(New York) – Two Tunisians formerly held in secret United States Central Intelligence Agency custody have described previously unreported methods of torture that shed new light on the earliest days of the CIA program, Human Rights Watch said today. The two men, Ridha al-Najjar, 51, and Lotfi al-Arabi El Gherissi, 52, independently recounted being severely beaten with batons, threatened with an electric chair, subjected to various forms of water torture, and being chained by their arms to the ceilings of their cells for long periods.
The United States repatriated the men to Tunisia on June 15, 2015, after 13 years in custody without charges or trial. Neither was provided compensation or support for their wrongful detention or the torture they endured, nor to help them cope with the physical and mental harm incurred. Today they are destitute, unable to work, and experiencing the consequences of serious physical and emotional trauma they believe is a direct result of their treatment in US custody.
“These terrifying accounts of previously unreported CIA torture methods show how little the public still knows about the US torture program,” said Laura Pitter, senior US national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The release of these two men without the US providing any assistance or redress for their torture and suffering also shows how much the US still needs to do to put the CIA torture program behind it.”
Human Rights Watch last interviewed al-Najjar and El Gherissi in August 2016. They are among the 119 men the US admitted having held in secret CIA detention when the Senate Intelligence Committee, in December 2014, released a scathing 499-page summary (Senate Summary) of a 6,700-page, still-classified report about the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The Senate Summary contains an inadequate description of the two men’s treatment while in CIA custody, Human Rights Watch said.
Al-Najjar’s and El Gherissi’s first-hand accounts shed light on CIA mistreatment during the earliest days of the CIA program, before Afghan Gul Rahman died in CIA custody on November 20, 2002. In response to Rahman’s death and other abuses, the CIA issued its first formal guidelines for detainee interrogations, though detainees continued to be brutalized.
US and Pakistani forces apprehended al-Najjar on May 22, 2002, in the southern port city of Karachi, and El Gherissi on September 24, 2002, in the northern town of Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan. The Senate Summary says that the CIA identified al-Najjar as a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. El Gherissi said his interrogators constantly accused him of being a member of Al-Qaeda or of having connections to terrorism. The US has not publicly provided information supporting these allegations, which al-Najjar and El Gherissi both deny and said they repeatedly denied to their interrogators.
The CIA then took custody of them and held them in several locations in Afghanistan. The one in which both said they suffered the most abuse is referred to as “Cobalt” in the Senate Summary but al-Najjar and El Gherissi called it the “Dark Prison” – as have other former prisoners held in the same facility. US authorities eventually transferred both to US military custody at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
Neither al-Najjar nor El Gherissi have previously publicly described their ordeal. US restrictions on communications at Bagram effectively prevented the two from communicating with the outside world while they were in military custody. The US transferred al-Najjar and El Gherissi to Afghan custody on December 9, 2014, and repatriated them to Tunisia six months later, on June 15, 2015. Tunisian authorities briefly detained the men, releasing both by the end of the month.
While the men were at Bagram, Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, sought to have a federal court review the lawfulness of their detention. But the courts denied her petition for habeas corpus, siding with the US Justice Department, which argued that Bagram was beyond the jurisdiction of US courts. Foster appealed to the US Supreme Court but the appeal was rejected as moot after the two men were released. Foster said that the entire time she represented the two detainees, the US government never permitted her to speak to them.
Human Rights Watch interviewed each man in separate locations using an Arabic language interpreter. Though the two spoke to each other at times while in US custody, they said they did not know each other prior to being apprehended, have not spoken in detail with each other about their mistreatment, and have not had contact since they were released from Tunisian custody.
Al-Najjar and El Gherissi described various methods of CIA torture, some never previously reported:
- Al-Najjar described forms of water torture, including waterboarding or water dousing while on a board, “Until I couldn’t breathe anymore.” El Gherissi said that his head was forced repeatedly into a bucket of water to get him to “talk.”
- Both men said that US interrogators showed them what they said was an electric chair – a metal chair with plugs attached to wires for the fingers and a wired cap – and threatened to use it on them. Their descriptions of the chair gave the impression it was make-shift, attached to a wall pipe.
- Both said they were chained to a rod in the ceilings of their cells for repeated 24-hour periods with only short breaks in between for interrogations or other forms of torture. They said it forced them to try to stand, and when they could not, to be suspended from their wrists. They called this technique “hanging” and said it made it nearly impossible to sleep. Sometimes their feet could touch the ground, at other times only their toes. Al-Najjar said that sometimes his feet could not touch the ground at all. Al-Najjar described this period of hanging as lasting roughly three months; for El Gherissi it lasted a month.
- Both said US interrogators beat them with batons all over their bodies both during and after the hangings; and punched and kicked them repeatedly. Al-Najjar said the beatings resulted in broken bones, which was corroborated by independent medical analysis of his x-rays.
Human Rights Watch raised al-Najjar’s and El Gherissi’s allegations of torture and mistreatment with the CIA. CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani responded in an email on September 28 that the “CIA reviewed its records and found nothing to support these new claims.”
“The evidence in the public record already warranted criminal investigations into CIA torture but these new allegations further heighten the need for justice,” Pitter said. “This administration has rejected the use of torture, but future administrations will carry the stain of torture until those responsible are prosecuted and the victims compensated. So long as they are confident they won’t be prosecuted, US officials may again resort to torture.”
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