When Marwan Jabour opened his eyes, after a blindfold, a mask, and other coverings were taken off him, he saw soldiers and, on the wall behind them, framed photographs of King Hussein and King Abdullah of Jordan.  He was tired and disoriented from his four-hour plane flight and subsequent car trip, but when a guard confirmed that he was being held in Jordan, he felt indescribable relief.  In his more than two years of secret detention, nearly all of it in US custody, this was the first time that someone had told him where he was. The date was July 31, 2006.

A few weeks later, in another first, the Jordanians allowed several of Jabour’s family members to visit him. “My father cried the whole time,” Jabour later remembered.

Marwan Jabour was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Lahore, Pakistan, on May 9, 2004.  He was detained there briefly, then moved to the capital, Islamabad, where he was held for more than a month in a secret detention facility operated by both Pakistanis and Americans, and finally flown to a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prison in what he believes was Afghanistan. During his ordeal, he later told Human Rights Watch, he was tortured, beaten, forced to stay awake for days, and kept naked and chained to a wall for more than a month.  Like an unknown number of Arab men arrested in Pakistan since 2001, he was “disappeared” into US custody: held in unacknowledged detention outside of the protection of the law, without court supervision, and without any contact with his family, legal counsel, or the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The secret prison program under which Jabour was held was established in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when US President George W. Bush signed a classified directive authorizing the CIA to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists.  Because the entire program was run outside of US territory, it required the support and assistance of other governments, both in handing over detainees and in allowing the prisons to operate.

Pakistan’s help was crucial to the program, more crucial than that of any other country.  The Pakistani authorities delivered hundreds of prisoners to the United States­—some ending up in military custody, others in CIA custody—and it also allowed the United States and other countries to interrogate many of them on Pakistani soil.  As the US State Department’s annual human rights report for 2004 describes, security forces in Pakistan “held prisoners incommunicado and refused to provide information on their whereabouts, particularly in terrorism and national security cases.”  What the report does not say is that the Pakistani authorities carried out these abuses with the full knowledge and participation of American intelligence agents.  Indeed, the degree of US control may have been so great, in some cases, that it constituted a form of proxy detention.

The possible use of proxy detention facilities is of especial concern now. In early September 2006, 14 detainees were transferred from secret CIA prisons to military custody at Guantanamo Bay.  In a televised speech on September 6, President Bush announced that with those 14 transfers, “there are now no terrorists in the CIA program.”  But he said nothing about what had happened to a number of other prisoners who, up until that point, were believed to have been in the unacknowledged custody of the CIA.

One concern is that the US might have transferred some of the remaining prisoners to foreign prisons where for practical purposes they remain under CIA control. Another worrying possibility is that prisoners were transferred to places where they face a serious risk of torture: indeed, some of the missing prisoners are from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

In a letter to President Bush published in conjunction with this report, Human Rights Watch has provided a list of 16 people who were believed to have been held at one time in secret CIA prisons, and whose whereabouts are currently unknown.  Jabour saw or spoke to a number of those people while he was held.  The letter also includes a list of 22 people who were possibly held in such prisons, and whose whereabouts are similarly unknown.  A copy of the letter is included as an appendix to this report.

Human Rights Watch has called upon the Bush administration to provide a full accounting of every person that the CIA has held since 2001, including their names, the dates that they left US custody, and their current locations.  If they are being held in proxy detention in a third country, the US government should either transfer them to the United States for prosecution in US courts, or order their release.

To leave these men in hidden limbo violates fundamental human rights norms.  It is also extraordinarily cruel to their families. The wife of a man who has not been seen since he was believed to have been taken into CIA custody told Human Rights Watch that she has had to lie to her four children about her husband’s absence.  She explained that she could not bear telling them that she did not know where he was: “[W]hat I’m hoping is if they find out their father has been detained, that I’ll at least be able to tell them what country he’s being held in, and in what conditions.”1

The fate of the missing detainees is one of the main unanswered questions about the CIA’s secret prison program, but it is not the only one.  Much is still unknown about the scope of the program, the precise locations of the detention facilities, the treatment of detainees, and the cooperation and complicity of other governments.  Although confidential sources, including CIA personnel, have described some aspects of the program to journalists, and a small number of former detainees have recounted their experiences, many details of the program remain hidden.

What follows is the most comprehensive account to date of life in a secret CIA prison. Human Rights Watch interviewed Marwan Jabour over several days in December 2006, less than a month after he regained his freedom.  He spoke clearly, precisely and in great detail about his experiences, although it was evident that he found some memories upsetting.  His testimony is extremely valuable both in describing his own experience of secret detention and in providing information about others who were held with him.

Jabour was arrested in Lahore, he believes by the Pakistani intelligence services, and the worst physical abuses he endured took place while he was in their custody.  He alleges that they beat him severely, burnt him with a red hot iron, and tied a tight rubber string around his penis, causing enormous pain.  On this third day in Pakistani custody, three people he believes were Americans questioned him; the following day he was transferred to a secret facility in Islamabad.  This facility had both US and Pakistani personnel, but the Americans seemed to be in charge.

Both in the Lahore facility and in Islamabad, Jabour endured many days of forced sleeplessness and forced standing, with little respite.  Twice he collapsed, falling unconscious.

After a month in Islamabad he was flown to a secret prison, which he believes was in Afghanistan, where all of the personnel (except possibly the interpreters) were American.  There, he was held completely naked for a month and a half, filmed naked, and interrogated naked.  He was chained tightly to the wall of his small cell so he could not stand up, placed in painful stress positions so that he had difficulty breathing, and warned that if he did not cooperate he would be put in a suffocating “dog box.”

As the months went by, some aspects of Jabour’s treatment improved: his clothes were slowly returned; the physical mistreatment ended; he was placed in a larger cell; he got better food.  Other aspects, however, changed slowly or not at all.  He spent nearly all of his time alone in a windowless cell.  He went a year and a half without a glimpse of sunlight.  He wore leg irons for a year and a half.  Worst of all, he spent more than two years with almost no contact with any human being besides his captors.  Although he worried incessantly about his wife and three young daughters, he was not even allowed to send them a letter to reassure them that he was alive.

Jabour acknowledges that in 1998 he trained in a militant camp in Afghanistan in the hope of fighting in Chechnya, and in 2003 he helped Arab militants and others who had fled Afghanistan for Pakistan.  But whether he violated the law should have been a matter for the courts; it was not a justification for abuse.

International human rights law prohibits enforced disappearance: basically, the holding of persons in unacknowledged, incommunicado detention.  Such persons, who remain “disappeared” until their fate or whereabouts become known, are also more likely to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The US government has long condemned these abusive practices in its policy statements and annual human rights reports; its own use of them severely undermines its moral authority on human rights.  Even in wholly practical terms, its reliance on secret detention and abusive interrogation is wrong.  The use of these techniques taints any testimony obtained from the persons held, making it difficult to prosecute the perpetrators of terrorist acts in fair proceedings, and to provide the public accounting of these crimes that the victims of terrorism deserve.

Key Recommendations

The US government should:

  • Repudiate the use of secret detention and coercive interrogation as counterterrorism tactics and permanently discontinue the CIA’s detention and interrogation program;
  • Disclose the identities, fate and whereabouts of all detainees previously held at facilities operated or controlled by the CIA since 2001.

Other governments should:

  • Refuse to assist or cooperate in any way with CIA detention, interrogation and rendition operations, and disclose any information that they may have about such operations.

1 Communication to Human Rights Watch, January 24, 2007.