Ishaan Tharoor writes: Between 2012 and 2013, Mansour Omari spent a hellish year in a number of underground Syrian prisons. The activist and journalist was blindfolded and crammed into a dark cell with dozens of other detainees. Roaches crawled across the floor. Prisoners itched and scratched with open wounds and sores. Their gums bled because of malnutrition. “The smell,” Omari said, “was unbelievable.”
But even in their depths of despair, they clung to a form of hope. Omari recalls how he and some fellow prisoners sought to keep track of everyone around them: They collected the names of 82 inmates locked in the secret government facility where they were detained. Then they mixed their own blood with rust filings to create ink, used scavenged chicken bones as quills and carefully wrote down all the names and numbers they had gathered on rough strips of fabric. These were hidden inside a shirt that Omari put on the day he was released.
Those five pieces of cloth are now on display in a chilling exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Framed in individual display cases, they look like ancient artifacts, faded canvases etched with runes from a distant past. But they tell a very modern story.
Visitors to the building, which chronicles the horrors of the 20th century’s worst genocide and the context of how it began, are now confronted with a contemporary calamity: The ongoing war in Syria, which has claimed the lives of about a half-million people, forced 11 million people to flee their homes and upended one of the Middle East’s most venerable societies.
“Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us” also is a pointed critique of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is an accomplice to the ravaging of the nation and the disappearance of countless of dissidents and ordinary civilians into a network of clandestine prisons and torture houses. It sits alongside another installation on Syria featuring the photography of a former Syrian military police photographer, whose images show how detainees were maimed, their eyes gouged out and limbs gored.
“So many people go through this museum and wonder, ‘What would I have done if I was living in 1930s Germany,’ ” Cameron Hudson, director of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, told Today’s WorldView. “What we want them to think is, ‘I’m living in 2017, and this stuff is going on around me.’ ” [Continue reading…]
The Intercept reports: The Trump administration is considering a set of proposals developed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a retired CIA officer — with assistance from Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal — to provide CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the White House with a global, private spy network that would circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies, according to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials and others familiar with the proposals. The sources say the plans have been pitched to the White House as a means of countering “deep state” enemies in the intelligence community seeking to undermine Trump’s presidency.
The creation of such a program raises the possibility that the effort would be used to create an intelligence apparatus to justify the Trump administration’s political agenda.
“Pompeo can’t trust the CIA bureaucracy, so we need to create this thing that reports just directly to him,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official with firsthand knowledge of the proposals, in describing White House discussions. “It is a direct-action arm, totally off the books,” this person said, meaning the intelligence collected would not be shared with the rest of the CIA or the larger intelligence community. “The whole point is this is supposed to report to the president and Pompeo directly.”
Oliver North, who appears frequently on Trump’s favorite TV network, Fox News, was enlisted to help sell the effort to the administration. He was the “ideological leader” brought in to lend credibility, said the former senior intelligence official.
Some of the individuals involved with the proposals secretly met with major Trump donors asking them to help finance operations before any official contracts were signed.
The proposals would utilize an army of spies with no official cover in several countries deemed “denied areas” for current American intelligence personnel, including North Korea and Iran. The White House has also considered creating a new global rendition unit meant to capture terrorist suspects around the world, as well as a propaganda campaign in the Middle East and Europe to combat Islamic extremism and Iran.
“I can find no evidence that this ever came to the attention of anyone at the NSC or [White House] at all,” wrote Michael N. Anton, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, in an email. “The White House does not and would not support such a proposal.” But a current U.S. intelligence official appeared to contradict that assertion, stating that the various proposals were first pitched at the White House before being delivered to the CIA. The Intercept reached out to several senior officials that sources said had been briefed on the plans by Prince, including Vice President Mike Pence. His spokesperson wrote there was “no record of [Prince] ever having met with or briefed the VP.” Oliver North did not respond to a request for comment. [Continue reading…]
BuzzFeed reports: The White House and CIA have been considering a package of secret proposals to allow former US intelligence officers to run privatized covert actions, intelligence gathering, and propaganda missions, according to three sources who’ve been briefed on or have direct knowledge of the proposals.
One of the proposals would involve hiring a private company, Amyntor Group, for millions of dollars to set up a large intelligence network and run counterterrorist propaganda efforts, according to the sources. Amyntor’s officials and employees include veterans of a variety of US covert operations, ranging from the Reagan-era Iran–Contra affair to more recent actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amyntor declined to discuss the proposals, but a lawyer for the company said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that the type of contract being contemplated would be legal “with direction and control by the proper government authority.”
