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The Other Face of the War on Terror

Published in: Dawn

The brothers Zain Afzal and Kashan Afzal, US citizens of Pakistani origin, were abducted from their home in Karachi on August 13 last year. They were released on April 22 this year, without having been charged.

During eight months of illegal detention, they were allegedly tortured by Pakistani personnel to extract confessions of involvement in terrorist activities. During this period, FBI agents questioned the brothers on at least six occasions. The FBI agents, who did not intervene to end the torture, insisted that the Pakistani government comply with a court order to produce the men in court, or provide consular facilities normally offered to detained US citizens. They threatened the men with being sent to the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay if they did not confess to involvement in terrorism.

Pakistan’s poor record on illegal detentions and torture, well-known to the United States, should have acted as a deterrent for the FBI. Instead, the FBI abetted the actions of the Pakistani personnel 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 US embassy, but received no help.

The 2004 US state department human rights report makes clear that embassies in Pakistan can meet their nationals in custody: “Foreign diplomats may meet prisoners when they appear in court and may meet citizens of their countries in prison visits.” Yet no such visits took place until the Human Rights Watch (HRW) intervened seven months after the brothers were abducted.

When queried by the HRW about the status of the brothers and the role of the FBI, the US 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 US officials say the safety and security of Americans overseas is paramount, it appears the US government did nothing to help the Afzal brothers until their cases were reported in the international press. The US knew exactly where the brothers were all along, while their family was terrified, not knowing whether they were dead or alive. This is profoundly wrong and should send a chill up the spine of every US citizen living overseas.

Invoking the US Privacy Act to withhold information from a wife and mother about a husband and son who had been “disappeared” is Orwellian: the Privacy Act was adopted to protect the privacy of individuals, not to shield the state from answering questions about the whereabouts of those individuals when they have been “disappeared” by state authorities and when FBI agents are regularly meeting them. “Disappeared” persons would obviously not want the Privacy Act to stand in the way of allowing family members to know where they were. US authorities should be ashamed at the way they handled this case.

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 personnel. Neighbours came out of their homes to see what was happening, but were ordered to go back inside.

During the operation, the personnel specifically demanded to see the US passports and all other US government-issued identity papers held by the brothers. Once the papers were located, they handcuffed and hooded them and took them away in a convoy of jeeps and vans typically used by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and police.

The brothers told the HRW that approximately three months into their detention their captors returned their clothes and told them that they would be going home soon. Instead, they, along with scores of others, were blindfolded, shackled, handcuffed and made to board a plane and told they were being taken to Guantanamo Bay. But the plane landed less than two hours later in a place where the “guards all spoke Urdu.”

Subsequent to the change of city, the brothers claim they were repeatedly interrogated by the FBI. “I was blindfolded and taken into another room. When my blindfold was removed I saw a Pakistani man in plain clothes and two white men who flashed FBI badges and said that they had come from the US 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.” This interrogation went on for three to four hours. 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 Pakistani officer showed me new pictures. 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 a 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 a 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.’ [In another session] I said 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 in Lahore and dumped at the airport but only after they were threatened to remain silent by their abductors. The abductors 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.”

The brothers asked for their American passports and other ID papers and were told the documents would be delivered to them in Karachi. This happened on April 22. They have not received the passports and though they have requested the US consulate in Karachi to reissue the passports, they have had no response yet.

The Human Rights Watch is of the view that the Pakistani authorities must return the US passports and other personal material confiscated from the two brothers when they were illegally detained. The United States embassy should issue new passports immediately upon request if the passports are not promptly returned.

More importantly, the government of Pakistan must take immediate steps to end the practice of illegal arrest and detention of persons as part of the “war on terror” and also end the use of torture and other mistreatment. The use of secret detention facilities must cease immediately.

The HRW has also called on the Bush administration to provide full information on its role in the Afzal case. Specifically, the US must clarify whether the Afzal brothers were held in Pakistani custody at the request of the United States, and state the policy of the US government when it knows or has reason to know that persons being questioned abroad are being tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. 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. It is time for the US 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. And if President Musharraf wants to convince the world that he is indeed an enlightened moderate, he needs to immediately order an end to such abusive practices.

Brad Adams is Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

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