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11 terror suspects 'disappear' in US custody

London Guardian | October 12 2004

At least 11 al-Qaida suspects have "disappeared" in US custody, and some may have been tortured, according to a report out today from Human Rights Watch.

The prisoners are being held without access to their families, lawyers or even the Red Cross. They are probably being held outside the US, the report said. In some cases, US authorities will not even acknowledge the prisoners are in custody.

Human Rights Watch asserted that international treaties ratified by the US prohibit incommunicado detention of prisoners in secret locations. The Geneva Conventions require that the Red Cross has access to all detainees, after which it can notify families of their whereabouts. Under international human rights law, detainees must be held in recognised places of detention and be able to communicate with lawyers and family members.

The report said the prisoners include the alleged architect of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, captured by Pakistani authorities and extradited to the US last year. He is reported to have been tortured in custody, the group said.

Abu Zubaydah, believed to be a close aide to Osama bin Laden, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who may have become one of the 9/11 hijackers if he had been successful in obtaining a US visa, and Hambali, an alleged key al-Qaida ally in southeast Asia, are among the other so-called 'ghost' detainees.

In refusing to disclose the prisoners' whereabouts or acknowledge the detentions, Human Rights Watch said the US government has violated international law, international treaties and the Geneva Convention. The group called on the government to bring all its prisoners "under the protection of the law".

"Those guilty of serious crimes must be brought to justice before fair trials," said Reed Brody, special counsel with Human Rights Watch. "If the United States embraces the torture and 'disappearance' of its opponents, it abandons its ideals and international obligations and becomes a lesser nation."

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency has not seen the report and declined to comment.

The Human Rights Watch report, titled "The United States' 'Disappeared:' The CIA's Long-term 'Ghost Detainees"', said many of the prisoners have provided valuable intelligence to US officials. But it also cited reports that some detainees have lied under pressure to please their interrogators.

"Human Rights Watch recognises, of course, the importance of effectively and rapidly gathering intelligence in order to trace the al-Qaida and other networks, capture other terrorists, and intervene to prevent more catastrophic terror attacks. However, the use of forced disappearances and secret incommunicado detention violates the most basic principles of a free society," the report reads.

Aside from the human and civil rights considerations, the secret detentions could see other suspected terrorists walk free as courts demand access to testimony from US-held terror suspects. Prosecutors in Germany have been frustrated since they saw the 15-year sentence they won against suspected 9/11 plotter Mounir el Motassadeq overturned because they had no access to testimony from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh. A German appeals court ruled in March that his first trial was unfair because the US-held witnesses did not testify.

Mr Motassadeq, still the only person to be convicted in relation to the September 11 attacks, is now being retried, but without access to the 'ghost' detainees, prosecutors fear he will be released.

The lack of testimonies from the US-held al-Qaida suspects also played a large part in the acquittal, at the same court in February, of Mr Motassadeq's fellow Moroccan Abdelghani Mzoudi, who had faced identical charges.

Human Rights Watch has no firsthand knowledge of the treatment of these detainees. Much of the report stems from news accounts that have cited unidentified government sources acknowledging the torture or mistreatment of detainees.

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