Up to 13,000 secretly hanged in Syrian jail, says Amnesty

The Guardian reports: As many as 13,000 opponents of Bashar al-Assad were secretly hanged in one of Syria’s most infamous prisons in the first five years of the country’s civil war as part of an extermination policy ordered by the highest levels of the Syrian government, according to Amnesty International.

Many thousands more people held in Saydnaya prison died through torture and starvation, Amnesty said, and the bodies were dumped in two mass graves on the outskirts of Damascus between midnight and dawn most Tuesday mornings for at least five years.

The report, Human Slaughterhouse, details allegations of state-sanctioned abuse that are unprecedented in Syria’s civil war, a conflict that has consistently broken new ground in depravity, leaving at least 400,000 people dead and nearly half the country’s population displaced. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said U.S. President Donald Trump prioritizing the fight against jihadists led by Islamic State was promising although it was too early to expect any practical steps, state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday.

The Kremlin, Assad’s most powerful ally, said Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed setting up “genuine coordination” in the fight against Islamic State and “other terrorist groups” in Syria during a phone call last month.

Assad was quoted by SANA as telling a group of Belgian reporters that Trump’s position was promising. “I believe this is promising but we have to wait and it’s too early to expect anything practical,” he said. Assad was also quoted as saying that U.S-Russian cooperation in stepping up the fight against the militants would have positive repercussions. [Continue reading…]

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Trump poised to lift ban on CIA ‘black site’ prisons

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.

“With respect to torture, that’s banned,” Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “We view that to be a matter of settled law.” [Continue reading…]

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The Trump administration seems poised to further unleash the CIA’s paramilitary branch

Joshua Kurlantzick writes: [T]he Trump administration is poised to accelerate a transformation that has been happening, in fits and starts, since the 1960s, with the CIA becoming less of an outfit focused on spying and more of a paramilitary organization with a central role in violent conflicts.

Further increasing the use of CIA paramilitaries and the Pentagon’s Special Forces in places such as Syria and Afghanistan would have potentially grave consequences for U.S. foreign policy — and for the United States’ leadership in the world. These paramilitaries are almost totally unaccountable, and unaccountability encourages rash, even criminal, behavior, including disdain for civilian lives, torture and other abuses. And, as demonstrated by a secret war in the 1960s and early ’70s — the most important precedent for today’s war on terror — it’s hard to win by using the CIA and Special Forces rather than conventional troops.

Fifty-six years ago, another incoming president decided to empower the CIA’s paramilitaries, relying on covert war rather than conventional fighting.

Before taking the oath of office in 1961, John F. Kennedy had (privately) squabbled with some CIA leaders, who saw him as inexperienced and potentially reckless.

The CIA was only 14 years old then and a relatively small player in the American policymaking apparatus, one with far less power and fewer resources than the Departments of Defense and State. The agency mostly concentrated on traditional intelligence and political work, such as spying and trying to overthrow foreign governments believed unfriendly to the United States. It did a small amount of training of foreign forces, but no battlefield commanding.

Once in office, however, Kennedy approved the expansion of what would become the largest covert U.S. operation in history, in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos. In a shift that could prove familiar in 2017, his decision dramatically empowered the same CIA that had worried about the new president.

The political climate at the time Kennedy took office also was in some ways similar to today’s. After a bloody stalemate in Korea, and the defeat of U.S.-backed French troops in Vietnam in 1954, many Americans were tired of conventional war and interventionism in general. Yet foreign policy elites believed that the United States faced an existential threat: Communism was spreading through Asia, first to China and North Vietnam and then to Laos, and possibly beyond. A secret war, one that used relatively few U.S. combatants and relied on foreign proxy forces and bombing from above, came to be seen as the safest choice, politically, for the Kennedy administration.

The CIA’s involvement in Laos, which expanded in 1961 with a small training program for anti-communist fighters, ramped up quickly. It would grow over the course of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, with few Americans, and not even many members of Congress, knowing anything about it. The CIA recruited tens of thousands of U.S. contractors, paramilitary fighters and local Laotian warriors in an ultimately futile attempt to transform Laotian guerillas into a conventional army capable of stopping Hanoi and its local allies. U.S. bombers, working in concert with CIA paramilitaries, destroyed much of Laos while attacking Laotian and North Vietnamese communists. They dropped more bombs on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II. The country was left with so much unexploded ordnance that, in the four decades since Laos’s civil war ended in 1975, the leftover bombs have killed 20,000 Laotians.

The war cemented the CIA’s place as an organization with power on par with the Departments of Defense and State — and one increasingly dedicated to activities such as arming and advising foreign forces, managing conflicts and even overseeing targeted killings. CIA operatives went on to play roles in covert wars in Central America and Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as in conflict zones in the war on terror. As Foreign Policy magazine has characterized it, the CIA is now “pulling the strings of U.S. foreign policy” — overseeing drone strikes and managing many aspects of the fight against the Islamic State. And according to documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the CIA’s budget appears to be greater than the State Department’s, a dramatic reversal from the early Cold War. While Brennan is recognized for leading an effort to reduce walls between operatives and analysts and fortify some of the agency’s traditional functions, he also oversaw an increase in the strength of paramilitary operations. In 2015, he promoted a paramilitary operative to head the clandestine branch — reportedly the first time a paramilitary officer took on the top undercover position.

Although Trump’s rhetoric suggests that he could rein in the CIA, the reality, as during Kennedy’s time, will probably be the reverse. The agency’s paramilitary branch, along with the military’s Special Forces — the two have become intertwined in policy and practice — will be further unleashed in a twilight war. [Continue reading…]

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Inside President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal antidrug campaign in the Philippines

Daniel Berehulak writes: I have worked in 60 countries, covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent much of 2014 living inside West Africa’s Ebola zone, a place gripped by fear and death. What I experienced in the Philippines felt like a new level of ruthlessness: police officers’ summarily shooting anyone suspected of dealing or even using drugs, vigilantes’ taking seriously Mr. Duterte’s call to “slaughter them all.”

He said in October, “You can expect 20,000 or 30,000 more.”

On Saturday, Mr. Duterte said that, in a telephone call the day before, President-elect Donald J. Trump had endorsed the brutal antidrug campaign and invited him to visit New York and Washington. “He said that, well, we are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way,” Mr. Duterte said in a summary of the call released by his office.

Beyond those killed in official drug operations, the Philippine National Police have counted more than 3,500 unsolved homicides since July 1, turning much of the country into a macabre house of mourning. [Continue reading…]

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Philippine proponent of vigilante justice says he has ‘good rapport’ with Trump who supports his war on drugs

The Washington Post reports: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to “kill all” the country’s suspected drug users and dealers has many foreign critics, including the United States, the European Parliament and the International Criminal Court. It now has at least one high-profile supporter: President-elect Donald Trump, at least according to Duterte.

In a statement Saturday, Duterte shared details of a seven-minute conversation that took place Friday. He said that during the call, Trump endorsed his campaign against drug users and dealers — a campaign that has left at least 4,500 Filipinos dead in about five months. Trump told Duterte that he was doing it the “right way,” according to Duterte’s account.

“I could sense a good rapport, an animated President-elect Trump,” he added. “And he was wishing me success in my campaign against the drug problem.” [Continue reading…]

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How the U.S. justifies drone strikes — targeted killing, secrecy and the law

Jameel Jaffer writes: The sun had yet to rise when missiles launched by CIA drones struck a clutch of buildings and vehicles in the lower Kurram tribal agency of Pakistan, killing four or five people and injuring another. It was February 22, 2016, and the American drone campaign had entered its second decade. Over the next weeks, officials in Washington and Rome announced that the US military would use the Sigonella air base in Sicily to launch strikes against targets in Libya. American strikes in Yemen killed four people driving on a road in the governorate of Shabwah and eight people in two small villages in the governorate of Abyan. A strike in Syria killed an Indian citizen believed to be a recruiter for the self-styled Islamic State, and another strike killed a suspected Islamic State fighter in northern Iraq. A particularly bloody series of drone strikes and airstrikes in Somalia incinerated some 150 suspected militants at what American officials described as a training camp for terrorists. In south-eastern Afghanistan, a series of drone strikes killed 12 men in a pickup truck, two men who attempted to retrieve the bodies, and another three men who approached the area when they became worried about the others.

Over just a short period in early 2016, in other words, the United States deployed remotely piloted aircraft to carry out deadly attacks in six countries across central and south Asia, north Africa, and the Middle East, and it announced that it had expanded its capacity to carry out attacks in a seventh. And yet with the possible exception of the strike in Somalia, which garnered news coverage because of the extraordinary death toll, the drone attacks did not seem to spark controversy or reflection. As the 2016 presidential primaries were getting under way, sporadic and sketchy reports of strikes in remote regions of the world provided a kind of background noise – a drone in a different sense of the word – to which Americans had become inured. [Continue reading…]

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How Obama left the door open for Trump to resume torture

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…]

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Once again political murders are playing a prominent role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy

The New York Times reports: From a certain perspective, certainly the Kremlin’s, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s behavior in Washington could be seen as treasonous, a brazen betrayal of his homeland.

In a series of public meetings on Capitol Hill, Mr. Kara-Murza, a leader in the Russian opposition, urged American lawmakers to expand economic sanctions against the Russian government under a law known as the Magnitsky Act. That would hasten political change in Russia, he argued.

Back in Moscow a month later, in May 2015, the changes Mr. Kara-Murza detected were going on in his own body. Midway through a meeting with fellow dissidents, beads of sweat inexplicably dotted his forehead. His stomach churned.

“It all went so fast,” he recalled. “In the space of about 20 minutes, I went from feeling completely normal to having a rapid heart rate, really high blood pressure, to sweating and vomiting all over the place, and then I lost consciousness.” He had ingested a poison, doctors told him after he emerged from a weeklong coma, though they could find no identifiable trace of it.

While Mr. Kara-Murza survived, few others in his position have proved as lucky. He said he was certain he had been the target of a security service poisoning. Used extensively in the Soviet era, political murders are again playing a prominent role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, the most brutal instrument in an expanding repertoire of intimidation tactics intended to silence or otherwise intimidate critics at home and abroad. [Continue reading…]

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17,723 people have died in custody inside Syria’s prisons

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…]

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Kissinger hindered U.S. effort to end mass killings in Argentina, according to files

The Guardian reports: Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger jeopardized US efforts to stop mass killings by Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship by congratulating the country’s military leaders for “wiping out” terrorism, according to a large trove of newly declassified state department files.

The documents, which were released on Monday night, show how Kissinger’s close relationship to Argentina’s military rulers hindered Jimmy Carter’s carrot-and-stick attempts to influence the regime during his 1977-81 presidency.

Carter officials were infuriated by Kissinger’s attendance at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina as the personal guest of dictator Jorge Videla, the general who oversaw the forced disappearance of up to 30,000 opponents of the military regime.

At the time, Kissinger was no longer in office after Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election, but the documents reveal that US diplomats feared his praise for Argentina’s crackdown would encourage further bloodshed. [Continue reading…]

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Obama releases drone strike ‘playbook’

Politico reports: President Barack Obama has to personally approve the killing of a U.S. citizen targeted for a lethal drone strike outside combat areas, according to a policy Obama adopted in 2013.

The president also is called upon to approve drone strikes against permanent residents of the U.S. and when “there is a lack of consensus” among agency chiefs about whom to target, but in other cases he is simply “apprised” of the targeting decision, the newly-disclosed document shows.

The presidential policy guidance on drone strikes, often called the drone “playbook,” was disclosed in an edited form Friday night in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

When Obama approved the guidance in May 2013, the White House issued a fact sheet about the policy, but declined to release the document itself — even in a redacted form.

However, a series of decisions from a federal appeals court in New York and from lower court judges have made it more difficult for the government to withhold legal and policy documents when many of the details in them have been disclosed elsewhere, such as in speeches or press releases. [Continue reading…]

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Hundreds ‘disappeared’ by security forces in Egypt, says Amnesty

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…]

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Obama’s drone war is a shameful part of his legacy

James Downie writes: Father Daniel Berrigan died Saturday at 94. The longtime peace activist gained national attention in 1968 when he and eight others, including his brother Philip (also a priest), burned draft records taken from a Selective Service office in Maryland. Decades later, he remains a powerful example of a man who never wavered in his beliefs, standing up time and again for the poor and oppressed. In his last years, Berrigan no longer had the energy to protest as frequently. But if he had been a few generations younger, can there be any doubt that he would have been at forefront of those protesting the expansion of the drone war under President Obama?

There have long been policy, constitutional and moral questions about the drone program — all made more difficult to answer by the Obama administration’s refusal to even acknowledge the program until 2013. As Obama’s presidency comes to an end, we have stunning new details about how the program works — first released in October on the Intercept website, now updated and collected in the book “The Assassination Complex” by Jeremy Scahill and Intercept staffers. “The Assassination Complex” is in large part built around the revelations of an anonymous whistleblower who leaked documents about U.S. use of drones in Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. What he or she reveals further confirms the practical, legal and moral failings of Obama’s expanded drone war.

For starters, although drones may be quite good at killing people (even if not always the intended targets), it’s not clear that they are an effective tool in the war on terrorism. Obama’s embrace of drones has led to a preference for killing rather than capturing terrorists. The documents include a study from the Defense Department’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Task Force, which concluded that “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material.” And as retired Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said last year, “When you drop a bomb from a drone . . . you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good,” including more radicalized terrorists. [Continue reading…]

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UK took weeks to act on Cairo student killing concerns

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…]

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Italian official warns Egypt over inquiry into Giulio Regeni’s death

The New York Times reports: The foreign minister of Italy said Tuesday that his government would take “immediate and proportional” measures against Egypt if it failed to help uncover the truth behind the death of an Italian graduate student in Cairo two months ago.

“We will stop only when we will find the truth, the real one,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told Parliament, adding that he would not accept any “fabrication.”

The threat by Mr. Gentiloni came the day before a team of Egyptian investigators was scheduled to land in Rome for meetings on the case of the student, Giulio Regeni, 28, a doctoral candidate, whose brutalized body was discovered on a roadside in February in Cairo. [Continue reading…]

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