Using some old-fashioned clerical detective work, Reprieve, the legal action charity that represents around 10 percent of the remaining 240 prisoners in Guantánamo, has compiled a report, “Ghost Detention on Diego Garcia” (PDF), identifying one of two prisoners rendered through the British Overseas Territory of Diego Garcia as Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni (and tentatively identifying the other as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the former “ghost prisoner” who died in a Libyan jail last month). A dual Pakistani-Egyptian national, seized in Jakarta, Indonesia, and rendered for torture in Egypt, Madni was later transferred to Guantánamo and released in August 2008.
Reprieve’s director, Clive Stafford Smith, had been planning to unveil the report at a meeting of the Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs two weeks ago, but when the government pulled the plug on the meeting (as I reported here and here), because Stafford Smith also intended to talk about former Guantánamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed and the recently disclosed evidence that a British spy had visited him while he was being held by the CIA’s proxy torturers in Morocco, his revelation about the identity of Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni was also shelved.
This was a shame, because Madni’s story also deserves to be thoroughly aired in public. Like Mohamed’s, it involves cover-ups on both sides of the Atlantic, as both the US and UK governments continue to try to hide the full extent of their involvement in a global network of secret torture prisons, in which “ghost prisoners” were subjected to “extraordinary rendition” via a secretive fleet of planes run by the CIA.
How the British government provided the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle
Until last year, claims that prisoners in the “War on Terror” had been rendered through Diego Garcia -- leased to the US for a military base that has been described as the United States’ “single most important military facility” -- had been flatly denied by the British government. However, on February 21, 2008, the British foreign secretary David Miliband finally admitted that two rendition flights carrying US prisoners had stopped on Diego Garcia in January and September 2002. In a statement to Parliament, Miliband said,
Contrary to earlier explicit assurances that Diego Garcia had not been used for rendition flights, recent US investigations have now revealed two occasions, both in 2002, when this had in fact occurred. An error in the earlier US records search meant that these cases did not come to light. In both cases a US plane with a single detainee on board refuelled at the US facility in Diego Garcia. The detainees did not leave the plane, and the US government has assured us that no US detainees have ever been held on Diego Garcia. US investigations show no record of any other rendition through Diego Garcia or any other Overseas Territory or through the UK itself since then.
On the same day, General Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, also supplied an apology. “The refuelling, conducted more than five years ago, lasted just a short time,” he wrote, adding, “But it happened. That we found this mistake ourselves, and that we brought it to the attention of the British government, in no way changes or excuses the reality that we were in the wrong. An important part of intelligence work, inherently urgent, complex and uncertain, is to take responsibility for errors and learn from them … Our government had told the British that there had been no rendition flights involving their soil or airspace since 9/11. That information, supplied in good faith, turned out to be wrong.”
At the time, I stated that I thought these concessions reeked of damage limitation, and were designed to curtail further inquiries into the use of Diego Garcia, but Reprieve noticed that an additional comment made by David Miliband in fact raised more questions than answers. “The House will want to know what has become of the two individuals in question,” he said, adding, “There is a limit to what I can say, but I can tell the House the following. The US government has told us that neither man was a British national or a British resident. One is currently in Guantánamo Bay. The other has been released.”
The next piece of the jigsaw puzzle appeared on February 12, 2009, when, in response to a parliamentary question by Andrew Tyrie MP asking about the fate of the prisoner who, in February 2008, was still at Guantánamo, Miliband said, “Both of the individuals rendered through Diego Garcia in 2002 have been returned to their countries of nationality.”
Reprieve then set about working out, from flight logs in its possession, and from the dates when prisoners were released from Guantánamo, the identity of the prisoner who was released between February 2008 and February 2009, and discovered, by a neat process of elimination, that it could only have been Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni.
The story of Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni
As I reported after Madni’s release, his case “deserves to be more than a mere footnote in the history of the Bush administration’s vile and unprincipled policies of “extraordinary rendition” and torture,” as the suffering inflicted on the 24-year old Islamic scholar -- which involved three months of torture in Egypt, followed by eleven months in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and over five years in Guantánamo -- was based not on detailed evidence that he was a terrorist, but on a single ill-advised comment picked up by the Indonesian intelligence services (which, Madni has stated since his release, was not even made by him).
A renowned Islamic scholar, fluent in nine languages and from a wealthy and influential family, Madni maintained throughout his imprisonment that he was betrayed by one of four would-be jihadists whom he met by accident on a trip to Indonesia in November 2001 to sort out family business after his father’s death. “After I went to Indonesia, I got introduced to some people who were not good,” he told his tribunal in Guantánamo, adding, “They were bad people. Maybe I can say they were terrorists. When someone gets introduced to someone, it is not written on their foreheads that they are bad or good.”
In fact, Madni had not been betrayed by one of these men, but had been seized by the CIA after the Indonesian intelligence services, who were monitoring the men he had met -- members of the Islamic Defenders Front, an organization that espoused anti-Americanism, but had not been involved in any terrorist attacks -- heard him say that bombs could be hidden in shoes, and handed the information on to the CIA.
