I heard you like black sites

Hey Donald, I heard you were reconsidering CIA  black sites overseas. I have a few notes for you. It will take more than 140 characters or less to explain the obligations of human rights law under counter terrorism, but I am hoping against hope you will pay more attention to this than you do your own intelligence briefings. 

Let us first agree on what we colloquially refer to as a “CIA black site”: those are secret prisons, detention facilities operated by the Central Intelligence Agency in which detainees are held incommunicado (without access to a lawyer, without knowledge for the International Committee of the Red Cross), for indefinite amounts of time, without charge or trial, and subjected to ill-treatment and torture for the purpose of interrogation. Those “black sites” – a shameful collection of legal black holes, where truth, memory and sunlight never shine – were built overseas.

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The reason they were built overseas is because of legality. This is no secret our profession bypassed ethics (albeit successfully, to our greatest dismay and fatal sadness) in the name of a government-led and government-approved definition of security. The Convention Against Torture, adopted by the General Assembly in 1984, holds torture as an absolute prohibition. The reservations emitted by the US Congress during the ratification process in 1992 established a definition that made torture only possible overseas, outside US jurisdiction – physical custody or control of another party. And thus, Donald, if you want to lift the ban on the use of torture on terrorism detainees, you will need partner countries to assist you in reviving a horror that is very much present: 41 men are still held in Guantanamo Bay, after having transited through one of those sites. I am here to tell you that you will not get what you want, at least not from European member-states. See, we have obligations to uphold: we have a Court tasked with trying violations, and an entire supranational Committee which mission is to ensure the enforcement of this Court’s judgments.

In a hearing in that same Court in December 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, described the CIA Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) programme as a “vast conspiracy”. It is: the number countries that have assisted the United States illustrate a form of international deference to the war on terror and the damage it spurred, to the detriment of efficacy and human rights. The Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) has conducted two investigations into states’ collusion with the CIA, one via the rapporteur Dick Marty in 2006, and another via the rapporteur Claudio Fava in 2007. Both yielded reports that represent a seminal work of independent parliamentary scrutiny. In early 2016, the European Parliament closed its investigation, reaching the same conclusion: not only were states aware that this was happening, they chose not to collaborate with investigations, and raised classification issues. All of this works in the Trump administration’s favour. A culture of secrecy largely cultivated under transnational security agreements; his Democratic predecessor’s distaste of judicial scrutiny and accountability; a conflict in Syria that never ends, creating millions of refugees and destabilising the entire region. A celebrity fascist was elected because Americans, on top of being angry, were afraid. Europeans, on top of being afraid, are also angry at what took place in Paris, Brussels, Ankara, and Berlin, to name a few.

Ireland, the United Kingdom, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Macedonia did everything from facilitating the CIA jets’ refuel, to building black sites on their own territory. To this day, only Italy has carried out a domestic investigation into its own intelligence services’ collaboration with the CIA, resulting in the conviction of CIA agents in absentia. The case itself is fraught with procedural errors, deliberate smokescreens, and abusive use of state secrets. Poland has been found guilty by the Court, and now finds itself in the position to ensure Al-Nashiri’s trial and sentence. None of those states have disclosed the agreement – called a memorandum of understanding (MoU) – with the Court, presumably to preserve their special relationship to the CIA, invoking the absolute necessity to remain on the US’ good side while they seek to participate in the purported “eradication” of terrorism. All of this, again, works in the US’ favour. Except for this tiny, insignificant, fraction of a detail: the rule of law.

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Now, we know. It’s been a long, painful and traumatic road since the first rumours, investigations, and articles about secret Gulfstream IV jets flying unidentified “detainee combatants” from one secret prison to another first came light. The European Court of Human Rights has issued a judgment that clarifies that, even in the absence of disclosure of those MoUs, there had been enough substantiated and corroborated evidence published in the press and through legal and academic research to make a conclusive finding on a gross violation of human rights law. A report compiled by the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), still classified but with its executive summary released in December 2014, remains an formidable excercise of domestic parliamentary scrutiny. The SSCI report, dubbed the CIA torture report, reveals the location of several black sites, the budget the CIA required to carry out that programme, in addition to recordings of interrogation sessions, legal memos in preparation of the establishment of the policy, and photos obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The question, at this point, is whether the truth is as objective as it should be, and if its existence can replace accountability.

