles at a suspected target if they know civilians are present. [Continue reading…]

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Could America torture again?

Joshua Keating writes: “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.” That was President Obama, last December, after the release of a Senate panel report on the CIA’s use of torture against terrorism detainees. Obama’s statement encapsulated both his confidence that the brutal interrogation techniques of the Bush era had been brought to an end by the executive order he issued banning them upon taking office, and his reluctance to probe more deeply into abuses that occurred or prosecute any of the offenders.

But a new report issued this morning by Amnesty International charges that the Obama administration has effectively granted impunity to the practitioners of torture, and that its reluctance to address the issue “not only leaves the USA in serious violation of its international legal obligations, it increases the risk that history will repeat itself when a different president again deems the circumstances warrant resort to torture, enforced disappearance, abductions or other human rights violations.” [Continue reading…]

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The story of the first and only CIA contractor convicted of torture

The New York Times reports: Agonizing over torture as an antiterrorism tactic — how to define it and how to punish abusers, if at all — has been central to national security debates since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The issue has received renewed attention in recent months with the release of a Senate committee report describing techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency against terrorism suspects, practices found by senators to have been high in brutality and low in effectiveness.

A few pivotal questions about war’s excesses come together in the decade-old case of one man, who now has the attention of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries that examine major news stories of the past and their impact today. This man, David A. Passaro, is a former Army Ranger who in 2003 went to work for the C.I.A. in Afghanistan as an independent contractor. His brief tour in that country turned out wretchedly. He ended up being sentenced to more than six years in federal prison for beating an Afghan prisoner who then died at an American military base near the border with Pakistan.

Despite evidence that abuses like those chronicled in the Senate report were far from isolated, Mr. Passaro’s situation was singular. A few dozen members of the military were court-martialed for misconduct like the well-documented humiliations inflicted at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But Mr. Passaro is believed to be the only C.I.A.-connected civilian ever prosecuted for going too far. So rare was his case that, to bring him to trial in this country for actions committed overseas, the Justice Department took the highly unusual step of invoking the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 statute intended principally to thwart would-be terrorists. [Continue reading…]

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Germany is the tell-tale heart of America’s drone war

Jeremy Scahill reports: A top-secret U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Intercept confirms that the sprawling U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany serves as the high-tech heart of America’s drone program. Ramstein is the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in the American Southwest to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other targeted countries. The top-secret slide deck, dated July 2012, provides the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the technical architecture used to conduct strikes with Predator and Reaper drones.

Amid fierce European criticism of America’s targeted killing program, U.S. and German government officials have long downplayed Ramstein’s role in lethal U.S. drone operations and have issued carefully phrased evasions when confronted with direct questions about the base. But the slides show that the facilities at Ramstein perform an essential function in lethal drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

The slides were provided by a source with knowledge of the U.S. government’s drone program who declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. According to the source, Ramstein’s importance to the U.S. drone war is difficult to overstate. “Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do and it returns the display of what the drone sees. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

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