Another proposal presented to US officials would allow individuals affiliated with the company to help capture wanted terrorists on behalf of the United States. In keeping with that proposal, people close to the company are tracking two specific suspects in a Middle Eastern country, the sources said, for possible “rendition” to the United States. [Continue reading…]
Bente Scheller writes: I was first confronted with the fate of political prisoners in Syria fifteen years ago. To this day, I am grateful for the conversations with lawyers such as Anwar al-Bounni who is in attendance today and Razan Zeitouneh, who was abducted in 2013.
One day, Razan Zeitouneh took me along to meet Fares Mourad who had, after twenty years imprisonment, finally been released. First sentenced to death, his sentence was later reduced to seven years imprisonment, and yet he was detained for another thirteen years. Prisoners in Syria were never granted claimable rights.
Fares was sitting across from me. Even though he could no longer raise his head and was only able to look at me with great strain, he smiled: “What irony that the first foreigner I meet happens to be German,” he said and pointed to his overstretched neck: “We call the torture technique with which this was done to me the ‘German chair’.”
Excruciating detention conditions and torture always were defining features of the Syrian state under Assad rule. That did not first begin with the onset of the Syrian revolution.
Thousands were killed in the Hama massacre in 1982, while thousands more disappeared in prisons. To date, no trace of them has been found.
The neighbouring country, Lebanon, saw the Syrian army in their capacity as occupying power deport political prisoners to Syria and to this day 30,000 of those disappeared are not accounted for. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The Syrian government has constructed and is using a crematorium inside its notorious Sednaya military prison outside Damascus to clandestinely dispose of thousands of prisoners it continues to execute inside the facility.
At least 50 prisoners a day are executed in the prison, some in mass hangings, said Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. A recent Amnesty International report called Sednaya a “human slaughterhouse” and said that thousands of Syrians have been abducted, detained and “exterminated” there.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad, Jones said, has carried out these atrocities and others “seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” his main backers.
The information, he said, came from human rights and nongovernmental sources, as well as “intelligence assessments.” He released overhead photographs of the facility.
Russia, Jones said, “has either aided in or passively looked away as the regime has” engaged in years of “mass murders” and other atrocities, including extensive bombing of hospitals and other health-care sites and the use of chemical weapons on both civilians and rebel forces. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The Trump administration is preparing a sweeping executive order that would clear the way for the C.I.A. to reopen overseas “black site” prisons, like those where it detained and tortured terrorism suspects before former President Barack Obama shut them down.
President Trump’s three-page draft order, titled “Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants” and obtained by The New York Times, would also undo many of the other restrictions on handling detainees that Mr. Obama put in place in response to policies of the George W. Bush administration.
If Mr. Trump signs the draft order, he would also revoke Mr. Obama’s directive to give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all detainees in American custody. That would be another step toward reopening secret prisons outside of the normal wartime rules established by the Geneva Conventions, although statutory obstacles would remain. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: “The President can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America,” said Republican Senator John McCain, himself a victim of torture at the hands of his Vietnamese captors.
“We haven’t engaged in waterboarding since 2004…We haven’t used black sites since President Bush emptied the black sites, and we’ve somehow managed to keep our country safe,” said former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash, in answer to a Daily Beast question. “I have picked up precisely zero appetite for doing that again from intelligence officers,” a sentiment echoed by other former intelligence officers.
The New York Times reports: As a presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump vowed to refill the cells of the Guantánamo Bay prison and said American terrorism suspects should be sent there for military prosecution. He called for targeting mosques for surveillance, escalating airstrikes aimed at terrorists and taking out their civilian family members, and bringing back waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse” — not only because “torture works,” but because even “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”
It is hard to know how much of this stark vision for throwing off constraints on the exercise of national security power was merely tough campaign talk. But if the Trump administration follows through on such ideas, it will find some assistance in a surprising source: President Obama’s have-it-both-ways approach to curbing what he saw as overreaching in the war on terrorism.
Over and over, Mr. Obama has imposed limits on his use of such powers but has not closed the door on them — a flexible approach premised on the idea that he and his successors could be trusted to use them prudently. Mr. Trump can now sweep away those limits and open the throttle on policies that Mr. Obama endorsed as lawful and legitimate for sparing use, like targeted killings in drone strikes and the use of indefinite detention and military tribunals for terrorism suspects.
And even in areas where Mr. Obama tried to terminate policies from the George W. Bush era — like torture and the detention of Americans and other people arrested on domestic soil as “enemy combatants” — his administration fought in court to prevent any ruling that the defunct practices had been illegal. The absence of a definitive repudiation could make it easier for Trump administration lawyers to revive the policies by invoking the same sweeping theories of executive power that were the basis for them in the Bush years. [Continue reading…]
Amnesty International reports: The horrifying experiences of detainees subjected to rampant torture and other abuse in Syrian government prisons are detailed in a damning new report published by Amnesty International today (18 August), which estimates that more than 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria over the past five years – an average of more than 300 people each month, about 10 a day.