For all the bragging and boasting about enjoying the infliction of long term and damaging suffering on other human beings, for all the speeches given at Langley on extending covert operations, you have not created anything. You are simply considering lifting a ban on a period of American history that has not seen any closure because of an admission the government had “tortured some folks”. The United States is still in violation of UNCAT for refusing to prosecute officials that have authorized the use of torture. For the lawyers, this has led to successful careers. For the military, “harsh interrogation” is still present in the books. The black sites, meanwhile, enjoy a second life: the building in Temara, Morocco, has been used, once the CIA had left the premises, by the domestic intelligence agency to torture dissidents. Wherever the CIA has visited and stayed, visible scars are identifiable. Wherever the CIA tortured in secret, the impunity is perpetuated. Lifting the ban Obama enforced in 2009 isn’t the hawkish, vicious, cynical, dangerous and violent regime the Electoral College wished into existence. It is a pathetic, weak, ignorant, and self-destructive vision of counter-terrorism.

Torture is not efficient. Torture does not provide reliable intelligence. Torture has never made a country safer. Torture has never facilitated the end to illegitimate political violence. The unlawful detention of hundreds of men, some of them sold to US forces by bounty hunters and acknowledged as having suffered on the basis of false information, testimonies or mistaken identity, has provided ammunition for insurgency, has encouraged the use of imagery for the dissemination of similarly atrocious behaviour, and has stripped the United States and participating countries of any legitimacy in denouncing, and acting against, other states engaging in such horrific operations. It has reawakened the trauma of those same interrogation methods used in Northern Ireland at the height of its own conflict, mentioned in the footnote of a legal memorandum discussing, at length, how much pain can be inflicted on a human being without crossing an admittedly arbitrary threshold. You are not making America great again, Donald. You are simply returning to a very recent place in time when large-scale, international security operations were launched to the detriment of the rights of the victims, circumventing international law and international institutions, in the name of an irrational appetite for vengeance.

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Whatever the domestic framework, if you attempt to hire John Yoo again, will be hindered by the current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), through an amendment introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein; it will be blocked by the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), both texts acknowledging the veracity of reports of the CIA’s conduct, and furthering the importance of ECtHR rulings against offending states. But most importantly, torture is an absolute prohibition; a war crime; indefinite detention without charge, the refusal of access to a lawyer, the denial of access to the ICRC, the removal of detainees to a military base, are violations of both humanitarian law and human rights law; several protocols of the Military Commissions Act (2006) violating fair trial rules. Donald, this is simple: the only national security position you are entitled to take in regards to the RDI programme is instructing the Department of Justice to prosecute officials that have created the programme, the private contractors that have devised interrogation methods, the intelligence agents that have supervised it and carried it out, as well as cooperating in every possible way with every request emitted by the ECtHR in order for our organization to respect our own obligations. Anything else would be in violation of international law; and every step of the way, there will be lawyers, legal academics, researchers, and journalists ready to expose the mechanisms you will use, because we know them by now.

You will drown under the weight of lawsuits, and you are already at odds with the medical professionals that had once assisted the 43rd President of the United States. For every government lawyer that will attempt to argue our role, as international human rights lawyers, is illegitimate foreign interference, that we are a fifth column, there will be the survivors of Guantanamo Bay to testify of what they have been through, there will be the families of victims of terrorism that seek fair redress, and there will be judicial oversight of counter-terrorism operations reaffirming that efficiency is a human rights obligation resting upon states. Including the United States. Including you, as the depositary of executive authority.

The only way to rid your administration of those pesky international lawyers such as myself is to comply with international law. There is no way around it. To quote the wonderful Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American who marched against you in DC, “I will respect the presidency, but I will not respect this president”. On this note, I bid you good night, Donald, and there is no need to tweet at me at 2 in the morning. 

