It’s public knowledge that following the 9-11 attacks on the United States, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detained and tortured terrorism suspects in secret sites around the world. But new Human Rights Watch research provides disturbing details about CIA torture techniques that have not been previously disclosed. In some instances, the torture eclipsed in brutality what was revealed in the Summary of the Senate Report on the CIA detention program released in December 2014. Ridha al-Najjar and Lofti El Gherissi, both Tunisian nationals, were arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and were among the first to be sent to a notorious CIA “black site” known as Cobalt in Afghanistan. Laura Pitter, senior US national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, interviewed the two men in Tunisia and talked to Stephanie Hancock about their ordeal.
The world already knows about the CIA torture program. Why are these new accounts so significant?
These two men were some of the earliest detainees in the CIA program – until now we’ve not heard directly from anyone detained at “Cobalt” during that time. And what their accounts show is that our understanding of the torture methods described in the Senate Summary is very limited, and that there were more brutal methods being used that the public didn’t even know about – and perhaps still further forms of torture that have yet to be uncovered.
Well, the Senate Summary said that al-Najjar was left hanging, chained from a bar over his head, for 22 hours each day for two consecutive days. But al-Najjar told me this “hanging,” as he described it, went on for nearly three months. He was only taken down from the bar about once every 24-hours, for interrogation or other forms of torture. Then he was hung right back up again. And for this entire time he and others were in pitch-black darkness, naked except for diapers, with loud music blaring around the clock.
You also uncovered new forms of torture, didn’t you?
Yes, both men said they were threatened with an electric chair, although it was never used on them. We’ve never heard about an electric chair being used or threatened at CIA detention facilities. El Gherissi was also shown a coffin and told he’d be put in it. And they revealed new types of water torture. In addition to waterboarding or water dousing on a board, they were dunked in barrels, and al-Najjar said he was strapped to a board with his entire body inserted, face down, into a large tub of ice-cold water. He told me they did this until: “I couldn’t handle it anymore and was on the verge of completely falling apart.”
You found that the men were kept in diapers, which were not changed for up to 4 days at a time. Why do that to an adult?
It was for humiliation. And that’s on the record. The Senate Summary said that the CIA claimed men were kept in diapers for sanitary reasons, but said this claim was belied by the CIA’s own records. And when the CIA released its own investigation into the death of one detainee, that report clearly says that diapers were used to humiliate detainees. The Convention against Torture, which the US has ratified, specifically prohibits cruel and degrading treatment.
No. They said they usually went without food for days at a time and al-Najjar told me he sometimes went a week without food. They also said the food was completely inedible. It would have pebbles, hair, dirt – and once even a cigarette butt – in it. Al-Najjar said he lost 50 kilograms (110 pounds) during his detention at the CIA site.
One of the most disturbing things is the role of a doctor in all this. Tell me about that.
Al-Najjar said that while he was still in CIA custody, a doctor he described as an American would come and check on him, and occasionally give him injections to reduce the swelling from his beatings. But once the swelling went down, this doctor would give the green light for the torture to begin all over again.
El Gherissi said the torture finally stopped when a doctor told his interrogators, “If he stays for another week, he will die.” He said he then was moved into total isolation for two months, which, he told me “is when I totally lost it.”
Most of the torture described took place at the “Cobalt” facility in Afghanistan. Men held there called it the “Dark Prison.” Why?
In the Senate Summary, all the secret CIA detention facilities were referred to by color, rather than their actual names, and their locations were not revealed. That information is still officially classified. But Human Rights Watch and investigative journalists have pieced together site names and locations – for example we know that the site called “Green” in the Senate Summary was Thailand, and we know that Cobalt, as well as four other sites, were in Afghanistan.
We know that al-Najjar was held at Cobalt because the Senate Summary says he was the first detainee there. But neither al-Najjar nor El Gherissi ever knew exactly where they were. We’ve pieced together his account with those of others, and they all describe the same place. El Gherissi said he never spoke to any other prisoner while he was there, but he “could hear their screams.”
We know a lot about what went on inside Cobalt, but incredibly, we don’t even know where in Afghanistan it was located. Some detainees think it was a sort of military hangar. Al-Najjar told me he is sure Cobalt was on a US military base in Kabul, because the one time they took him outside he saw a US military aircraft on the ground nearby.
What did you think when you first met these men?
Well, all of this happened 14 years ago. You don’t see many physical manifestations of the torture. Al-Najjar walks with a limp, and El Gherissi has scars on his wrists. They seemed grateful someone was taking an interest in them, but for the most part they said the most pressing thing for them is the desperate circumstances they find themselves in. Their medical problems from the torture have left them unable to work, they’re depressed, and they seemed sad and frustrated.
What were the men accused of?
We don’t actually know. The US has never publicly explained this. Neither man was ever charged with a crime. The Senate Summary said that the CIA identified al-Najjar as a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, which he denies. He said everything they accused him of was false and that they never presented any evidence and that’s why they released him. El Gherissi said his interrogators constantly accused him of being a member of Al-Qaeda or of having connections to terrorism, but that this was completely untrue.
How can you be sure their accounts are accurate?
We can’t be sure. But we interviewed them separately. They didn’t know each other before the US arrested them in Pakistan, six months apart, and they aren’t in touch with each other now. Yet they describe the same conditions and some of the same torture. The Senate Summary corroborates a lot of what they say. It is derived from the CIA’s own records, which were not very well kept in many cases, and in particular at Cobalt. We also don’t have the full 6,700-page report, which is still classified. What was released is just a 499-page executive summary, and even that is redacted. So there might be much more about them in the full report, one reason why it should be promptly released.
What are the men’s lives like now?
Both men said they live in chronic pain. Al-Najjar said his hips, ankle, and back were broken during CIA detention. He also said he has a hernia, an ulcer, a swollen liver, kidney problems, and damage to his ear. He lives with his sister, but his injuries left him unable to work. During our interview, he was still wearing some of the same clothes the US government gave him before his release, which had holes in them. “My sister has five kids. I am the sixth,” he told me.
El Gherissi said he is basically destitute. His family’s home, five hours from the capital, Tunis, has no doors and not even a full roof. He shares a room, including a bed, with his elderly mother. He cannot sleep due to chronic pain, and has limited and blurred vision. He cannot afford to see a doctor. Both men were married before the US apprehended them, but their wives divorced them while they were in US custody.
Neither man has been offered any kind of medical help or financial assistance from the US or Tunisian governments. They hope that by telling the world what the US government did to them that, maybe, they can finally get some help.
How could these men get a measure of justice?
What happened to these men and others in the CIA interrogation program has not been properly dealt with by the US government. Under international law, Al-Najjar and El Gherissi are entitled to redress. That means prompt and adequate compensation, medical treatment, and whatever else is necessary to rebuild their shattered lives. An apology is important too. But that isn’t all that is required.
The US government needs to investigate this wrongdoing and prosecute not only those who directly carried out al-Najjar’s and El Gherissi’s torture, but those responsible at the command level and, ultimately, those who planned and orchestrated the CIA torture program, which has been, and will remain, a terrible stain on the US record.