(New York) -- U.S. FBI agents operating in Pakistan repeatedly interrogated and threatened two U.S. citizens of Pakistani origin who were unlawfully detained and subjected to torture by the Pakistani security services.
The brothers Zain Afzal and Kashan Afzal were abducted from their home in Karachi at about 2 a.m. on August 13, 2004. They were released on April 22, 2005 without having been charged.
During eight months of illegal detention, Zain Afzal and Kashan Afzal were routinely tortured by Pakistani authorities to extract confessions of involvement in terrorist activities. During this period, FBI agents questioned the brothers on at least six occasions. The FBI agents did not intervene to end the torture, insist that the Pakistani government comply with a court order to produce the men in court, or provide consular facilities normally offered to detained U.S. citizens. Instead, they threatened the men with being sent to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay if they did not confess to involvement in terrorism.
Human Rights Watch’s information is based on extensive and separate interviews with the two brothers since their release and other sources.
“It is outrageous that Pakistan abducts people from their homes in the middle of the night and tortures them in secret prisons to extract confessions, all the while ignoring court orders to produce their victims in court,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The United States should be condemning this, but instead it either directed this activity or turned a blind eye in the hopes of gaining information in the war on terror.”
Human Rights Watch pointed out that Pakistan has a long and well-documented history of “disappearances,” illegal and arbitrary arrests, and torture of individuals in government custody. According to the 2004 State Department human rights country report on Pakistan:
Police and security forces held prisoners incommunicado and refused to provide information on their whereabouts, particularly in terrorism and national security cases … Security force personnel continued to torture persons in custody throughout the country. Human rights organizations reported that methods used included beating; burning with cigarettes; whipping the soles of the feet; prolonged isolation; electric shock; denial of food or sleep; hanging upside down; and forced spreading of the legs with bar fetters. Officials from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) estimated 5,000 cases of police torture annually. ... Prison conditions were extremely poor, except those for wealthy or influential prisoners. ... Shackling of prisoners was routine. The shackles used were tight, heavy, and painful, and reportedly led to gangrene and amputation in several cases.
“Pakistan’s dreadful record on illegal detentions and torture, well-known to the United States, should have acted as a stop sign for the FBI,” said Adams. “Instead, the FBI aided and abetted the illegal actions of the Pakistani security services by participating in the interrogations.”
While the brothers were being detained, their mother and Zain Afzal’s wife attempted to lodge an abduction case with the local police. The police refused to register the case, informing them that “this was a matter involving the intelligence agencies.” The police finally registered the case on November 15, 2004, on the orders of the Sindh High Court. During habeas corpus hearings, filed by their mother, Pakistani authorities denied holding the two men. Zain Afzal’s wife made frequent public pleas for the brothers’ release and approached the U.S. embassy, but received no help.
Nida Afzal, the Chicago-based sister of the two men, informed Human Rights Watch that she was telephoned by an FBI agent in late October, 2004. She alleged that the agent “categorically stated” that “they [Zain Afzal and Kashan Afzal] are in our custody.” Later that day, two FBI agents came to see Nida Afzal at her home. The agents questioned her about her brothers’ links to Afghanistan. One of the agents identified herself as Betsy A. Pryer and left a card. According to Nida Afzal, “They identified themselves and verified our identity. Though I pointed out that they had stated on the phone that my brothers were in their custody and asked repeatedly where my brothers were, the agents then refused to accept that they were in the FBI’s custody.”
The 2004 State Department human rights report makes clear that embassies in Pakistan can meet with their nationals in custody: “Foreign diplomats may meet with prisoners when they appear in court and may meet with citizens of their countries in prison visits.” Yet no such visits took place until Human Rights Watch intervened seven months after the brothers were abducted.
When queried about the status of the brothers and the role of the FBI, the U.S. Consul in Karachi in March replied: “We are aware of the reports indicating two American citizens are missing, or ‘disappeared’ in Pakistan, and we are looking into them. Due to Privacy Act considerations, we are unable to provide additional information on these two individuals. The safety and security of Americans overseas is of paramount importance to us, and we continue to work both here and abroad to provide all possible assistance to our citizens. I refer you to the FBI for any information on their involvement.”
“While U.S. officials say the safety and security of Americans overseas is paramount, the U.S. government didn’t lift a finger to help the Afzal brothers until their cases were reported in the international press,” said Adams. “The U.S. knew exactly where the brothers were all along, while their family was scared stiff, not knowing whether they were dead or alive. This is profoundly wrong and should send a chill up the spine of every U.S. citizen living overseas.”
The August 13 arrest was the second time Zain Afzal was abducted by Pakistani intelligence agents. On May 5, 2004, he was taken away from the same house in Karachi and released the following day. On that occasion Zain Afzal was tortured, returning home with a burst eardrum and severe lacerations on his back. He was unable to walk after being tortured in custody, and needed an operation on his ear. Medical reports corroborate these claims. Zain Afzal said he was questioned about a trip to Afghanistan, about his feelings toward the U.S.-led “war against terrorism,” and about suspected links to Islamist organizations.