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“We need the powers and the resources to expose the truth”

David Anderson QC (left), independent terrorism legislation reviewer. Ben Emmerson QC (right), UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism

On Wednesday, March 26, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) convened on Westminster with the heaviest agenda of the parliamentary year so far – scrutiny of human rights compliance with counter-terrorism laws, protocols and their application. Following just  a week after another committee (Home Affairs) took great paints to summon Sir Mark Waller over GCHQ activities – and concluded that the little if any scrutiny granted to intelligence activity and data collection was far below a democratic threshold – the JCHR intended to make an inventory of the most pressing issues facing the human rights community in regards to counter-terrorism laws in the UK, enforced domestically and abroad. Present where David Anderson QC, an amicable, straight-forward and honest reviewer aware of his possibilities and difficulties as independent reviewer of terrorism legislation; and the both ubiquitous and far too rare Ben Emmerson QC, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights while Countering Terrorism.

As the UK slowly emerges from the deep slumber induced by the shock of the Snowden revelations, and intends to bring forward a semblance of a healthy democratic debate surrounding the overwhelming powers granted under its anti-terrorism legislation – from Parliament-embraced measures to unchecked use of executive power – this hearing was more formal that the Home Affairs’ submission to Sir Mark sought to be. Anderson and Emmerson, both tasked with a position that requires more than annual reports and evidence submission, highlighted not only the domestic inconsistencies of counter-terrorism legislation both in regards to constitutional safeguards but European legal compliance, but the international implications of the UK armed forces abroad – and even more to the point, the UK collusion with the US drone war.

Both Anderson and Emmerson were asked, as a preamble, to identify three key issues arising from abuses of counter-terrorism legislation – and both agreed on all three, their pressing need to be addressed, and the importance of a legislative scrutiny. Not respecting their own order, this write-up of the hearing seeks to re-affirm the basic principles of human rights compliance in counter-terrorism activities. Despite the current climate and the domestic policies seemingly asserting that the two are mutually exclusive, that conditions of necessity and proportionality involve derogations, and that national security imperatives supersede all – Anderson and Emmerson were both unequivocal in the belief that unless regular scrutiny, legislative and judicial review, and transparency prevail in a democratic country seeking to combat the extremely real of terrorism, abuses would be just as well shared by the nation-state violating the principles it had originally vowed to uphold.

Definition of terrorism

The question arose in the context of the Miranda v Home Secretary ruling in February, in which it had been effectively denounced and illustrated that section 40 (1) (b) of the ATCSA was too broad, too vague and unchecked to be efficient and free of possible discretionary, discriminatory abuses. As Emmerson remarked, the UK’s situation in defining terrorism – or failing to appropriately do so – is hardly unique. Many states, most of them being western democracies grappling with more or less open conflict in MENA or South East Asia, have definitions of what constitutes terrorism that are adaptable, subjected to interpretation, often not legislative. Anderson noted that he intended to revisit the definition incorporated into the ATCSA, if only in the light of the Miranda verdict – although the High Court ruling only emphasized that this became necessary, as opposed to shedding a light on an issue no one addressed. Continuing, “in the old days, terrorism was simple”, referring to the usual and perhaps now obsolete decision that terrorism was an act of violence perpetrated in order to achieve a certain political aim. The definition of ethnopolitical terrorism, a type of conflict Northern Ireland declared for decades, may no longer fit such a clear-cut bill: what has become a political means to achieve? Is the goal of the political action the strict act of self-determination, or can wanton destruction (of both property and persons) be considered terrorism? Should it be foreign or domestic? Should be carried by an organisation or an isolated individual? In the attempt to cover all bases, 40 (1) (b) covered, in fact, all bases, even those that perhaps should never be criminalized to the full extent of the overreaching powers of couter-terrorism legislation.

Ben Emmerson

Maybe more to the point – and this was said as an aside, despite its importance – a broad definition of terrorism could apply to state actors as well as it could to organisations and individuals. Emmerson:

This definition (…) criminalises conduct too broadly. The purported safeguards against abuses can’t be used against executive orders, that remain unchallenged. If you apply this definition, it could apply to British armed forces overseas.

