New Evidence

New Report Accuses the U.S. of Extensively Torturing 15 Libyans Suspected of Terrorism

Human Rights Watch asserts that torture was more widespread than previously thought, Jamie Dettmer reports.

Luca Solaa / Corbis

New evidence—from interviews with Libyans tortured for months in U.S.-run secret prisons to intelligence documents recovered in Tripoli following Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster—is casting doubt on Bush administration claims that only three men in U.S. custody during the “war on terror” were water-boarded and that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques were limited in scope.

Testimony and documents amassed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) chillingly detail how U.S. intelligence officers systematically and Soviet Gulag-style brutalized Gaddafi opponents who fell into their hands before transferring them to Libya for more torture. The abuse meted out by U.S. interrogators included beatings, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, starvation, and in one case the threat to rape a dissident’s wife. Detainees were chained to walls naked—sometimes diapered—in pitch-dark cells, for weeks or months at a time; they were restrained in painful positions for long periods of time, and forced into cramped spaces. Doctors sometimes monitored the abuse to ensure the detainees didn’t die.

One former detainee alleged he was water-boarded while held at a CIA-controlled prison in Afghanistan and another described to HRW undergoing water torture but without a board being used. The testimony contradicts claims by Bush administration officials, who told Congress only three men had ever been water-boarded while in U.S. custody. The two Libyans were not among those named by Michael Hayden to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 5, 2008, raising questions about whether the then CIA director misled Congress or was lied to by his subordinates.

In a 154-page report, “Delivered Into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya," released Sept. 6, HRW investigators document how the U.S. with U.K. assistance rendered 15 Gaddafi opponents, delivering them to Libya’s spy chief, Musa Kusa. “Before 9/11, you went to countries where we couldn’t reach you. But now, after 9/11, I can just pick up the phone and call MI6 or the CIA,” crowed Gaddafi’s intelligence boss to rendered dissident Sami Mostefa al-Saadi. Three of the returned dissidents say British, American, Italian, and French intelligence officials interrogated them subsequently in Libyan prisons.

Ten of the 15 were rendered illegally to Libya within a year of the infamous March 2004 rapprochement between the Western powers and Gaddafi—the “deal in the desert” as it has become known, a reference to the meeting between Libya’s now deposed dictator and then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Gaddafi was embraced as a partner in the “war on terror” by Washington and London upon renouncing his own previous sponsorship of terrorism and his giving up of chemical weapons. The day Blair met with Gaddafi, Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell announced a $1 billion deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.

“Not only did the U.S. deliver Gaddafi his enemies on a silver platter but it seems the CIA tortured many of them first,” says Laura Pitter, the author of the report. “The scope of Bush administration abuse appears far broader than previously acknowledged and underscores the importance of opening up a full-scale inquiry into what happened.”

The abuse suffered by the detainees at the hands of their U.S. captors was extensive. Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi, who was held in a U.S. prison in Afghanistan for eight months after his capture in Pakistan and subsequent rendition to Libya, says his detention began with his being handcuffed to something above his head and his legs shackled beneath him to the floor. “I was there for 15 days, hanging from my arms, another chain from the ground. They put a diaper on me but it overflowed so there was every type of stool everywhere, the temperature was freezing … I screamed, ‘I want to die, why don’t you just kill me?’”

Another detainee, Saleh Hadiyah Abu Abdullah Di’iki, said, “I was totally naked … then they did horrible things to me that I can’t talk about. They didn’t rape me but they did terribly humiliating things.”

Most of the 15 detainees were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), Islamists who struggled for more than two decades to overthrow Col. Gaddafi and mounted an insurgency in eastern Libya against him. Several are prominent figures in the new post-Gaddafi Libya. LIFG members fought with the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviet-installed government of Mohammed Najibullah, but their primary reason for being there was to develop insurgency skills for anti-Gaddafi battle in Libya. They remained in Afghanistan because it was a haven where they could train and plot their efforts to oust Gaddafi, but many fled after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, suspecting the U.S. would not distinguish between them and Al Qaeda.

Last week, after concluding a contentious three-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into the abuse of prisoners by the CIA in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—eliminating in effect the likely last possibility of any criminal charges being brought against U.S. torturers—Attorney General Eric Holder was warned by human-rights activists that the story was far from over. The harrowing HRW report certainly brings home that warning, shedding more light as it does on the systematic torture by Americans in the “war on terror.”

The U.S. interrogators didn’t disguise their disdain for international norms or humanitarian organizations. Asked by one detainee if the International Committee of the Red Cross would be informed of his whereabouts, his American captors just laughed.

“Now you are under the custody of the United States of America. In this place there will be no human rights. Since September 11, we have forgotten about something called human rights,” a female U.S. interrogator screamed at another Libyan detainee, Mohammed al-Shoroeiya, who says he was held for 16 months in two different U.S.-controlled prisons in Afghanistan before being rendered to Libya.

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During his time in Afghanistan, al-Shoroeiya says he was shackled and chained in excruciatingly painful positions for weeks at a time and was water-boarded numerous times. He told HRW that American interrogators would strap him onto the board and spin him around while wearing a hood that covered his nose and mouth to disorient him. “Then there is the water pouring ... They start to pour water to the point where you feel like you are suffocating,” he said. Asked by HRW how many times this was done to him, he replied, “A lot. A lot. It happened many times.” When told that the U.S. had admitted to doing this to just a few people for between 20 and 40 seconds each time, he said his sessions were definitely longer than that. “I could hold my breath for 20, even 40 seconds, so it was definitely longer than that. They would do this numerous times over and over again during a session,” al-Shoroeiya said.

Another of the 15 Libyans, Khalid al-Sharif, said while he was not water-boarded he did suffer water torture. “Sometimes they put a hood over my head and they lay me down and they start to put water in my mouth. They poured the water over my mouth and nose so I had the feeling that I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to turn my head left and right as much as I could to take in some gulps of breath. I felt as if I was suffocating.”

Water torture was just one method used to extract information that the detainees say they didn’t have. In the pursuit of Al Qaeda suspects, U.S. and U.K. intelligence failed to distinguish between jihadists targeting the West and Islamists engaged in armed opposition against repressive regimes in their own countries, say the detainees. They took on trust Gaddafi claims that the LIFG was part of Al Qaeda.

While the LIFG members knew Osama bin Laden, they refused to join Al Qaeda and they say they disapproved of his jihad against the West. In meetings in Khandahar, Afghanistan, in April and May 2000, senior LIFG members demanded that bin Laden cease using Afghanistan as a base to attack the West. Speaking recently to The Daily Beast, LIFG leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who’s currently suing the U.K. government over his 2004 rendition to Libya, said he argued with bin Laden, saying the West should not be a target. “Our fight was with Gaddafi,” he said.

The revelations about the extent of the torture meted out to the LIFG dissidents are likely to spur calls in the U.S. and U.K. for full public inquiries. Libya’s deputy minister, Dr. Mustafa Abushagur, a dual Libyan-U.S. citizen, told The Daily Beast today that both London and Washington need to come clean about the renditions and the torture policies pursued. “They want to hold us [Libya] to a high standard when it comes to human rights. They need to get to the bottom of all that went on.”