The 69-page report, ‘It breaks the human’: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons, documents the cases of 65 torture survivors who’ve described appalling abuse and inhuman conditions in detention centres operated by various Syrian intelligence agencies and in one of Syria’s most notorious jails, Saydnaya Military Prison, on the outskirts of Damascus. Most said they had witnessed prisoners dying in custody – some beaten to death – and several former detainees described being held in cells alongside dead bodies.
The majority of survivors told Amnesty that abuse would begin instantly upon their arrest and during transfers, even before they set foot in a detention centre. Upon arrival detainees described a “welcome party” ritual involving severe beatings, often using silicone or metal bars or electric cables. These were often followed by “security checks”, during which women in particular reported being subjected to rape and sexual assault by male guards. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Hundreds of Egyptians have been forcibly disappeared and tortured in a “sinister” campaign to wipe out peaceful dissent in the most populous country in the Arab world, Amnesty International says in a new report.
Children as young as 14 as well as students, political activists and protesters have vanished without trace after security forces raided their homes. Many have been held for months at a time and kept blindfolded and handcuffed. At least 34,000 people are behind bars, the government admits.
Most of those who have “disappeared” are supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president who was deposed in July 2013 and eventually replaced by president Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi.
Amnesty’s report also mentions the case of the Italian Giulio Regeni, the Cambridge graduate student who was found dead, with his body bearing signs of torture, in Cairo in February.
“The terrible injuries sustained by Giulio Regeni are similar to those suffered by numerous people interrogated by the Egyptian security forces – his case is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Amnesty’s Felix Jakens. [Continue reading…]
Middle East Eye reports: The British foreign secretary expressed serious concerns about allegations of Egyptian security service involvement in the killing of a Cambridge University student in Cairo weeks before the UK government called for a “full and transparent” investigation into the case, Middle East Eye can reveal.
In a 24 March letter obtained exclusively by MEE, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron warning that reports that Egyptian security forces were involved in the death of Giulio Regeni would be an “extremely concerning development” if proved correct.
Regeni’s battered body was found in a ditch nine days after he had gone missing on 25 January, the anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution.
The 28-year-old was in Egypt researching labour movements – a contentious subject in the country – as part of his doctoral studies at Cambridge.
The government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has faced accusations that its security forces were responsible for Regeni’s torture and death. It has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Relations between Italy and Egypt have soured in recent days over the investigation. Officials from Cairo refused to hand over what Rome saw as vital evidence, including mobile phone records and CCTV footage from the night Regeni went missing.
On Friday, Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt for consultations in protest of the lack of progress in the probe.
Two weeks earlier in his letter to the prime minister whom he addresses as “David”, Hammond writes, “My officials have followed the case of Mr Regeni closely since his disappearance”.
“The UK is aware of reports of the Egyptian security forces’ involvement in Mr Regeni’s death. If substantiated, this would be an extremely concerning development,” the Foreign Secretary added. [Continue reading…]
Ben Taub reports: The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.
He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.
In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.
Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.
The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A Senate security officer stepped out of the December chill last year and delivered envelopes marked “Top Secret” to the Pentagon, the C.I.A., the State Department and the Justice Department. Inside each packet was a disc containing a 6,700-page classified report on the C.I.A.’s secret prison program and a letter from Senator Dianne Feinstein, urging officials to read the report to ensure that the lessons were not lost to time.
Today, those discs sit untouched in vaults across Washington, still in their original envelopes. The F.B.I. has not retrieved a copy held for it in the Justice Department’s safe. State Department officials, who locked up their copy and marked it “Congressional Record — Do Not Open, Do Not Access” as soon as it arrived, have not read it either.
Nearly a year after the Senate released a declassified 500-page summary of the report, the fate of the entire document remains in limbo, the subject of battles in the courts and in Congress. Until those disputes are resolved, the Justice Department has prohibited officials from the government agencies that possess it from even opening the report, effectively keeping the people in charge of America’s counterterrorism future from reading about its past. There is also the possibility that the documents could remain locked in a Senate vault for good. [Continue reading…]
Amnesty International: The vast scale and chillingly orchestrated nature of tens of thousands of enforced disappearances by the Syrian government over the past four years is exposed in a new report by Amnesty International published today.
Between prison and the grave: Enforced disappearances in Syria reveals that the state is profiting from widespread and systematic enforced disappearances amounting to crimes against humanity, through an insidious black market in which family members desperate to find out the fates of their disappeared relatives are ruthlessly exploited for cash.
“This report describes in heart-breaking detail the devastation and trauma of the families of the tens of thousands of people who have vanished without trace in Syria, and their cruel exploitation for financial gain.”
The scale of the disappearances is harrowing. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented at least 65,000 disappearances since 2011 – 58,000 of them civilians. Those taken are usually held in overcrowded detention cells in appalling conditions and cut off from the outside world. Many die as a result of rampant disease, torture and extrajudicial execution. [Continue reading…]
Patrick G. Eddington writes: At exactly 5 p.m. on March 13, 2007, just as I was preparing to leave my cubicle in Washington for the day, I got a phone call from the journalist Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers. To this day, I remember his exact words.
“One of your congressman’s constituents is being held in an Ethiopian intelligence service prison, and I think your former employer is neck-deep in this.”
The congressman was Rush Holt, then a Democratic representative from New Jersey, for whom I worked for 10 years starting in 2004. The constituent was Amir Mohamed Meshal of Tinton Falls, N.J., who alleges that he was illegally taken to Ethiopia, where he was threatened with torture by American officials. My “former employer” was the Central Intelligence Agency, but it soon became apparent that the agency “neck-deep in this” was the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Eight years after Mr. Meshal’s rendition, his case ended up before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The questions hanging over the proceeding were: can the United States government allow, or even facilitate, the rendition of an American citizen to another country for interrogation? And can United States officials themselves conduct rendition and interrogations of American citizens, including threats of torture, on foreign soil?
Al Jazeera reports: Israeli authorities detained a Palestinian man on Wednesday, just hours after he was discharged from an Israeli hospital for treatment after a two-month hunger strike to protest his earlier detention.
Mohammed Allaan’s condition had improved enough for him to be discharged, the Barzilai hospital in southern Israel said earlier in the day.
His lawyer, Jamil Khatib, said that shortly after Allaan left the hospital he was detained again by Israeli authorities. Allaan was originally detained in November 2014 and held without charges.
Israel accuses the 31-year-old Allaan of links to Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian armed group. Allaan denies the affiliation. [Continue reading…]
The Huffington Post reports: When President Barack Obama took office, he promised to overhaul the nation’s process for interrogating terror suspects. His solution: the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, a small interagency outfit that would use non-coercive methods and the latest psychological research to interrogate America’s most-wanted terrorists — all behind a veil of secrecy.
Today, the HIG often gets the first jab at America’s most-wanted terror suspects. Since its creation in August 2009, HIG teams have questioned a bevy of top detainees, including Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Umm Sayyaf, the wife of a high-profile Islamic State leader killed in a drone strike.
But six years on, the Obama administration’s elite interrogation force is on shaky ground. U.S. officials and outside critics question the effectiveness of its interrogators, whether they’re following their own training, and whether they can continue to rely on psychological research to help break suspects. Congress and the White House, which once saw the group as a key to reinventing the nation’s counterterrorism strategy, aren’t paying attention. And those struggles illuminate a broader reality: Obama’s limited reforms to how American detains, interrogates and prosecutes suspected terrorists are ad-hoc and fragile. His successor could scrap most of them — the HIG included — with the stroke of a pen. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Military prosecutors this year learned about a massive cache of CIA photographs of its former overseas “black sites” while reviewing material collected for the Senate investigation of the agency’s interrogation program, U.S. officials said.
The existence of the approximately 14,000 photographs will probably cause yet another delay in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as attorneys for the defendants demand that all the images be turned over and the government wades through the material to decide what it thinks is relevant to the proceedings.
Defense attorneys said they have not yet been informed about the photographs and said it is unacceptable that they should come to light now, more than three years after the arraignment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other defendants accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. [Continue reading…]
Amnesty: The last time Rania (not her real name) spoke to her friend Mohamed Bachir Arab, was on 1 November 2011. As a hard working doctor and committed political activist, Mohamed had been living in hiding for six months, trying to evade the ever present tentacles of the Syrian intelligence forces, who routinely detain peaceful activists like him.
The following day her worst fears were realized. A strap line on the evening news announced he had been arrested. None of his relatives knew where he had been taken.
Mohamed was a marked man. He had been a student leader at his university in the city of Aleppo, in north-west Syria. Over the years, he had organized a number of protests against government policies, which had landed him in trouble with the authorities. Between 2004 and 2005 he was detained for several months before being released.
But this time, his relatives and colleagues feared it was different. Since the crisis in Syria began in March 2011, the number of individuals who have been detained in secret by the state – or forcibly disappeared – has spiralled out of control.
“The Syrian authorities’ strategy to deal with dissent is brutal: speak against them once and they’ll arrest you; do it again and they will simply make you disappear,” said Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
Many of those lucky enough to be released, after months sometimes years in detention, bear the scars of the brutal treatment they have been subjected to.
Most of them have spoken about passing through a number of the detention centres that make up the dark maze of abuse controlled by the Syrian security forces and intelligence agencies. [Continue reading…]