(New York, May 27, 2004)—An international inquiry under U.N. auspices is needed to credibly address allegations that two men expelled from Sweden to Egypt on an airplane leased by the U.S. government were mistreated and possibly tortured by agents of each country, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch called on Sweden and Egypt to seek the good offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in convening an expert panel to carry out the investigation.
The Swedish government called for an “international inquiry” after the Swedish television news program—Kalla Fakta—revealed on May 17 that the U.S. government was involved in the transfers of two asylum seekers, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari, from Sweden to Egypt. The Swedish Ministry of Justice has since confirmed this.
“Three governments are implicated in the abuse of these men,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “There must be a full accounting. Otherwise, these cases will send yet another signal that when it comes to the ‘war on terror,’ anything goes—including torture.”
Human Rights Watch said that the participation of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in convening an expert panel could ensure that the inquiry is conducted with the necessary independence, expertise, and transparency.
The Kalla Fakta program included evidence that the two men were not only tortured upon their return to Egypt—as previously reported by the men’s lawyers and Swedish human rights groups—but were also physically abused by the Swedish police prior to being placed on the U.S. government-leased plane that transported them to Cairo.
The program also included a graphic description of the men’s treatment by hooded operatives aboard the plane, including details about their being blindfolded, hooded, drugged, and diapered. Press reports indicate that Egypt has agreed to an international inquiry into the treatment of Agiza and al-Zari following a visit to Cairo last week by a high-level delegation from the Swedish government.
Agiza and al-Zari were expelled from Sweden in December 2001. The Swedish government had acknowledged that both of the asylum seekers had a well-founded fear of being persecuted if returned to Egypt. However, the men were excluded from refugee status based on secret evidence that they were associated with Islamist groups responsible for acts of terrorism. In 1999, Agiza had been tried and convicted in absentia by an Egyptian military tribunal for terrorism-related acts. It remains unclear on what grounds al-Zari was expelled from Sweden and then imprisoned in Egypt. He was released from a Cairo prison in October 2003 without charge or trial, but remains under constant surveillance and is routinely summoned for interrogations.
To justify the expulsions the Swedish government relied upon “diplomatic assurances,” or formal guarantees from the Egyptian government that the two men would not be tortured and would have fair trials upon return. Human Rights Watch and a coalition of Swedish human rights groups subsequently learned that the men had been tortured and ill-treated in Egyptian prisons. International law prohibits absolutely the return of any person—no matter what his or her status or suspected crime—to a place where he would be at risk of torture or ill-treatment. There are no exceptions to this principle.
Moreover, a trial monitor from Human Rights Watch provided a firsthand account of Agiza’s re-trial in a military tribunal in April 2004 during which he made serious allegations of torture and ill-treatment. The re-trial was marred by numerous fair trial violations, proving that the Egyptian authorities did not keep their promise that Agiza would be granted a fair trial. Agiza was convicted again and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment at hard labor.
“There is overwhelming evidence that Agiza’s and al-Zari’s most fundamental rights were violated repeatedly,” said Denber. “An independent inquiry, conducted by an international panel of experts, would be well-placed to evaluate that evidence and to hold accountable those actors responsible for any rights abuses.”
An independent, international inquiry investigating the treatment of Agiza and al-Zari must include several key elements in order to be an effective means of ensuring accountability and gaining public confidence:
- Independence—None of the governments implicated in the abuses should be involved in investigating the violations. The inquiry should be staffed by independent personnel and have adequate resources. It should have the full cooperation of the Swedish, Egyptian and U.S. governments, as well as any U.N. mechanisms that have been involved in the men’s cases, including the Committee against Torture, the Human Rights Committee, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture.
- International Expertise—The inquiry should be conducted by independent experts with experience in investigating torture and other human rights violations at an international level. They should have the stature and authority to ensure full cooperation from the governments under investigation.
- Parameters of the Inquiry—A full accounting of the men’s treatment would require that the parameters include an investigation of their treatment in Sweden from the time they were apprehended by the Swedish authorities prior to their removal. It must also include their treatment on the plane and in transit to Cairo, and their treatment by the Egyptian authorities since their return and to date.
- Full Procedural Powers—The inquiry should be empowered to summon witnesses and review documents, including classified materials. The inquiry should be empowered to visit Egypt and meet confidentially with Agiza and al-Zari, and their family members and lawyers in both Sweden and Egypt.
- Protecting Witnesses—Given the sensitive nature of the inquiry, it should be vested with the power and resources to provide witness protection measures in the course of taking evidence. Witness protection measures, including monitoring of the two men and their family members, should continue after the inquiry to guarantee their security and prevent retribution.
- Civil Society—The inquiry should also invite input from Swedish and international nongovernmental organizations that have conducted research and advocacy on the men’s cases or have particular expertise in an area of interest to the inquiry, for example, organizations that work with torture victims.
- Transparency—The findings of the inquiry should be made public. To the extent possible in light of witness protection and national security concerns, any hearings convened by the inquiry should be open and public.
A representative from Human Rights Watch will be in Stockholm on June 1 and 2 to meet with Swedish government officials regarding the international inquiry and other aspects of the men’s cases.