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V. Bad Precedent: The 1995 and 1998 Renditions

As Egypt’s domestic Islamist insurgency was winding down by the second half of the 1990s, the Egyptian government turned its attention to those who had fled abroad. The Egyptian government policy in the mid-1990s was to become the template for treatment of such militants for the next decade, including after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. From the beginning, this response has featured efforts to have suspects returned to Egypt in secret, without regard for existing judicial mechanisms, the incommunicado detention of suspects upon their return, and subsequent reports that the suspect was tortured, or in some cases had died in detention.

Beginning in the early 1990s, a small group of Muslims began to trickle into the former Yugoslavia to assist their Bosnian Muslim co-religionists, and to fight against the Serbs in the ongoing civil war. The U.S. government took note of these developments. According to Richard Clarke, then the head of counter-terrorism efforts in the National Security Council, Washington demanded that the Bosnian government expel the militants. Short of fighters and in the midst of a bloody civil war, the Bosnian government was apparently reluctant to do so.61

Tal`at Fu’ad Qassim

Increasingly concerned about the presence of Islamist militants from Arab countries taking up arms in the former Yugoslavia, the U.S. government took action. In 1995, the U.S. orchestrated the capture of Gama`a leader Tal`at Fu’ad Qassim, also known as Abu Talal al-Qasimi. At the time of his abduction, Qassim was living in exile in Denmark, where he had been granted political asylum. Qassim was thirty-eight at the time of his abduction in Croatia in September 1995; he had been traveling to Bosnia to write about the conflict there. The Croatian foreign ministry told his wife, Amani Faruq, that Qassim had been expelled for violating Croatian residency laws.62

Richard Clarke has written that the decision by the U.S. government to take Tal`at Fu’ad Qassim into custody in 1995 was stirred by a recognition within the Clinton administration of the seriousness of the threat posed by international terrorism. Clarke refers to Qassim’s capture as a “disappearance.”63 Clarke also states that, unbeknownst to the U.S. government at the time, Qassim and other foreign Muslims fighting in Bosnia were part of al-Qaeda.64

Before his forced transfer to Egypt, Qassim was allegedly questioned aboard a U.S. navy vessel and the handover to Egypt took place in the middle of the Adriatic Sea.65 Qassim’s case is the first known rendition by the U.S. government to a third country with a record of torture.

The Qassim case marked a first of sorts for the Egyptian government as well. Its handling of the Qassim case – complete disappearance, refusing to allow any access to the individual, either by his family or his lawyers – would be repeated many times in the years to come. After his return, the Egyptian government refused to answer questions about his whereabouts, and denied his attorney, Muntassir al-Zayyat, access to him:

I didn’t seem him. I don’t think that anyone managed to see him, except for security of course. And those who carried out the execution...We heard about [his abduction] as soon as he was kidnapped. But we didn’t know where he was.66

In what would become standard procedure for renditions to Egypt, the Egyptian government also refused to release any information on Qassim’s case:

Yes, we did present an official request. We also presented a request to the prosecutor and the ministry of interior. We asked for information about his arrest, and we asked for access, but as usual we didn’t receive any reply.67

Because Qassim had already been tried and convicted in absentia by a military tribunal in 1992, he was not retried after his return to Egypt. Instead, the death sentence that he received after that trial was apparently carried out. He is believed to have been executed by the Egyptian government.68

After word of his death in custody leaked out, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights asked the Egyptian government to at least confirm his death. According to Hafez Abu Saeda, the secretary-general of EOHR:

We asked the government to tell us what happened, to answer whether or not he had been tortured to death. We had received information that he had died in custody. They never responded.69

Breaking the Tirana Cell

In 1998 the U.S. government moved against a group of alleged militants living in Tirana, Albania. The Albanian secret police, in cooperation with the CIA, monitored the group for several years and observed members carrying out various low-level criminal activities, such as counterfeiting and the production of fake passports and visas.70 They also took careful note as the men engaged in activities that seemed to be in preparation for possible armed attacks, such as the casing of the U.S. embassy in Tirana. The local cell kept up regular contact with other exile militants in Yemen and elsewhere, and allegedly sent funds collected from the earnings of the Tirana group abroad.71

In July 1998, Albanian and U.S. agents made their move. In all, five alleged militants were captured, and one was killed in a shoot-out with Albanian security. The four captured militants, Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Naggar, Shawqi Salama Mustafa, Muhammad Hassan Mahmud Tita, and Ahmad Isma`il `Uthman, were questioned by U.S. agents and then handed over to Egypt’s SSI.72 In the same month, the CIA reportedly also rendered a fifth suspect, `Issam `Abd al-Tawab `Abd al-Alim, from the Bulgarian capital Sofia to Cairo.73 Two of the rendered suspects, `Uthman and al-Naggar, had previously been sentenced to death in absentia by Egyptian military tribunals in March 1994 and October 1997 respectively.

