Anger mounts in Italy over torture and murder of student, seen as victim of Egypt’s ‘death squads’

The Local reports: Italy on Monday warned Egypt it would not allow the fate of Giulio Regeni to be brushed under the carpet as anger mounted over the Cambridge University student’s torture and killing in Cairo.

With the media publishing gruesome details of Regeni’s treatment and pointing the finger at Egyptian security services, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was under pressure to authorize a state funeral for the slain 28-year-old.

Regeni disappeared on January 25th and was found dead on February 3rd. An Italian autopsy carried out following his corpse’s repatriation at the weekend concluded that he was killed by a violent blow to the base of his skull having already suffered multiple fractures all over his body.

Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said that Egypt appeared to be collaborating with a team of Italian detective and forensic investigators dispatched to Cairo.

But he warned: “We will not settle for alleged truths.”

Gentiloni, in an interview with daily La Repubblica, added: “We want those really responsible identified and punished on the basis of law.”

La Repubblica reported that, as well as being systematically beaten, Regeni had his finger and toe nails pulled out in a pattern of torture which the daily said suggested that his “death squad” killers believed him to be a spy. [Continue reading…]

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Outrage grows as Italy investigates research student’s murder in Egypt

The New York Times reports: The furor surrounding the death of an Italian student whose body was discovered Wednesday on an Egyptian roadside grew Friday as Italian investigators flew to Cairo to help find his killers, and it emerged that the young man had secretly written from Egypt for a left-wing Italian newspaper.

The newspaper, Il Manifesto, published an article on Friday that the Italian student, Giulio Regeni, 28, had written under a pseudonym weeks before he was found dead that was sharply critical of the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, while describing faltering attempts by Egyptian unions to organize.

There was no indication that Mr. Regeni’s writing led to his death, but the article contributed to the broader Italian outrage over Mr. Regeni’s injuries as news outlets pointed an accusatory finger at the Egyptian security forces. Egyptian officials said on Thursday that Mr. Regeni had been tortured extensively and probably died from a brain hemorrhage.

“Giulio, Egyptian police under accusation,” read the headline of La Stampa, a Turin-based daily newspaper.

Hoping to defuse a potentially damaging crisis with a relatively close European ally, Egyptian officials promised cooperation and vowed to find Mr. Regeni’s killers. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, spoke with Mr. Sisi by telephone and both agreed to cooperate to “unravel the mystery,” Mr. Sisi’s office said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon wants psychologists to end ban on interrogation role

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The New York Times reports: The Pentagon has asked the American Psychological Association to reconsider its ban on the involvement of psychologists in national security interrogations at the Guantánamo Bay prison and other facilities.

The Defense Department reduced its use of psychologists at Guantánamo in late 2015 in response to the policy approved by the association last summer.

But in a letter and accompanying memo to association officials this month, Brad Carson, the acting principal deputy secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, asked that the group, the nation’s largest professional organization for psychologists, revisit its “blanket prohibition.” [Continue reading…]

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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…]

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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…]

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The Italian Job: An ex-CIA officer speaks out

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ISIS recruitment thrives in Egypt’s brutal prisons

Murtaza Hussain reports: While in jail [in Cairo], [Mohamed] Soltan [a 26-year-old citizen of both Egypt and America] says he witnessed the recruitment efforts of Islamic State members. “There were people from across the spectrum of Egyptian society in jail: liberals, Muslim Brotherhood members, leftists, Salafis, and some people who had pledged allegiance to ISIS,” Soltan says. “Everyone felt depressed and betrayed, except for the ISIS guys. They walked around with this victorious air and had this patronizing and condescending attitude towards everyone else.”

