CIA Abuses at the ‘Dark Prison’


Al-Najjar said that upon his arrival at the Dark Prison, his captors stripped off his clothes, threw him down on the cold concrete floor naked, and threw water on him. It was pitch black but several interrogators, including an Arab man with an Egyptian accent came into his cell with a flashlight. One of them cocked a gun to the back of his head and said if he did not talk, they would kill him. They began to beat and kick him and then hung him up on the bar for the first time. The torture sessions after that increased in length as time went on. They showed him documents and photos, and questioned him about his associations and for information about specific attacks. Another interrogator who he said frequently abused him at this facility called himself “Adel.” Al-Najjar said Adel was Shia, Lebanese. He was tall and had a scar on the right part of his lower lip.

Al-Najjar said he was forced to hang from the bar repeatedly over the course of roughly his first three months at the Dark Prison. Each hanging session lasted up to 24 hours and happened frequently and repeatedly. During these sessions his arms would be chained above his head to a bar at the top of the room, making it impossible to sleep. Sometimes he could touch the ground with his feet, sometimes with just his toes, and other times not at all. The captors would only take him down for interrogation sessions and other forms of torture, often by throwing him violently to the floor where they would sometimes beat and kick him. While his arms were chained to the bar, they beat him with a baton on his back and legs and also punched him in the chest, in the back, and in his kidneys. After one session, they took him to another room where he said they used bright lights to videotape and photograph his injuries. “I was a mess,” he said. “I had skin hanging off me and bruises and cuts all over me.”

Al-Najjar said the beatings resulted in broken bones and other injuries including broken hips, a broken ankle, a broken back, damaged knees, a damaged jaw, and pain in his head. Al-Najjar said once he was transferred to Bagram, several US military doctors apologized to him for his treatment and took X-rays of his body as well as a CT scan of his head and spine. But he said the US military would not give him copies of his medical records upon his release. Al-Najjar had X-rays taken in Tunisia on April 2, 2016, and in May showed Human Rights Watch those for his left ankle, knee and lumbar spine.

A Physicians for Human Rights medical adviser, Dr. Rohini Haar, examined photos taken of these X-rays, which she said were good enough to make some observations: “You can clearly tell his [left] ankle was broken and has healed terribly,” Dr. Haar said. The images of his knees were less clear but they “suggest past trauma to the left knee.” Other images were not good enough to make an assessment, she said.

Al-Najjar said he is not sure exactly how long he was at the Dark Prison but during the entire time he was there it was pitch black, except for the bright lights shined in his eyes during interrogations. He never had access to toilet facilities and was kept naked or diapered the entire time. His diapers were fastened with thick tape that caused irritation and were only changed about every four days.

He said his captors fed him only about once every three days, and the food was “inedible” and “disgusting.” He would find pebbles, hair, or dirt in it and one time a cigarette butt. The water also “smelled and tasted disgusting,” he said. “You could only drink it if you were on the verge of death and completely dehydrated.” But even then he said they did not give him enough, and at one point his tongue and mouth were “completely cracked.” He said he lost 50 kilograms while there, weighing 120 kilograms when he arrived and 70 kilograms by the time he left the Dark Prison. His account is consistent with those from other prisoners held at Cobalt, subjected to similar food deprivation during the same time. He also said he lost consciousness frequently, sometimes waking up to a doctor feeling his pulse or checking his teeth and mouth.

Al-Najjar said his captors took him into a room with an “electric chair.” It was made out of metal or iron, had plugs attached to wires for fitting on fingers, and a headset with wires. The description suggested make-shift apparatus, attached to a wall pipe. His US interrogators threatened during interrogations to use the chair on him, but never actually did. The room also contained other instruments used for torture, including a board that he believes his interrogators used on him on various occasions for different types of water torture, and a coffin in which they threatened to place him.

The US Attorney General approved waterboarding in July 2002. In August 2004, the CIA got “advice” from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that so-called “water dousing” would not violate the US federal Torture Statute, though the OLC did not officially approve “water dousing” for use as an “enhanced interrogation technique” until 2005. The Senate Summary confirms that the CIA used various abusive techniques with water on at least several detainees without prior Justice Department approval and in ways not authorized. Al-Najjar told Human Rights Watch about several ways his US interrogators used water to torture him:

  • When being forced to hang from the bar, a strong stream of water would be directed painfully onto his head for long periods.
  • Interrogators would strap him onto a board that they spun around 360 degrees, disorientating him and making him dizzy. Other detainees have provided similar accounts of the CIA using a board to spin detainees fully around. They would throw buckets of extremely cold water all over him while he was strapped to the board, sometimes while he was lying flat and other times while his feet were elevated and his head tipped back. They did not pour the water directly over his face but the water would get into his nose and mouth until, as he said, “I couldn’t breathe anymore and felt like I was suffocating.” Other detainees have reported similar types of abuses with water on a board as well.
  • Interrogators strapped him to a board and put him in a tub of extremely cold water and then turned the board over so that his head and body were face down in the water and he couldn’t breathe.
  • He was placed in a large tarp full of cold water that he estimated was 70 by 70 centimeters and that zipped at the top. They would place him inside the tarp with only a small amount of room at the top and his captors would push and shove him around while he was inside, making it very difficult for him to breathe.
  • His interrogators placed him in a big barrel of water, forcing his head underwater to the point where he could not breathe. Then they would pull him up and ask him questions. “They would do this until I couldn’t handle it anymore and I was on the verge of completely falling apart,” he said.
Al-Najjar said that three or four times, he saw a doctor at the facility who treated his lacerations, measured his swelling, and at times gave him injections. After a couple of days, these injections reduced the swelling but then, he said, the hanging and the beatings would start all over again. This doctor would come in before and after the “bad” torture and give the green light to go ahead, he said. He considered the doctor a traitor, because he would come in and treat him for torture but then give a “green light” for new torture sessions.

In addition to the Dark Prison, al-Najjar was held in three other locations in Afghanistan before being transferred to US military custody. He is not sure how long he was held in these facilities.

When al-Najjar was first transferred to CIA custody from Pakistan on June 6, 2002, he was initially held at a place he believes was in the Afghan capital, Kabul, that his captors called “Intelligence 2.” He was held in an underground cell, which he determined because there was a window at the top of the cell from which he could see people walking and cars driving by. He said that his captors occasionally took him for interrogation to another house, in a neighborhood called Wazir Akbar Khan. He was not mistreated badly at Intelligence 2 – no beating, just a slap in the face or an occasional kick in the foot or leg.

“This place was nothing compared to where they took me next [the Dark Prison],” al-Najjar said. “Compared to that, this place was like a five-star hotel.” He is not sure how long he was in Intelligence 2, but the Senate Summary says he was the first prisoner brought to Cobalt in September 2002.

He said he will never forget his last day at Intelligence 2 because it was “the worst experience of his life.” He said the same Arab interrogator who spoke with an Egyptian accent who he later encountered at the Dark Prison came to his cell demanding information about documents and photos. When al-Najjar could not provide the answers the interrogator wanted, he became angry and warned that if al-Najjar did not “talk,” he said, “wait until you see what happens to you where we take you next. At the next place we will hang you from your anus.”

After this threat, the interrogators forced al-Najjar to bend over and then chained his arms to the bottom of his legs and placed chains all over his waist, wrists and the rest of his body. They put a bag over his head and something over his ears to prevent him from hearing. They also put something in his anus, which he said they did every time they moved him from one place to another. He said he still suffers pain as a result of these insertions. Many other former detainees have reported having objects, such as suppositories, placed in their anuses during transportation while in CIA custody. “Then they carried me upstairs like a package” and transported him to the Dark Prison, he said.

After his detention, for what he believes were many months, at the Dark Prison, al-Najjar was transferred to a third location that he understood to be in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, 150 kilometers north of Kabul. Conditions in this prison were better. The prison had wooden doors so light could come in. His cell was tiny, approximately 0.8 meters by 2 meters. He said it did not feel as secure. “You had the sense that you could escape but then where would you go?” The cell had a dirt floor and there were lots of insects. They gave him a light blanket full of holes the thickness of a towel. A doctor at this location told him that because of his condition, the officials would not allow him to be tortured anymore.

After the Panjshir Valley prison he was taken to another location in Kabul, in a building that he thinks was part of the “high courthouse.” He said he was held in a number of places inside, on different floors, and was moved underground when other people were in the facility. He was there until his captors transferred him to US military custody at Bagram. 

Al-Najjar was not sure exactly when he was transferred to Bagram but he believes it was sometime in May or June 2004. Though abusive treatment continued, it was not as bad as it was in CIA custody. At Bagram, doctors, in addition to apologizing for his torture and taking the X-rays and CT scans he described, offered to perform arthroscopic surgery on his damaged knee, which he ultimately refused, afraid that it might cause more damage. He was transferred to Tunisia 11 years later, on June 15, 2015. Because of time constraints, Human Rights Watch did not discuss with al-Najjar the details of his mistreatment while he was detained at Bagram. 

The Senate Summary states that the CIA held al-Najjar for between 690 and 700 days and El Gherissi for between 380 and 390 days before transferring them to US military custody at Bagram airbase, where they both spent more than a decade.

Al-Najjar and El Gherissi are the first detainees to report on what conditions were like at Cobalt before Gul Rahman’s death. A partially redacted summary of an investigation into Rahman’s death, dated January 28, 2003, but only released in June, states that Rahman, like other detainees, was subjected to numerous abuses, including standing sleep deprivation, “water dousing,” exposure to cold temperatures, and “rough treatment,” but concludes that there is “no evidence” to suggest that Rahman was beaten or tortured. It finds the ultimate cause of death was most likely hypothermia, partially caused by Rahman “throwing his last meal” and therefore denying his body “with a source of fuel to keep him warm.”

The Senate Summary states that CIA records at Cobalt were poorly kept and that “the full nature of CIA interrogations” there “remains largely unknown.” For example, there are no records of any detainee being waterboarded at Cobalt, yet Senate investigators found a photo in CIA records of a wooden board there surrounded by buckets, with a bottle of unknown pink solution (filled two-thirds of the way to the top) and a watering can resting on the wooden beams of the board. Senate investigators also found that the CIA subjected detainees at Cobalt to numerous techniques not recorded in CIA cable traffic, including “multiple periods of sleep deprivation, required standing, loud music, sensory deprivation, extended isolation, reduced quantity of food, nudity and ‘rough treatment.’”

The Senate Summary, which draws from the CIA’s own records, does not spell out in detail the CIA’s treatment of al-Najjar, but documents the CIA’s planned interrogation methods for him once he was moved, in September 2002, to the Cobalt detention site. This included threatening the “well-being of his family,” using “sound disorientation techniques,” denying him sleep using round-the-clock interrogations, depriving him of any “sense of time,” keeping him in “isolation in total darkness; lowering the quality of his food,” using cold temperatures, playing music “24 hours a day, and keeping him shackled and hooded.”

On September 21, 2002, a CIA cable described him as a “clearly broken man” and “on the verge of a complete breakdown.” Despite this assessment, the CIA continued to torture al-Najjar. The Senate Summary states that a US military legal adviser visiting Cobalt in November noted that al-Najjar was left hanging, handcuffed to a bar above his head, unable to lower his arms, for 22 hours each day for two consecutive days. The adviser noted that al-Najjar was wearing a diaper and had no access to toilet facilities.

Al-Najjar’s account of his treatment in CIA custody indicates that it was worse than the Senate Summary described.

The Senate Summary has very little information about El Gherissi, whose name is spelled as “Lufti al-Arabi El Gharisi.” His name appears twice, once on the list of 119 detainees the CIA admits to holding as part of its “enhanced interrogation program,” and another time when it states that El Gherissi was one of 17 prisoners the CIA subjected to techniques without the approval of CIA headquarters. In a footnote, it states that El Gherissi "[u]nderwent at least two 48-hour sessions of sleep deprivation in October 2002."

The Senate Summary conservatively estimates that approximately 119 detainees were officially in CIA custody, al-Najjar and El Gherissi among them, though that figure does not include many more whom the CIA is believed to have transferred to other countries to be interrogated and tortured. Of the 119, 14 remain in US custody at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, but the vast majority have been released. The US is not known to have compensated any of them.

Though some former CIA detainees have filed lawsuits in US court seeking redress for their mistreatment, nearly every case thus far has been dismissed before the courts have examined the merits of the claims. Often the courts have asserted the state secrets privilege, which the US government has argued should apply, claiming that litigating a case will reveal state secrets that will harm US national security. For the most part US courts have deferred to government claims about potential harm. Earlier in 2016, in the first suit since the Senate Summary’s release, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three former detainees held by the CIA, the Justice Department for the first time did not assert the state secrets privilege to block the suit.

Under international human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture, both of which the US has ratified, governments have obligations to ensure the right to an effective remedy for victims of serious human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment. A victim’s right to an effective remedy requires the government to take the necessary investigative, judicial, and reparatory steps to redress the violation and provide for the victim’s rights to knowledge, justice, and reparations. The government is under a continuing obligation to provide an effective remedy; there is no time limit on legal action. Although these violations did not take place in the United States, they occurred while the individuals were under the effective control of US security forces.

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