Once the five men were returned to Egypt, they were all kept incommunicado, away from other Islamists then being tried. “These guys [the returnees from Albania] were kept in villas, the ‘ghost’ villas, we called them,” said Zayyat.74 All were held for an extended period in incommunicado detention before the trial, without access to their attorneys or to family members. “We saw them at trial,” said EOHR’s Hafez Abu Saeda, who defended some of the returnees. “We were not allowed to see them before that.”75

The trial, featuring 107 defendants, sixty of whom were tried in absentia, began on February 2, 1999.  In court, the five returnees showed no visible signs of torture or ill-treatment. Despite the lack of physical marks on the men once they arrived in court, their defense lawyers insisted that they had been abused. “They told us in court that they had been tortured and that their statements were coerced. But the court did nothing about this,” Abu Saeda said.76 Muntassir al-Zayyat, who also worked on the case, said that his client, Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Naggar, “told me that he was tortured inside one of these villas.”77

Some of the returnees owed their very appearance in court to the discovery that they were being held in villas outside Cairo. According to al-Zayyat:

Al-Naggar was in that villa for nine months, [even] while the case was going on. Then the news leaked that he was here, and some of the other defendants bumped into him at the State Security Bureau.78

All five of the Albania returnees were tortured, according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Al-Naggar was blindfolded for much of his detention period. At one point during his detention, SSI officials locked him in a room with dirty water up to his knees for twenty-four hours. During his stay in SSI headquarters in Lazughli Square, al-Naggar was tortured during interrogation. His hands were tied behind his back and his feet were shackled as security agents applied electric shocks to different parts of his body. Al-Naggar told his lawyers that his confessions were torture-induced.79 The court did not order an investigation into the allegations of torture, and sentenced al-Naggar to twenty-five years in prison.

Ahmad Isma`il `Uthman was returned from Albania a month later than the others, on August 13, 1998. According to the EOHR, during two months in incommunicado detention, he was both beaten and subjected to electroshock during interrogation by SSI agents.80

`Uthman and al-Naggar were executed on the morning of February 23, 2000, on the basis of their earlier convictions and death sentences by military tribunals in 1994 and 1997.81

The London-based Islamic Observation Center, an organization that tracks the treatment of suspected Islamist militants, reported that Shawqi Salama Mustafa was held for several weeks in a room filled with water up to his knees, and he was also subjected to electroshock during interrogation. His interrogators tied his legs together and suspended him from the ceiling several times, and also dragged him from room to room with his face to the floor. The security forces also threatened to rape him during interrogation. Mustafa received a twenty-five year sentence.82

`Issam `Abd al-Tawab `Abd al-Alim was held incommunicado from July 13 to September 12, 1998. During his sixty-day detention, `Abd al-Alim was allegedly beaten by his interrogators during questioning. He received a fifteen-year sentence.83

Muhammad Hassan Mahmud Tita spent just under two months in incommunicado detention, and finally appeared before the Prosecutor General in mid-September. He told both the prosecutor and his lawyer that he was subjected to electroshock on several parts of his body while being hung from the ceiling. Tita was sentenced to ten years in prison.84

In all, 80 of the 107 were convicted, and nine were sentenced to death in absentia. Among those handed death sentences in absentia were Ayman al-Zawahri, his brother Muhammad, and `Abd al-`Aziz Musa Dawud al-Gamal, who was among those transferred from Yemen in 2004 as part of the Egyptian-Yemeni swap for former Yemeni Brigadier General Ahmad Salim `Ubaid.

[61] Clarke, p. 138.

[62] Nadia Abou al-Magd, “Leading Islamic Militant Reported Missing in Croatia,” Associated Press, September 23. 1995.

[63] Clarke, p. 139.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Anthony Shadid, “Syria is Said to Hand Egypt Suspect Tied to Bin Laden,” Boston Globe, November 20, 2001. Andrew Higgins and Christopher Cooper, “Cloak and Dagger: A CIA-Backed Team Used Brutal Means to Crack Terror Cell,” Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2001. Human Rights Watch interview with Yasser al-Sirri, London, July 2003.

[66] Human Rights Watch interview with Muntassir al-Zayyat, Cairo, November 2004.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Muntassir al-Zayyat told Human Rights Watch that a source in the Military Prosecutor’s office had confirmed this, but no government official has done so publicly. Human Rights Watch interview, Cairo, Egypt, November 2004.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview with Hafez Abu Saeda, Cairo, November 2004.

[70] Andrew Higgins and Christopher Cooper, “Cloak and Dagger: A CIA-Backed Team Used Brutal Means to Crack Terror Cell,” Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2001.

[71] Ibid.

[72] EOHR, “The Returnees from Albania,” April 1999.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with Muntassir al-Zayyat, Cairo, November 2004.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with Hafez Abu Saeda, EOHR, November 2004.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with Muntassir al-Zayyat, Cairo, November 2004. 

[78] Ibid.

[79] EOHR, “The Returnees from Albania,” April 1999, p. 13-14.

[80] Ibid., p. 18.

[81] Statement by the London-based Islamic Observation Center, February 24, 2000.

[82] Ibid., p. 14. 

[83] Ibid., p. 15.

[84] Ibid., p. 16.

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