Detainee Says U.S. Handed Him Over for Torture
The burly men who Mamdouh Habib says bundled him onto a small jet in Pakistan bound for a grisly torture cell in Egypt didn’t give their names. But their nationality seemed clear.
“They ... spoke American English with no foreign accent,” Habib’s lawyer later told a U.S. court. Several of the men sported large tattoos, including one who bore “a tattoo of an American flag on or near his wrist.”
Habib had already been interrogated in Pakistani jails by three other Americans -- two women and a man. Now, according to court papers, they watched silently as one of the tattooed men forced the handcuffed prisoner to the ground, placed a foot on his neck and posed for pictures. The tattooed “Americans ... sat at the front of the plane” as he was flown to Cairo in October 2001.
Habib, a 48-year-old Australian citizen who grew up in Egypt, was about to disappear for six months into an Egyptian prison. There, he says, his Egyptian captors shocked him with high-voltage wires, hung him from metal hooks on the wall, nearly drowned him and mercilessly beat and kicked him.
The former coffee shop owner soon confessed to a litany of terrorism-related crimes, including teaching martial arts to several of the Sept. 11 hijackers and planning a hijacking himself. Habib later insisted that his confessions were false and given under “duress and torture.”
Habib’s more than three years of incarceration came into sharp focus this week, when the Bush administration agreed not to charge him with any crime and to repatriate him to Australia. Once home, he will be free, Australian officials said Wednesday.
“When he returns to Australia, he will not be detained or charged,” said Matt Francis, a spokesman for the Australian Embassy in Washington. “He is a person of security interest, but we do not have any laws under which he can be charged.”
Habib’s vivid account of his secret delivery by U.S. forces to an Egyptian prison and his torture before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in May 2002 is the most detailed to surface of a CIA-run operation that has played a growing role in the war on terrorism. The operation, the controversial “extraordinary renditions” program, is run by a secret unit in the CIA’s counter-terrorism center.
Habib’s U.S. lawyer, Joseph Margulies, said he planned to inform his client of his impending freedom when he visited him at Guantanamo on Saturday.
“If the U.S. government believes he’s done something wrong, they wouldn’t let him go,” he said.
In a statement, the Defense Department said the Australian government had “made a number of security assurances ... that were important to the transfer decision.”
The CIA declined to comment on the case.
News accounts, congressional testimony and independent investigations suggest the spy agency has covertly delivered at least 18 terrorism suspects since 1998 to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations where, according to State Department reports, torture has been widely used on prisoners.
The actual number of CIA-run renditions, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, is believed to be far higher. Officials say the CIA’s role has varied widely, from providing electronic and other covert surveillance before raids to flying blindfolded terrorism suspects from one country to another on a Gulfstream jet the agency uses.
“It’s a growth industry,” said a recently retired CIA clandestine officer who worked on several “renditions” in the Arab world. “We rendered a lot of people to Egypt, Jordan and the Saudis in particular.... Ultimately, the agency just wants these people to disappear forever.”
The first foreign renditions took place during the Reagan administration, officials said, as joint CIA-FBI teams in about 1987 began capturing alleged terrorists, drug traffickers and other high-profile suspects and bringing them to the United States for prosecution.
About 15 suspects, including two men eventually convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were brought to the United States between 1987 and 1998, according to testimony by then-FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. Because the suspects were going before U.S. courts, they were read the Miranda rights, given lawyers and otherwise afforded legal protection under the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts upheld the renditions.
But behind the scenes, the CIA also began delivering suspects to countries that provided few such rights -- a practice that became known as extraordinary renditions. The agency helped foreign governments seize suspected terrorists at least five times between 1994 and 1996, then-CIA Director John M. Deutch said in September 1996.
The agency transferred many of the suspects to Egypt, which is annually cited for torture of prisoners and other human rights abuses by the U.S. State Department.
In 1998, for example, CIA officers helped transfer the leader of the Islamic Group, an extremist Egyptian organization, from Croatia to Egypt, where he had been sentenced to death. CIA officers also helped seize five members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, another militant group, in Albania and flew them to Egypt, where several were quickly hanged.
Habib grew up in the ancient Egyptian port of Alexandria, but he left when he turned 18. He drifted to Europe and eventually made his home in Australia, where he renounced his Egyptian citizenship and began to travel under an Australian passport.
But Habib grew weary of Australia, his family and lawyers say, and hoped to transplant his family to Pakistan to achieve a more rigorous Islamic lifestyle. In the summer of 2001, he said goodbye to his wife and three children in Sydney and flew to Pakistan to look for a job and a school for his teenagers, his lawyers said.
In early October 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Habib boarded a bus in Quetta that was headed for Karachi. Pakistani security forces were searching for militants fleeing the expected war in neighboring Afghanistan. When the bus was stopped and searched near the small town of Khuzdar, Habib was arrested.
