Mass deaths and torture in Syria’s detention facilities

Human Rights Watch reports: Nine months of research reveals some of the human stories behind the more than 28,000 photos of deaths in government custody that were smuggled out of Syria and first came to public attention in January 2014.

The 86-page report, “If the Dead Could Speak: Mass Deaths and Torture in Syria’s Detention Facilities,” lays out new evidence regarding the authenticity of what are known as the Caesar photographs, identifies a number of the victims, and highlights some of the key causes of death. Human Rights Watch located and interviewed 33 relatives and friends of 27 victims whose cases researchers verified; 37 former detainees who saw people die in detention; and four defectors who worked in Syrian government detention centers or the military hospitals where most of the photographs were taken. Using satellite imagery and geolocation techniques, Human Rights Watch confirmed that some of the photographs of the dead were taken in the courtyard of the 601 Military Hospital in Mezze.

“Just about every detainee in these photographs was someone’s beloved child, husband, father, or friend, and his friends and family spent months or years searching for him,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “We have meticulously verified dozens of stories, and we are confident the Caesar photographs present authentic – and damning – evidence of crimes against humanity in Syria.”

Countries meeting about possible peace negotiations in Syria – including Russia, as the Syrian government’s biggest backer – should make the fate of the thousands of detained people in Syria a priority, Human Rights Watch said. Concerned countries should insist that the Syrian government give international monitors immediate access to all detention centers and that Syria’s intelligence services must stop forcibly disappearing and torturing detainees. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Torture by Iraqi militias: The report Washington did not want you to see

Reuters reports: It was one of the most shocking events in one of the most brutal periods in Iraq’s history. In late 2005, two years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, U.S. soldiers raided a police building in Baghdad and found 168 prisoners in horrific conditions.

Many were malnourished. Some had been beaten.

The discovery of the secret prison exposed a world of kidnappings and assassinations. Behind these operations was an unofficial Interior Ministry organisation called the Special Investigations Directorate, according to U.S. and Iraqi security officials at the time.

The body was run by militia commanders from the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iran, Shi’ite political movement that today plays a major role in Baghdad’s war against Islamic State, the Sunni militant group.

Washington pressured the Iraqi government to investigate the prison. But the findings of Baghdad’s investigation – a probe derided by some of its own committee members at the time as a whitewash – were never released.

The U.S. military conducted its own investigation. But rather than publish its findings, it chose to lobby Iraqi officials in quiet for fear of damaging Iraq’s fragile political setup, according to several current and former U.S. military officials and diplomats.

Both reports remain unpublished. Reuters has reviewed them, as well as other U.S. documents from the past decade.

The documents show how Washington, seeking to defeat Sunni jihadists and stabilise Iraq, has consistently overlooked excesses by Shi’ite militias sponsored by the Iraqi government. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both worked with Badr and its powerful leader, Hadi al-Amiri, whom many Sunnis continue to accuse of human rights abuses.

Washington’s policy of expediency has achieved some of its short-term aims. But in allowing the Shi’ite militias to run amok against their Sunni foes, Washington has fueled the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that is tearing Iraq apart.

The decade-old U.S. investigation of the secret prison implicates officials and political groups in a wave of sectarian killings that helped ignite a civil war. It also draws worrying parallels to the U.S. government’s muted response today to alleged abuses committed in the name of fighting Islamic State.

Those accused of running the secret prison or of helping cover up its existence include the current head of the Iraqi judiciary, Midhat Mahmoud, Transport Minister, Bayan Jabr, and a long revered Badr commander popularly referred to as Engineer Ahmed. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How four federal lawyers paved the way for Obama to order the execution of Osama bin Laden

The New York Times reports: While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.

If the SEALs got Bin Laden, the Obama administration would lift the secrecy and trumpet the accomplishment. But if it turned out that the founder and head of Al Qaeda was not there, some officials thought the SEALs might be able to slip back out, allowing the United States to pretend the raid never happened.

Mr. Preston wrote a memo addressing when the administration had to alert congressional leaders under a statute governing covert actions. Given the circumstances, the lawyers decided that the administration would be legally justified in delaying notification until after the raid. But then they learned that the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, had already briefed several top lawmakers about Abbottabad without White House permission.

The lawyers also grappled with whether it was lawful for the SEAL team to go in intending to kill Bin Laden as its default option. They agreed that it would be legal, in a memo written by Ms. DeRosa, and Mr. Obama later explicitly ordered a kill mission, officials said. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Egypt’s extrajudicial killings

Omar Ashour writes: “The hands of justice is chained by laws,” said Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the funeral of his prosecutor-general, Hisham Barakat. “Courts are not suitable for this moment … laws are not suitable for this moment,” he continued.

A day later, 13 of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders and member were killed by the regime’s security forces, which blamed the MB for Barakat’s assassination. The MB claimed that their members were killed after being held, searched, and fingerprinted. The security forces claim that they were killed in a firefight, after resisting arrest. Some of the names of the dead are well known within Egyptian civil society. Nasser al-Hafy was a lawyer and a former member of parliament under the banned Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

“I know him [Hafy] well and I dealt with him. I cannot imagine him being involved in an activity that can possibly lead to violence … forget about resisting authorities. This is an unacceptable lie,” said Dr Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who challenged Mubarak in the 2005 elections.

