Here’s a blast from the past, reminding us of the days when the CIA ran amuck with its ‘extraordinary rendition’ program: Earlier this week, Portuguese authorities detained Sabrina de Sousa, a former CIA officer ordered to be extradited to Italy where she faces four years in prison.
De Sousa, who is now 61, is accused of taking part in the kidnapping of an Egyptian terror suspect in Milan 14 years ago. She was one of 26 Americans convicted by Italian courts in absentia for the February 2003 extraordinary rendition of Imam Hassan Mustafa Nasr and flying him to Egypt for questioning.
For the benefit of those readers who came of age, or began to acquire a political consciousness, only over the last eight years, during President Obama’s administration, which abolished the practice, let’s explain what extraordinary rendition was all about. It was, very simply, an egregious practice, and not by any definition a joking matter.
Simply put, rendition involved the abduction of suspects, often by snatching them off the streets, from airport terminals and border crossings, and sending them to other countries - consenting countries not overly squeamish about inflicting pain on detainees - where they were subjected to a program euphemistically known as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, that is, extreme torture, including waterboarding.
Crimes against humanity
The United Nations considers a nation that abducts the citizens of another as committing a crime against humanity, and in that regard the European Court of Human Rights in 2014 condemned the government of Poland for having participated in the program, ordering it to pay restitution to men who had been rendered there by the CIA and held at secret ‘black sites’, or secret locations where suspects were tortured out of sight, out of mind - that is, until the Washington Post’s Dana Priest exposed their existence in a series of articles in November 2005, articles whose searing revelations won her he the Pulitzer Prize.
Some Americans at the time found those revelations shocking, other Americans nauseating. Though President Obama put a stop to extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques in his first year in office, no one can stop what they say about America from entering the history books as a stain on its self-definition as a benign nation of laws and institutions.
Whichever way you swing it, torture, for any reason, anywhere, anyhow, is a morally repugnant practice. It makes no sense except to its practitioners, gratifying a sick need in them to terrorize their victims and an equally sick need to instill fear in societyFawaz Turki
It’s not altogether clear how many suspects were sent to their destinations. One estimate puts the figure at roughly 2,000 detained between 2001 and 2005. In January 2005, Swiss Senator Dick Marty, representative of the Council of Europe, concluded that at least 100 had been kidnapped in Europe alone, and sent to countries where they were tortured. He qualified the case of Imam Hassan Mustafa Nasr as a “perfect example of extraordinary rendition.”
The case, which in Italy became known as “Imam Rapito,” or the Kidnapped Imam Affair, drove the European Court of Human Rights in 2016 to condemn Italy, demanding that its government pay Nasr, after his release and repatriation to Milan, $127,000 in compensation. After you’ve looked at other victims and other cases, you scratch your head at how many of those abducted, rendered and tortured, tragically, had been innocent of any involvement in terrorism or even of engagement in political activism.
Degrading and inhumane
Take the case, for example, of Khaled Al-Masri, a German citizen of Syrian extract, on vacation in the Balkans, abducted by Macedonian police at he the behest of the CIA and rendered to a black site in Afghanistan, where he was subjected to all manner of degrading and inhumane conditions - before the CIA finally admitted that his arrest was a mistake and released him. Take another case, that of Maher Arar, a dual citizen of Syria and Canada, who was detained at Kennedy International Airport in New York in September 2002 as he was about to board a plane home after a family holiday in Tunisia.
Arar was sent, shackled and bound, in a private jet to Syria (instead of being deported to Canada) where he was tortured by Syrian intelligence. He was released after 10 months in captivity, during which he was tortured mercilessly, and forced to sign a confession linking him to al Qaeda.
And - surprise, surprise - it was later revealed that his was a case of mistaken identity. In October 2007, Arar received a public apology from the US House of Representatives. (The apology may have been cold comfort, but the $10.5 million in compensation he was granted by the Canadian government clearly was not.)
And so it goes, with other - many, many other - cases, other tragedies, other ordeals. But whichever way you swing it, torture, for any reason, anywhere, anyhow, is a morally repugnant practice. It makes no sense except to its practitioners, gratifying a sick need in them to terrorize their victims and an equally sick need to instill fear in society. As Eduardo Galeano, Uruguay’s preeminent man of letters put it simply: “The purpose of torture is not getting information, it is spreading fear.”
For Sabrina de Sousa, the chicken at long last have come home to roost. Four years behind bars in an Italian jail is not a long enough sentence for her crime, but long enough for her to ponder over the moral implications of her line of work. For her to resort to the old refrain, “But Gosh, I was following orders”, is no plea. It was not accepted as such at Nuremberg.
As for the other 25 CIA agents convicted in the kidnapping of Nasr 14 years ago, none has actually served time because they had returned to the United States long before Italian courts ruled against them in 2009.
And, sorry guys, with warrants out for your arrest, vacationing in Europe any time real soon may not be a good idea - unless, like your reckless colleague Sabrina, you want to buck the odds anyhow and return to the crime scene.
Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC.