On February 17th 2003 Egyptian citizen Abu Omar was strolling along a street in Milan to attend noon prayers at his local mosque when he was seized by a couple of men in plain clothes, bundled into a white van and driven to a nearby military airport. He was flown out of Italy to Germany, and then on to Egypt where he ended up in prison. He remains under arrest, and his lawyers claim he has been tortured.
An Italian prosecutor later launched a case alleging the CIA had been behind Abu Omar’s abduction.
Welcome to the world of ‘extraordinary rendition’ – a term used to describe the forcible and highly secret transfer of terrorism suspects to their home countries or other nations where they can be interrogated with fewer legal protections.
This worldwide traffic of prisoners, particularly to countries in the Arab world where torture is routine, has been described as a way by which American intelligence gets someone else to do their ‘dirty work’. Critics say that extraordinary rendition is in fact a euphemism for torture by proxy.
The system was set up during the administration of former US President Bill Clinton. But it has been under the Bush administration, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that extraordinary rendition has taken on its notorious form.
Michael Scheuer, former head analyst at the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, helped set up the extraordinary rendition programme. Today he has his doubts about the effectiveness of the programme, aimed at imprisoning America’s enemies.
“There is no way we can arrest all of these people, there’s too many of them and their numbers are growing,” says Scheuer in this programme. “So, the danger is that Americans think that because we are arresting these people, we are winning.”
The US administration continues to detain people it suspects of terrorism – with neither charge nor trial.
Some are held in special detention centres such as Guantanamo Bay; others have been transported to prisons in
Arab countries; and some have been taken to Afghanistan, and perhaps other countries too.
But some Americans in the intelligence community fear there will be a terrible reckoning to pay, for going beyond the normal rules of the game.
“I just think that we ought to think long and hard about allowing people to be taken to some point in the world and brought to countries to be subjected to torture or duress,” says Jack Cloonan, former agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “There’s a consequence for that, and we will pay a price. Guaranteed!”
This special Witness film investigates a number of cases of ‘extraordinary rendition’. It’s a story of abductions, secret plane flights, skullduggery and torture.