Although it remains quite unsure as to how many eyebrows were effectively raised following this statement, Emmerson continued on the difficulties of applying a terrorism charge ex post facto. “This is not consistent with our constitutional principles”, he concluded, which will later be raised once more in the evolution of the legal context of counter-terrorism.

What was at the core of the Miranda case, indeed, was the extension of counter terrorism legislation to journalism – and the fact that carrying material that could be deemed harmful to national security; knowing, carrying, transporting, or transferring information deemed harmful; and publishing said information is now subjected to a terrorism charge. If journalists have now become a preferred target for outlandish counter terrorism laws that are only a front for clearly criminalizing dissent, the goal of extending these powers – which include prolonged detention, seizure of property, prolonged interrogation often as a result of long standing surveillance – to journalists, protected by the ECHR, the ICCPR and domestic mechanisms of press freedom, has a dangerous aspect that has forced one member of the JCHR to ask both barristers if journalism, and being a journalist, should be defined in order to create a framework that would escape the claws of counter-terrorism legislation. But being a journalist is not simply a profession on a card, not simply a career; it is the act of researching information and publishing it. In the digital era, an individual that may not necessarily be a career journalist, would not necessarily identify as such, or would not be hired full time and under contract by a newspaper organisation, can indeed act as a journalist and publish as such. Those individuals also deserve the protection of Article 10, and hold the right to a public interest defense.

Emmerson did not mention the Johannesburg Principles; instead, he referred to a more recent convention – principles laid out that goes through both domestic and comparative law in order to provide the best media protection possible, as well as enriching the legal mechanisms and recourses for whistleblowers… including those engaging in unauthorized disclosures. It is of Emmerson’s “robust view”, as he puts it – which may be robust in a vacuum, but necessary in the context – to foster and favour an environment in which the media plays a role of governing accountability and providing a healthy debate in the name of public interest. If the question of transparency has popped in a few times during the short hearing, it has however made a lasting impact – Westminster has now effectively held two parliamentary hearings during which observers, national, domestic workers in different fields, have assessed the Snowden disclosures not only as being in the public interest of the United Kingdom, but also having a much broader, international scope – which forces the national government in this situation, not only to address its own population in regards to the domestic spying apparatus in place, but to answer to the duties and responsibilities each nation has toward the others with which it engages.

Glenn Greenwald after finding out about Scotland Yard’s “Ports Circulation Sheet” related to the arrest and detention of his partner, David Miranda.

(If the Snowden revelations damaged more than two governments’ abilities to be trusted by their own population, we may not know in the immediate; US journalist Jason Leopold, who has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a DIA document supposedly reporting on the “grave damage” the Guardian publication would have caused has been met with an “exceptional circumstances” excuse, seeking additional time to process his request. Considering the discourse on the so-called lethal effects of the NSA disclosures at home and abroad, one would be under the belief that the DIA would want this report out there, for everyone to stop considering Snowden a hero. Alas, this is not the case; and the notion of public interest in the face of grave human rights violations remain.)

Anderson, who has had first hand experience in observing press freedom and its restrictions elsewhere while on a mission for the Council of Europe (CoE), has reported that instances of restrictive definitions of what constitutes journalism and who can be considered a journalist, with the legal protections attributed to the title, more than often led to press freedom violations. He referred to the Levison case, another ominous jurisprudence for the United Kingdom. Although Anderson’s point was brief, if his intent was to suggest press freedom ought not to be restricted on matters of principle to avoid civil liberties violations (as opposed to restricting them for opaque national security matters), it was very well conveyed. The concerns raised by the JCHR was not in the strict and immediate future of the Miranda ruling, which is still under ongoing litigation, but just as dangerous and pervasive chilling effect it has on freedom of expression, opinion, and access to information. Emmerson, who never sought to wax poetic and engage in rhetorical battles of sorts on political linguistics, stated that national security was in fact used as an excuse to intimidate and silence the press. This goes hand in hand with recent declarations by UN Rapporteur Frank La Rue on the chilling effects of prosecution of whistleblowers. Anderson, who explained that national security was “notoriously undefined”, took issue with unquestionable, unchallenged and unscrutinized executive orders – as well as the Royal Prerogative – which, as a terrorism reviewer, leaves those unilateral decisions outside of his purview. It became clear at this point of the hearing that a legislative review of counter-terrorism, powers granted by Parliament and possibility to curtail, democratically, exceptional powers granted to the executive, could be what the UK – and by extension, the US – need.