Among the facilities in which Soltan was incarcerated was the notorious Tora Prison, where he was kept in an underground dungeon with dozens of other prisoners. Between regular beatings, humiliation, and torture by guards, the prisoners would talk to one another. In this grim environment, ISIS members would attempt to convince others of the justice of their cause. “The ISIS guys would come and tell everyone these nonviolent means don’t work, that Western countries only care about power and the Egyptian regime only understands force,” Soltan says. “They would say that the world didn’t respect you enough to think you deserve democracy, and now the man who killed your friends is shaking hands with international leaders who are all arming and funding his regime.”

While the other political factions represented in Egypt’s jails grappled with a seemingly hopeless situation, Islamic State members were consistently filled with hope and optimism, citing a steady stream of “good news” about their state-building project in Iraq, Syria and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Soltan says.

When the prisoners would discuss their circumstances, even avowed leftists found themselves unable to rebut Islamic State members’ arguments. “They would make very simple arguments telling us that the world doesn’t care about values and only understands violence,” says Soltan. “Because of the gravity of the situation they were all in, by the time the ISIS guys were finished speaking, everyone, the liberals, the Brotherhood people, would be left completely speechless. When you’re in that type of situation and don’t have many options left, for some people these kinds of ideas start to make sense.” [Continue reading…]

The headline for this article in The Intercept reads: “ISIS RECRUITMENT THRIVES IN BRUTAL PRISONS RUN BY U.S.-BACKED EGYPT” — as though the phrase “U.S.-backed” is the only reliable hook for the publication’s readers.

Yes, the fact that the Obama administration continues to provide military aid to the Sisi regime in spite of its appalling human rights record is inexcusable. What this otherwise excellent report neglects to mention, however, is that Sisi’s most generous supporters been Gulf states — driven by their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And while the U.S. has a terrible track record in supporting authoritarian rule across the Middle East, blame for the stifling of representative government needs to be apportioned more widely, including the roles played by Russia, Iran, the UK, and other European powers.

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Enforced disappearances: The Syrian government’s organized attack in which more than 58,000 civilians have gone missing

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…]

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How U.S. officials can kidnap and threaten American citizens without legal risk

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?

According to a decision handed down last week, the answers appear to be yes. [Continue reading…]

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Torture by another name: CIA used ‘water dousing’ on at least 12 detainees

The Guardian reports: At least a dozen more people were subjected to waterboard-like tactics in CIA custody than the agency has admitted, according to a fresh accounting of the US government’s most discredited form of torture.

The CIA maintains it only subjected three detainees to waterboarding. But agency interrogators subjected at least 12 others to a similar technique, known as “water dousing”, that also created a drowning sensation or chilled a person’s body temperature – sometimes through “immersion” in water, and often without use of a board.

New lawsuits, recently released documents and the Senate’s landmark torture report indicate that at least 13 men in total experienced “water dousing”. Those familiar with their cases and an interrogator cited in the Senate report consider water dousing’s departure from waterboarding to be “a distinction without a difference”.

Water dousing, however, added an element of hypothermia. Some detainees reported their CIA captors dousing them with “cold or refrigerated” water, then wrapping them in similarly frigid sheets of plastic, keeping their temperatures low. [Continue reading…]

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Anti-interventionist Donald Trump: Middle East would be more stable with Hussein and Gadhafi

NBC News reports: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, when asked if he believes the Middle East would be better today if Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq were still in power, responded, “It’s not even a contest.”

He related the situations in both of those countries with what is currently happening in Syria and seemed to endorse a stronger President Bashar Assad, even while admitting that he is “probably a bad guy.”

“You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there — it’s a mess — if you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there — it’s a mess — it’s [Syria] going to be same thing,” the real estate mogul said. [Continue reading…]

This is a point of view that appeals to a lot of liberals and peace activists these days, but it begs at least two questions:

How sustainable is stability when it derives from political oppression?

And what is the long-term price of torture?

Without exception, authoritarian regimes across the Middle East have relied on the same techniques for suppressing political opposition: torture.

Torture has the virtue of silencing critics without turning them into martyrs.