Although a US intelligence official told Ray Bonner of the New York Times in 2005 that Madni was nothing more than a “blowhard,” who “wanted us to believe he was more important than he was,” and another thought that he would be held for a few days, “then booted out of jail,” more senior officials, in a heightened state of fear following the capture of the inept and mentally troubled British shoe-bomber Richard Reid, demonstrated how casual the Bush administration’s use of “extraordinary rendition” was by rendering him to Egypt, presumably under the mistaken belief that torture would reveal the truth, one way or another.
More recent details of Madni’s rendition and torture
Since Madni’s release, Reprieve has been in touch with him, and he was also featured in a New York Times article in January, which added gruesome details to what was already known of his experiences. Madni explained that he had first suffered physical abuse at the airport in Jakarta, before his rendition flight took off. “One person from Egyptian intelligence, he come and he punch me here, very hard,” Madni said, hitting his chest to make his point, “and he grab me like this and he throw me against the wall.”
On the flight, Madni said, he was “bleeding from his nose, mouth and ears,” and on arrival in Cairo “they make me naked, they torture me.” Locked up in an underground cell like “a grave,” he said that he was held for 92 days, and was interrogated on three occasions soon after his arrival, for 12 to 15 hours at a time. He told the Times that his interrogators were Egyptian, but that “there were other men in the room whose faces were covered and who did not speak, but who passed notes with questions to the Egyptians.” When he refused to concede that he had traveled to Afghanistan and had met Osama bin Laden, he said that the Egyptians tortured him with electric shocks. “I cry and I yell,” he explained, adding, “they gave me brain electric shocks,” and that they also gave him drug-laced drinks “so you don’t know what you are talking about.”
Transferred to Bagram in early April, Madni confirmed that the abuse continued. He explained that a CIA agent told him, “We forgive you; just accept you met Osama bin Laden,” but that despite his refusal to confess, and even though he took several polygraph tests, which showed that he was telling the truth, he was subjected to sleep deprivation for six months, moved from cell to cell every few hours as part of a program that, when it surfaced in Guantánamo, was known euphemistically as the “frequent flier program.”
After his arrival at Guantánamo, on March 23, 2003, Madni was so depressed that, according to Mamdouh Habib, an Australian prisoner, released in January 2005, who had also been rendered for torture in Egypt, “he tried to hang himself twice, and went on three hunger strikes.“ By the time of his release, as the Times described it, “he had difficulty walking, his left ear was severely infected, and he was dependent on a cocktail of antibiotics and antidepressants.”
Everything about Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni’s treatment at the hands of US forces -- and their willing accomplices in Egypt -- should be a source of profound shame, and it is no wonder that Madni told the New York Times, “It’s easy for the United States to say no charges were found, but who is responsible for the seven years of my life?” and that his lawyer, Richard L. Cys, said he planned to sue the US government for his client’s unlawful detention, and has filed a lawsuit in the federal courts in the hope of gaining access to his medical records from Guantánamo, which, he hopes, will confirm his account of his torture in Egypt.
The complicity of the UK government
However, Reprieve is also concerned about the complicity of the British government in Madni’s rendition, noting that “the 1976 Exchange of Notes between the UK and US governments in relation to Diego Garcia clearly requires that the UK must be informed of all intended movements of US ships and aircraft on or through” Diego Garcia, and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also “stated that the United States would need to ask permission of the UK should it bring any ‘unlawful combatants’ onto the island.”
Reprieve also pointed out that, in response to questions about why it had taken so long for evidence of the two rendition flights through Diego Garcia to come to light, former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett told the BBC, “It was very difficult for the government ... to go back and look at what had happened on previous occasions ... [T]here was not a clear, simple trace of record keeping. That may, I don’t know, that may have been the case in the United States also.” Asking why this should have been so, Reprieve noted that “more than one independent source has since suggested that there had been logs of flights through Diego Garcia but the logs had been destroyed.”
That said, Reprieve also provided another explanation of why it may have been “difficult” to source the records, which, while tending to validate the British government’s claims about record keeping, demonstrates instead that approval for the activities of US agents must have come from the highest levels of the British government, through a rather devious arrangement whereby the Bush administration sought approval for its actions from cooperating governments, without necessarily providing them with any details of its activities.
A detailed examination of flights conducted by a well-known CIA rendition plane, a Gulfstream V turbojet identified by its tailfin number N379P, has indicated that it “routinely operated under various ‘special status designators’” (STS), including the designation “STS/STATE,” for which, as Reprieve notes, “the operators were claiming an official status for N379P as an aircraft on state duty, only one category below the aircraft that carry Heads of State [STS/HEAD].”