CIA rendition program

A long-lasting thorn in Ben Emmerson’s side, the release of the Gibson Inquiry echoes the current theater drama on the other side of the Atlantic, as Sen. Feinstein struggles with the CIA, her own demons, and getting the votes to hypothetically release the CIA torture report. The Gibson Inquiry, named after Sir Peter Gibson, tasked to investigate the role of British intelligence forces into the CIA torture program, has notoriously been stalling for years. Then transferred to the Intelligence Services Committee (ISC), David Cameron, as a campaign promise, sought to take it away from Lord Gibson and handing it out to the ISC. He famously said, in 2010:

I do not think for a moment that we should believe that the ISC should be doing this piece of work. For public confidence, and for independence from parliament, party and government, it is right to have a judge-led inquiry. That is what we need to get to the bottom of the case. The fact that it is led by a judge will help ensure that we get it done properly.

A statement made on December 19, 2013 and released to David Cameron said the report concluded that matters needed “further investigation”. However, the ISC has been heavily criticized for failing to conduct proper oversight into the activities of intelligence services; in this case, the only released information concerned the MI-6 collusion with Gaddafi, which resulted in the rendition and torture of two Libyan opposition leaders in 2004. Handing the Gibson inquiry to a committee that lacks powers and resources to conduct a truly independent and thorough inquiry has been perceived by members of human rights groups as a willingness to whitewash the activities of the MI-5 and MI-6. As the ISC reviewer himself, Sir Mark, proved at his own hearing last week, the reviewer has little to no power over GCHQ; is massively understaffed; does not possess the power to compel evidence or summon witnesses; any evidence provided will be heavily redacted if ever possibly released at all. Emmerson, who expressed his frustration over the procedural limitations of the inquiry over and over again, re-affirmed the need to absolutely lift any roadblocks standing before the ISC “so the Committee can do its job”:

Individuals concerned by the inquiry boycotted it – but those who committed crimes need to be exposed. The Committee needs to have the powers and resources to expose the truth.

When asked if the ISC would ever face a conflict of interest in the conduct of a review that is neither legislative nor judicial, Emmerson expressed a commitment to oversight that is refreshing in an era of hyper-classification and constant executive-led belittling of calls for transparency. The Rapporteur then made a statement that sounds like stating the obvious, a truth that many democratic regimes may have held as self-evident, that is, until someone blows the whistle on works behind the scenes: that oversight is a traditional mechanism in advanced democracies. It is the one tool of accountability that can be relied upon especially when exercised by the very representatives of the people (legislative) and/or by an absolute separate branch of government (judicial). Only a lack of oversight, or a demonstration of powerless or virtually pointless oversight can reveal that separation of powers or excessive executive control has undermined the constitutional principles of society. As to whether any inquiry, inquiry report or conclusions should lead to prosecution, Emmerson believes that a strong judicial component to an inquiry could be an asset to conducting an investigation into intelligence services – as the judicial hand might be seen as stronger and less subjected to influence.

In light of Sir Mark’s testimony – which, again, he performed extremely reluctantly – the issue of transparency not only in intelligence itself, but in the conduct of oversight was raised. Although both Emmerson and Anderson mentioned the concept of “responsible journalism” earlier in the hearing, the necessity for information and the right to truth was once again made in front of a legislative body (emphasis mine):

It is always difficult to decide [ on release ] when dealing with sensitive information, to decide if privacy is justified. But what the committee is tasked with, parts are capable of being held in public. All that can be safely in the public domain should be in the public domain.