Kashan Afzal and Zain Afzal were abducted between midnight and 2 a.m. on August 13, 2004, in a raid that involved at least 30 armed Pakistani intelligence agents. The agents broke through the concrete exterior wall and then broke into the house. No attempt was made to enter with consent and there were no arrest or search warrants. Neighbors came out of their homes to see what was happening, but were ordered to go back inside. Witnesses identified the abductors as government agents, based on the vehicles they drove and the manner of the operation.
The intelligence agents, in plainclothes, held the Afzal family at gunpoint for an hour, threatening to kill them while they searched the house. They specifically demanded to see the U.S. passports and all other U.S. government-issued identity papers held by the brothers. Once the papers were located, they handcuffed and hooded the brothers, and then left with the brothers in their custody in a convoy of jeeps and vans typically used by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and police. Before they left, they locked the ailing mother of the two men in a bedroom. According to Zain Afzal:
They said they had come from the “agencies” and that this was a “raid.” They tied my hands, entered the house and handcuffed my brother. They also broke things in the house. They asked for all our U.S identity papers––passports, social security number, driver’s licenses and so on. For this purpose, they untied our hands so we could fetch them. They also took a licensed gun from our home. We kept asking what was going on but we got no answer. When my mother asked they said we would be back in a day or so.”
Then they blindfolded us and put us in what looked like a police vehicle. All this time they had been in radio contact with others outside or elsewhere. We drove for about an hour and a half and they took us to some location. When we were inside the building and our blindfolds were removed. We were in a large office room and there were about five Pakistani military-type men there. They said nothing about whom they were other than that they belonged to “sensitive” agencies and started beatings us with whips and rods. During this time they kept asking us what our connections with Jihadis were. I told them that this was a repeat of what had happened in May and I had told their people everything and they had let me go. They kept saying “You have links with Al-Qaeda ... tell us about that” … and I kept repeating my life history. Though we answered everything, they still kept beating us.
We were taken to small “cell-type” rooms. They kept telling us we would be released soon. In the rooms, they kept us shackled but removed the handcuffs. My brother and I were in separate cells. I did not see my brother for three months after this. During these three months, they only gave us daal [lentils] and roti [bread] to eat. I would ask them where my brother was and they would say he was fine and in the same place but I never saw him. They would escort us to the bathroom. I saw a guard at the main gate in an army uniform. Otherwise we never saw anyone in uniform. We never went outdoors. We could not tell the difference between night and day. The cells had no windows and no fans. It was like a grave–totally closed.
During this time, they took our clothes and gave us what looked like prison uniforms. I would be beaten regularly during this time and when I was ill with fever, they refused to give me any medicine. There were other prisoners there but I could not talk to them, but I heard people call for water. Occasionally, they would say “you will go to Cuba” or “we will hand you over to the FBI.” Often I would be beaten for asking for water or food or medicine.
The brothers told Human Rights Watch that approximately three months into their detention their captors returned their clothes and told them that they would be going home soon. According to Zain Afzal:
They blindfolded me (and other people) and bundled us in a car. I realized my brother was also in the car as I recognized his voice. In the car, they made normal conversation with us,“You must be happy to be going home,” and so on. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at some airport. We knew that as we could hear planes. They made us climb the metal steps into a small plane. I knew the plane was small because we had to bend when we entered––a Fokker perhaps. My brother and I both began to get worried. They said “You thought we were joking! You are going to Cuba” We were shackled, handcuffed and blindfolded for the duration of the flight. One hour and a half, maybe two hours. When the plane landed, we realized we were not in Cuba. But either in Pakistan or Afghanistan maybe. The drive from the airport was about 30 minutes. Once we left the car, I was separated from my brother again. We were taken somewhere where we went downstairs to similar underground cells. I asked where we were but the guards said they did not know. I realized after a while that we were in Pakistan and that my brother must be close by. The guards all spoke Urdu.
Another week to 10 days passed. During this time, the shackles were removed. We knew it was Ramadan and we were fasting. Maybe two weeks later, I was blindfolded and taken into another room. When my blindfold was removed I saw a Pakistani army man in plain clothes and two white men who flashed FBI badges and said that they had come from the U.S to investigate me. They asked me my life history all over again. I told them everything. Then they showed me photographs and told me that the pictures were of al-Qaeda members. “Do you know them?” they asked. I saw the photos and told them I recognized no one, knew nothing. … The FBI officer said “We have been told you and your brother have al-Qaeda links.” The FBI officers seemed to be in their 30’s. This interrogation went on for 3-4 hours. During this time I told them everything about myself all over again. After that I was blindfolded and taken back into my cell. I knew nothing about my brother’s whereabouts at this time. I told the FBI that I was illegally detained and had been tortured. They said they would try to help but that all decisions were to be taken by Pakistani authorities and Pakistan was beyond their jurisdiction.
About 7-10 days later, the same FBI officers and Pakistan Army officer showed me new pictures and asked if I knew these people. They again asked me about links to Al-Qaeda. ... I asked them that they had already held me and my brother for five months and how much longer did they intend to hold us? I told them I had never been involved in a criminal act. If you have any proof, then show it to me. Or at least tell me how long this will take. I asked to be presented in court and to be given a lawyer. The FBI agents did not respond to the request for a lawyer or my demand to be presented in court and charged. They did tell me that “we annot say what your crime is and how long you will be held. But you are a terrorist and you could be taken to Cuba.”
The next day my brother joined me in my cell. My brother and I told each other what had been happening to us. He told me that the same things had been happening to him. We saw other prisoners including women and children. Once when we were being walked across to an interrogation, my blindfold was not tied properly and I saw many cars in a car park with Lahore number plates. I began to suspect we were in Lahore. We felt helpless and defenseless. We were treated worse than animals. But during this period, we were not beaten. We had regular interrogations, sometimes just with Pakistani military officers.
Maybe in January or February, we were interrogated by the FBI again, after about a gap of a month and a half. This time there were different officers––two men and a woman who again showed us their badges. They asked the same questions all over again and I gave the same answers all over again. This also lasted about 90 minutes or so. By this time, it seemed we would remain imprisoned for the rest of our lives. They never even asked us different questions … the same questions every time. My brother had become very ill with tuberculosis. They called a doctor to see him who came in a Pakistan army uniform. He prescribed medication. Periodically we would be told that we were being sent to Cuba. Both the FBI and the Pakistan Army kept forcing us to admit our “guilt,” to admit we were al-Qaeda members and that we were planning attacks in Pakistan and in the U.S. They just wanted an admission.
Zain Afzal recounted that in another session with the FBI:
I asked them that they had already held me and my brother for five months and how much longer did they intend to hold us? I told them I had never been involved in a criminal act. If you have any proof, then show it to me. Or at least tell me how long this will take. I asked to be presented in court and to be given a lawyer. The FBI agents did not respond to the request for a lawyer or my demand to be presented in court and charged. They did tell me that, ‘We cannot say what your crime is and how long you will be held. But you are a terrorist and you could be taken to Cuba.’”
A few weeks before his release, Zain Afzal says he told his captors:
If you think we are guilty of a crime please charge us in court or release us. I pointed out that my brother was very ill. They said “we are the court.”
The brothers claim they were released with one final threat:
Our last interrogation took place about 10 days before our release and for the
first time my brother and I were called together. They said “Your case is almost over” and “You will be released soon. ... But we will only release you on condition that you will never speak to the press or media or speak against us. Your well-being lies in silence otherwise you and your family will be in big trouble.” Then they made us write a statement that said that we had not been held by any government or semi-government agency and were writing this statement of our own free will. A week later, we were given clothes, blindfolded and taken to Lahore Airport where the blindfolds were removed. We were handed two PIA [Pakistan International Airlines] tickets to Karachi that were not in our names. We asked for our American passports and other ID and were told that our stuff would be delivered to us in Karachi. This happened on April 22. So we returned home. The second or third day after our return, the “agencies” called us and reminded us of our “commitment.” I asked for our passports again and was told they would reach us soon. We have not received our passports and though we have also requested the U.S. Consulate in Karachi to reissue the passports, we have had no response.
Human Rights Watch called on the Pakistani authorities to return the U.S. passports and other personal material confiscated from the brothers when they were illegally detained. The United States embassy should issue new passports immediately upon request if the passports are not promptly returned.
Human Rights Watch urged the Pakistani government to take immediate steps to end its practice of illegal arrest and detention of persons as part of the “war on terror” and to end the use of torture and other mistreatment. Many terrorism suspects in Pakistan have routinely been held without any rights to a hearing before a judge, the right to counsel or family visits, and without receiving a trial meeting international fair trial standards. Human Rights Watch called on the Pakistani government and security services to end the use of secret detention facilities and to identify all such facilities immediately.
“If President Musharraf want to convince the world that he is indeed an enlightened moderate, he needs to immediately order an end to such rampant and abusive practices,” said Adams. “The hidden prison system run by the security services is an open secret in Pakistan. No self-respecting government should tolerate such a system.”
Human Rights Watch also called on the Bush administration to provide full information on its role in the Afzal case. Specifically, the U.S. must clarify whether the Afzal brothers were held in Pakistani custody at the request of the United States, and state the policy of the U.S. government when it knows or has reason to know that persons being questioned abroad are being seriously mistreated by their captors. The Convention against Torture, to which the United States is a party, prohibits “an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.”
“The war on terror cannot be won by resorting to illegal detentions and torture,” said Adams. “It is time for the U.S. to decide whether it will continue to be complicit in criminal activity in its fight against terrorism, or whether the rule of law will prevail.”
Human Rights Watch expressed no opinion on whether the Afzal brothers--or others who are “disappeared,” illegally detained, or tortured by the Pakistani security services as part of the “war on terror”--have committed criminal acts. However, international law prohibits “disappearances,” illegal detentions, or torture at all times, including during investigations of alleged terrorism.