For the next three weeks, as he was moved from jail to jail, Habib was interrogated by U.S. agents and “repeatedly tortured” by Pakistani authorities, Habib’s lawyers said. Australia’s attorney general has denied Habib’s charge that an Australian agent took part in the interrogation and witnessed his abuse.
Habib says he was eventually taken to an airfield, handcuffed by the tattooed Americans, forced onto a plane and flown back to his native land -- even though the Egyptians hadn’t asked for him and the Australian authorities hadn’t approved.
“The Australian government was not involved in Habib’s transfer to Egypt and was not informed in advance that such a transfer was to take place,” Francis, the Australian official, said Wednesday.
Pakistan’s then-interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, said in a 2003 interview with Australia’s SBS-Television that U.S. officials had taken custody of Habib when Pakistani investigators were through with him.
“Yes, they [the Americans] did request it, yes,” Hayat said. “The United States wanted him for their own investigations. We are not concerned where they take him ... once we were satisfied with our own investigations, certainly we had no problem handing him over to another ally of ours.”
Once in Egypt, Habib is believed to have been imprisoned in state security headquarters in Lazoughli Square, in the heart of Cairo.
While there, he slept on a concrete floor with a single blanket, and endured interrogations that stretched on for hours, he told his lawyer.
At times, he said, he was suspended from hooks on the walls while his feet rested on a rotating metal drum that delivered harsh electrical shocks. He was forced to stand for hours on his tiptoes in water that reached his chin. He was “kicked, punched, beaten with a stick and rammed with what can only be described as an electric cattle prod,” his lawyers wrote.
“Inflamed by his protests and indifferent to his screams, the sessions typically ended only when he admitted whatever they were questioning him about at the time -- whatever it was,” they added. “In the midst of horrendous torture, Mr. Habib ‘confessed’ to it all.”
“He was really tortured and attacked very badly,” said Najib Nuaimi, a Qatari lawyer who tracked Habib’s case through Egyptian contacts. “They thought he might have had some links with some of the Egyptian [jihad] groups, which of course he didn’t.”
Australian consular officials repeatedly sought to visit Habib at the prison in Cairo. “They denied they were holding him and denied us access,” said Francis, the embassy spokesman.
At the time of Habib’s arrest, the Bush administration hadn’t yet opened its detention camp in Cuba. U.S. officials have refused to confirm where Habib was seized and incarcerated before he was brought to Guantanamo, but Australian officials have said the U.S. informed them about Habib’s arrest in Pakistan and imprisonment in Egypt. It remains unclear why Habib was sent to Egypt.
“Maybe the Americans thought Egyptian interrogators, who share Mamdouh’s culture and background, could be more qualified to deal with him,” said Yasser Sirri, a London-based Islamic activist who monitors detainees and renditions.
After six months, Habib says, he was flown out of Egypt by U.S. forces as surreptitiously as he had been brought in. He was transferred to Afghanistan for processing, he says, then sent to Guantanamo Bay in May 2002.
Australia’s government publicly pressed for resolution of Habib’s case, and Prime Minister John Howard privately raised the issue at a White House meeting with President Bush in June.
In September, a secret military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay reviewed Habib’s status.
Its unanimous decision, marked “Secret/No Forn,” (sic) was that Habib was properly designated an enemy combatant.
“This detainee is a member of, or affiliated with, Al Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,” the tribunal said.
A summary of the government’s evidence said Habib “admits” he “had knowledge” of the Sept. 11 attacks before they occurred, that he stayed at Al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan and helped transfer chemical weapons in the capital, Kabul, that he had “trained several of the 11 September 2001 hijackers in martial arts and had planned to hijack a plane himself,” among other charges.
Habib did not attend the tribunal hearing. But an official appointed to represent him said Habib had insisted that the confessions were not true, that he had been tortured since he was captured and had told “interrogators what they wanted to hear because he was in fear.”
Habib’s lawyers insist the evidence against him wouldn’t stand up in court, particularly given the torture they say was used to extract the confessions. And for that, they place the blame squarely on the United States.
“They outsource torture,” said Stephen Hopper, Habib’s Australian lawyer. “You get your friends and allies to do your dirty work for you.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official said the CIA had soured on relying on Egypt, at least when the goal was useful intelligence.
“The information the Egyptians were providing was not that reliable,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Egyptians, they’ll just cut off finger by finger. They get a lot of confessions. But people will say anything then.”
News of Habib’s impending release, which is expected within several weeks, was met with muted joy by his family Wednesday.
“What has been happening is too much, too much,” said Habib’s father, reached in Alexandria on Wednesday. “I’m so sick about what happened to my son that I hate living.”
Stack reported from Cairo and Drogin from Washington. Special correspondent Hossam Hamalawy in Cairo contributed to this report.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.