Unmanned aircrafts, targeted killings and undeclared battlefields

It was surprising to hear members of the JCHR being surprised that the use of drones made Anderson and Emmerson’s top three counter-terrorism issues list. Following an extremely brutal yet absolutely necessary report three weeks ago, which seemingly went half unnoticed even in the list of proposals it laid out in its conclusion, Emmerson provided the committee with what Anderson later referred to as a “masterclass on drones”. No stranger to their use in undeclared battlefields and the massive human rights violations they committed – pre emptive killings, unsanctioned use of military force, civilian killings and the absolute classification over their intelligence collection methods, their trajectory, and little known about their operating bases, it was no wonder that Emmerson’s tenure at the UN would prominently feature his lengthy field research in Pakistan and Yemen in order to amass the information that no one else would release to him, despite his position, that one would assume significant enough to warrant cooperation.

Alas.

Know Your Drone

Emmerson identified four key concerns, which he outlined in concise but harsh terms:

1) this is a 21st century weapon designed for asymmetrical armed conflict. As a counter-insurgency tool, which is what it is branded to be, it is of very little use and effect.

2) the Committee was right in saying that with the technology at our disposal, and the capacity to place suspects under 24/7 surveillance, it is in fact possible to protect the right to life closer to a zero-collateral damage than ever before – tools of precise targets, even more surgical strikes, and threat removal. Instead, the use of drones have illustrated reckless endangerment, and have destroyed said right to life.

3) Most of the difficulty that arises from the counter-terrorism and human rights study of the use of drones is that they often operate outside of the theaters of traditional armed conflict. Their constant hovering over Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, nations with no declared war against the US or the UK, force precedence in areas of international law where there is nothing even remotely close to a political or legal consensus.

4) Drones are operated by the CIA.

Presenting this quote without further comment:

I don’t know who originally thought it was a smart idea to hand drones in a campaign of waging war through the air to an organisation bound by the rules of neither-confirm-nor-deny. (…) I’d rather give MI-6 a fleet of aircrafts and let them go off and do whatever they needed to do.

The complete lack of transparency even in answering simple questions from journalists and lawyers is what makes the CIA such an unpractical and dangerous organisation to direct and lead unmanned aircrafts – remotely based pilots distanced and detached from the battlefield, the realities of the insurgency and the bloodshed of the bombs they let off. The historical culture of classification and secrecy held by the CIA, the topic of which is often source of heavy-handed satire and conspiracy theories is an issue in and of itself. Abuses do arise, but in the hands of the CIA, they are effectively removed from any tool of accountability for the civilians affected by their practices; the wounded as well as the killed. The effort to transfer the direction of drones from the CIA to the Department of Justice (DoJ) was a step in the right direction, but hindered. Emmerson however noticed that since John Brennan took over as head of the CIA, Pakistan enjoyed a period of relief from the death machines. (Sadly, this has not proven true for Yemen).

Picking apart Emmerson’s new report draws the eye on his rhetorical questioning on a proposed change of international law (!) and accountability systems of counter-terrorism (!!) to fit the current and evolving framework of the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency methods the US and UK are practising in the name of their endless War on Terror. Reducing it to the simplest possible question due to the nature of the hearing and its limited duration, Emmerson was asked to answer whether war should be redefined. This, however, was not rhetorical. Stating that this is a complex issue – and I would argue, the most complex international criminal issue of our time, one I have been working on for ages – there is no consensus among states, or even among lawyers. The Geneva Conventions are and should remain the guiding principles of the law of warfare; but the nature of conflicts themselves have evolved far away from our traditional and historical definition of what constitutes an international armed conflict. Most of the battle zones, these days, are asymmetrical battlefields – meaning, in broad and simple terms, a nation-state against a more or less borderless organisation. Henceforth, the targeted laws of international humanitarian concepts are harder and harder to apply. Jurisdiction is an ongoing concern in matters of judicial accountability. Classification is the biggest fear in matters of political accountability. If counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism are often confused in media coverage, it is because the definition of what constitutes a legitimate military target not only varies according to the country in which the fight is taking place, but also the rules of engagement (for armed forces); the duty handbook (for private military contractors), and legislation once one policy expires or there is a change in administration. The questions Ben Emmerson asked at the end of the report, which asked states involved in the War on Terror to not only answer his calls for transparency and release of information, will be subjected to a vote at the United Nations shortly, recommending the establishment of a committee that would hear states and their own national, domestic and political vision of counter-terrorism, human rights compliance, and the legal systems of accountability they would recognize.