This was not the only recent blow to the Brotherhood. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Documenting evil: Inside Assad’s hospitals of horror

Adam Ciralsky reports: On a stifling day in August 2013, a police photographer with chiseled features and a military bearing moved hurriedly about his office in Damascus. For two years, as Syria’s civil war became ever more deadly, he lived a double life: regime bureaucrat by day, opposition spy by night. Now he had to flee. Having downloaded thousands of high-resolution photographs onto flash drives, he snuck into the empty office of his boss and took cell-phone pictures of the papers on the man’s desk. Among them were execution orders and directives to falsify death certificates and dispose of bodies. Armed with as much evidence as he could safely carry, the photographer—code-named Caesar—fled the country.

Since then, the images that Caesar secreted out of Syria have received wide circulation, having been touted by Western officials and others as clear evidence of war crimes. The pictures, most of them taken in Syrian military hospitals, show corpses photographed at close range — one at a time as well as in small groupings. Virtually all of the bodies — thousands of them—betray signs of torture: gouged eyes; mangled genitals; bruises and dried blood from beatings; acid and electric burns; emaciation; and marks from strangulation. Caesar took a number of these pictures, working with roughly a dozen other photographers assigned to the same military-police unit.

But Caesar himself, like the intelligence operation of which he became a part, has remained in the shadows. He appeared only once in public, last summer, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he wore a hood and spoke through a translator. He spoke briefly, and in a restricted setting, though I have been able to obtain a copy of his complete testimony. He sought and was granted asylum in a Western European country whose name Vanity Fair has agreed not to disclose, for his personal safety. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

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…]

facebooktwittermail

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…]

facebooktwittermail

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…]

facebooktwittermail

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…]

facebooktwittermail

Waziristan: The world’s drone-strike capital

facebooktwittermail

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…]

facebooktwittermail

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…]

facebooktwittermail

How could crimes that don’t warrant a life sentence justify a death sentence?

Conor Friedersdorf writes: Some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government wanted to kill Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh. The military, the CIA, and an influential Republican member of Congress all argued that a drone should be sent to kill the American.

Now he is in custody.

And if convicted of all charges that he faces, he’ll get a maximum of 15 years in prison–the same sentence that a brother and sister in Missouri got for growing marijuana.

How can a person narrowly escape extrajudicial assassination, get extradited to the United States, appear inside our judicial system, and face just 15 years in prison? Powerful people were prepared to end his life, but the extent of what they’re willing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt wouldn’t even draw a life sentence. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Pakistan could end up charging CIA officials with murder over drone strikes

Time: A landmark case may open the door for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit launched by relatives of the alleged 960 civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered police to formally investigate former CIA agents for allegedly authorizing a 2009 drone strike.

If the case moves forward, it may subject the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to sensitive police investigations and even result in U.S. citizens for the first time being charged with murder for covert drone strikes in the South Asian nation.

Last Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered police to open a criminal case against former CIA Islamabad Station Chief Jonathan Bank and ex-CIA legal counsel John A. Rizzo for murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging war against Pakistan.

facebooktwittermail

Obama administration still weighing merits of assassinations vs. trials

The New York Times reports: A Texas-born man suspected of being an operative for Al Qaeda stood before a federal judge in Brooklyn this month. Two years earlier, his government debated whether he should be killed by a drone strike in Pakistan.

The denouement in the hunt for the man, Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who was arrested last year in Pakistan based on intelligence provided by the United States, came after a yearslong debate inside the government about whether to kill an American citizen overseas without trial — an extraordinary step taken only once before, when the Central Intelligence Agency killed the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.

Mr. Farekh’s court appearance also came as the Obama administration was struggling to fashion new guidelines for targeted killings. The decision to use an allied intelligence service to arrest Mr. Farekh has bolstered a case made by some that capturing — rather than killing — militant suspects, even in some of the world’s most remote places, is more feasible than the orders for hundreds of drone strikes might indicate.

“This is an example that capturing can be done,” said Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies counterterrorism strikes.

The Obama administration’s discussions about the fate of Mr. Farekh, who used the nom de guerre Abdullah al-Shami, began in earnest in 2012, and in the months that followed the C.I.A. and the Pentagon ramped up surveillance of his movements around Pakistani tribal areas.

Drones spotted him several times in the early months of 2013, and spy agencies used a warrant issued by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor his communications. The Pentagon nominated Mr. Farekh to be placed on a so-called kill list for terrorism suspects; C.I.A. officials also pushed for the White House to authorize his killing. [Continue reading…]

What is left out of this analysis is consideration of the basic premise that any individual suspected terrorist can pose a national security threat.

The hysteria surrounding terrorism that has become embedded in the American worldview, presupposes that anyone who can be labelled a terrorist is inherently dangerous.

If the same line of thinking was applied across criminal law, then someone could be accused of being a murderer without committing murder.

The task of law enforcement would be to track down individuals who supposedly had a proclivity to commit crimes and could thus be convicted of being murderers, thieves, frauds, and so forth, because criminality was seen to be invested in the person rather than their actions.

This is what makes trials for terrorism difficult: prosecutors often seem to have more conviction that the accused is a terrorist than they have evidence to back up that claim.

Another issue lurking behind the Obama administration’s debate on the expediency of assassination is that the U.S. government and apparently many Americans have far fewer qualms if the targets are non-Americans.

If President Obama was to sign an executive order prohibiting the assassination of American citizens, would the ACLU commend him for doing so?

Why should the assassination of Americans be treated as a graver issue than the practice of targeted killing itself?

facebooktwittermail