The streets can remain quiet when the screams of those having their fingernails ripped out are muffled by heavy prison doors.

But torture doesn’t just scar bodies — it scars minds, feeding a desire for vengeance that has inspired many a terrorist.

Is this what peace and stability really looks like?

Maybe the real lesson of the last decade has not been that regime change is itself such a terrible idea, but rather that the methods employed to achieve that goal have been worse than useless.

The issue is not one of intervention vs non-intervention but rather a question of what might actually lead to the desired goal.

The insular perspective of those who posture as realist defenders of national interest, suggests that it’s none of our business what happens within the borders of other states, but the reality is that sooner or later the misery of every dysfunctional state will spill out across its borders.

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‘They were torturing to kill’: Inside Syria’s death machine

Garance le Caisne writes: For two years, between 2011 and 2013, the former Syrian military photographer known only as Caesar used a police computer in Damascus to copy thousands of photographs of detainees who were tortured to death in Bashar al-Assad’s jails. The media have run numerous stories about the man who managed to smuggle astonishing evidence of crimes against humanity out of the country – at great risk to himself and his family – but he had never been interviewed.

Month after month, for two years, this man, who has remained anonymous, took photographs of tortured, starved and burnt bodies. His orders were to photograph the bodies in order to document prisoners’ deaths. He then secretly made copies and transferred them on to USB keys so that he could smuggle them out of his office, hidden in his shoes or his belt, and pass them to a friend who could get them out of the country.

The terrorists of Islamic State proclaim their atrocities on social networks; the Syrian state hides its misdeeds in the silence of its dungeons. Before Caesar, no insider had supplied evidence of the existence of the Syrian death machine. And these photos and documents were damning.

I had to find Caesar. The spectacular advances made by Isis, and the growing number of terrorist attacks by its followers, were drowning out revelations about the Syrian regime’s atrocities. The conflict had already left more than 220,000 dead. Half of all civilians had been forced out of their homes, others had been shelled, their towns and villages besieged by Assad’s army. Caesar’s pictures could put Damascus’s abuses centre stage again. He had to be found. Journalists from all over the world were already looking for him. I knew it would be hard – and it was. Twice I almost gave up. But I kept going, because it was imperative that this man should talk. His testimony was essential if we were to understand the horror at the heart of the regime. [Continue reading…]

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Torture in Tunisia

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Obama’s secret elite interrogation squad may not be so elite — and might be doomed

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…]

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No, torture doesn’t make terrorists tell the truth — but here’s what actually works

BuzzFeed reports: Hollywood has a lot to answer for. Thanks to the hit TV show 24 and movies like Zero Dark Thirty, we think we know what terrorist interrogations look like: After being roughed up and threatened, the suspect breaks down and reveals all. Mass murder is thwarted. Osama Bin Laden is shot.

The end, we tell ourselves, justifies the ugly means.

Even after the abuses committed at CIA “black sites” were laid bare last year by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, most Americans stuck to this view. Some 59% believed the CIA’s harsh interrogation methods were justified, in a December 2014 poll run for the Washington Post and ABC News.

Steven Kleinman knows better. In 2003, he was one of the U.S. Air Force’s top interrogators, sent to Iraq to oversee the questioning of suspected insurgents. After arriving in Baghdad, he walked into a darkened room to find a handcuffed detainee kneeling before a seated military interrogator. The suspect was slapped across the face every time he answered a question — whatever he had to say. Kleinman was told that it had being going on for half an hour.

Then a lieutenant colonel, Kleinman pulled rank and halted the interrogation. But what he had witnessed was by then standard practice. “Later I saw people being stripped nude and forced to stand for a long period of time,” Kleinman told BuzzFeed News.

Kleinman was appalled not only because what he saw breached human rights, but also because his long experience in interrogation told him that it just wouldn’t work. “It’s not even close to a consistent means of getting reliable information,” Kleinman said. [Continue reading…]

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