Moreover, Reprieve has also established, after studying four rendition cases, that “the operators of N379P also declared the plane to have the special status ‘ATFMEXEMPT,’” an even more limited STS designator, which “allows deviations from planned routes and other exemptions.” As Reprieve stated, this “effectively allowed N379P to fly wherever it liked, whenever it liked, without having to file new flight plans.”
Crucially, however, this special status is only granted when “specifically authorized by the relevant national authority,” and is taken very seriously by European air traffic controllers, indicating that approval must have come from the highest levels of the governments involved. As Council of Europe Senator Dick Marty has explained, based on his detailed investigations into “extraordinary rendition,” “Both of these ‘special status’ designations … vouch for the prior knowledge and collaborative planning input of the states whose territory or airspace was being traversed, because such exemptions ‘shall only be used with the proper authority.’”
While these investigations indicate that approval for the passage of US rendition flights through other countries’ airspace required high-level consultations with the governments involved, it should be noted that Reprieve also uncovered evidence indicating that the US may, in fact, have been given blanket approval to conduct “operations against terrorism” without having to provide cooperating governments with any specific details of these operations, using a “military travel order,” approved as part of a largely classified NATO agreement signed on October 4, 2001, in which NATO allies “agreed -- at the request of the United States -- to take eight measures, individually and collectively, to expand the options available in the campaign against terrorism.”
As Reprieve explained, only two of these measures have been made publicly available, but they certainly seem to provide all the approval the United States would have needed to conduct rendition operations while keeping its allies ignorant of the details. One provides “Blanket overflight clearances for the United States’ and other Allies’ aircraft for military flights related to operations against terrorism,” and the other provides “Blanket access to ports and airfields on NATO territory, including for refuelling, for United States and other Allies for operations against terrorism.”
What about the secret prison?
By revealing the identity of one of the prisoners rendered through Diego Garcia -- and, perhaps more importantly, through its investigations of the types of government approval required for rendition flights -- Reprieve’s report should renew pressure not only on the British government, but on other cooperating governments, to explain what special measures were adopted after the 9/11 attacks to facilitate “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and, I believe, to open up a debate about both their legality and the fact that they are presumably still in effect, should the Obama administration -- or any other NATO member -- feel that further renditions are required.
What also needs noting, however, is that, behind the revelation of one man’s identity -- and the ongoing question of the identity of the other man rendered through Diego Garcia -- is an even more thorny question that has more profound implications for both the British and American governments: whether a secret “War on Terror” prison has existed on the island, or on a ship (or ships) moored in its territorial waters.
This question has been raised since July 2002, when TIME, “quoting a source familiar with the operation,” reported that the alleged senior al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah had been transferred to a prison on Diego Garcia from a US naval ship, and has been reinforced in the years since by other reports, in the US and Spanish media, claiming that other “high-value detainees” -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the Bali bombing suspect Hambali and two of his alleged associates, and Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, the only one of the six who was not eventually transferred to Guantánamo -- were also held on the island, as I reported in a detailed article last summer.
Both Dick Marty and Manfred Novak, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Terrorism, have stated their belief that prisoners have been held on Diego Garcia. In March 2008, Novak said that he had “received credible evidence from well-placed sources familiar with the situation on the island that detainees were held on Diego Garcia between 2002 and 2003,” and, after consultation with senior CIA officials and other knowledgeable sources, Marty told the Council of Europe, following the publication of a report into “Alleged secret detentions and illegal transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states” in June 2006 (PDF), “We have received concurring confirmations that United States agencies have used Diego Garcia, which is the international legal responsibility of the UK, in the ‘processing’ of high-value detainees. It is true that the UK government has readily accepted ‘assurances’ from US authorities to the contrary, without ever independently or transparently inquiring into the allegations itself, or accounting to the public in a sufficiently thorough manner.”
Moreover, confirmation has also come from two sources within the Bush administration. Last summer, a “senior American official” (now retired), who was “a frequent participant in White House Situation Room meetings” after the 9/11 attacks, told Adam Zagorin of TIME that “a CIA counter-terrorism official twice said that a high-value prisoner or prisoners were being interrogated on the island,” and in two interviews with National Public Radio, Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star US general, who is now professor of international security studies at the West Point military academy, let slip that Diego Garcia had been used to hold terror suspects. In May 2004, he blithely declared, “We’re probably holding around 3,000 people, you know, Bagram air field, Diego Garcia, Guantánamo, 16 camps throughout Iraq,” and in December 2006 he slipped the leash again, saying, “They’re behind bars … we’ve got them on Diego Garcia, in Bagram air field, in Guantánamo.”
In conclusion, it is ten months since the scandal of Diego Garcia’s secret prison last surfaced, and I can only hope that the ordeal of Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni -- and the painstaking research undertaken by Reprieve -- will once more give this sordid story to the prominence it deserves.
Note: The description of Diego Garcia as the United States’ “single most important military facility” was made by John Pike, who runs the website GlobalSecurity.org, to David Vine, author of the newly-published book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press). For Dick Marty’s second report on “Secret detentions and illegal transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states” (published in June 2007) see here.