As I said, Emmerson’s report was a brutal read; and if some states decided to play the game and submit themselves to Emmerson’s questioning – the future will tell the degree of truthfulness involved – the Rapporteur was quick to point out that the UK was “not terribly keen” to submit themselves to the Human Rights Council. In itself, it is immensely telling.

Home Secretary Theresa May

Citizenship deprivation, executive powers

When mentioning the awfully limited and comically useless powers of Sir Mark Waller, it was unbelievable to conceive that David Anderson would face oversight issues. Indeed, his body of work as a reviewer is comprehensive, transparent, available and accessible. However, in the recent decisions made by the Secretary of State and Home Secretary, regarding immigration, deportation and revoking powers, Anderson admitted he had no review powers – those fell under immigration ministry oversight. However, one concern was a power that had been long lost and was somehow revived in the last twelve months: revoking a passport. Since April 2013, 14 passports have been revoked under powers granted by the Royal Prerogative, another unilateral executive power not subjected to review. (We remember activist Moazzam Begg’s passport being confiscated upon return from a humanitarian trip to Syria, not long before being arrested and detained by the anti-terrorism unit of Birmingham Police).

But again, the bigger picture remains the same: it is an issue of transparency and accountability. Theresa May’s citizenship deprivation scheme, detailed here at length by journalist Aviva Stahl, have obscured motives yet terrifyingly clear results. Left vulnerable, without diplomatic assurance and the protection of the right of abode, statelessness effectively makes individuals vulnerable to gross human rights violations – historical instances in the previous centuries having led to the 1954 Convention on the status of stateless persons. Although the power of revoking citizenship is a prerogative of any member state, the necessity to ensure that the individual is not only entitled to powers of appeal of the decision but also has another citizenship or state willing to grant asylum once the decision made should be a duty incumbent to any state party to that treaty. Emmerson, falling into the footsteps of a House of Lords hearing last week during which the scheme was debated, in the light of two individuals murdered by a drone strike directly following the revoking of their citizenship, reaffirmed that international law had to prevail in a climate of perpetual and ubiquitous conflict during which individuals are not to be left without possibility of refuge. However, the follow-up question was met with concerns for the security of the United Kingdom, not an appreciation of the human rights of individuals, regardless of their alleged or confirmed criminal status. Emmerson, again:

Those singled out for a crime that is wholly public – on notice from the government and the services that watch them – are those posing the least threat. This is a radical power, and it makes one wonder what someone did to deserve such a measure.

Anderson, who has consistently and abundantly worked on TPIMs, was happy to report there were none enforced currently; there should be an emphasis on prosecution in matters of criminal wrongdoing, as opposed to executive orders in matters of security. Are the TPIMs really that efficient in terms of counter-terrorism prevention? Are executive powers a deterrent to criminal activity? What can be a deterrent? Wouldn’t the appropriate behavior to work on the roots of terrorism – explained and detailed in the UN 2006 global counter-terrorism strategy – as opposed to immediately and profusely rely on executive powers, unchallenged and unchecked, to provide national security?

Crux of the matter remained that scrutiny of executive powers and executive services – intelligence and use of military force in matters of counter-terrorism – require that the other branches of government obtain at least equal power to the executive as opposed to being subjected to disclosure exemptions, classification refusals, and clearance denials when accessing material, evidence, and individual that would facilitate the conduct of their work. Anderson suggested that members of Parliament engaged in legislative review should be granted security clearance to access GCHQ / MI-6 material – or at least, be treated as if they did. “It is the only way we can debate information in a meaningful way”, he said, in yet another significant effort by a terrorism specialist to emphasize the necessity for clarity and transparency in the healthy course of democracy. Emmerson concluded that oversight was not working as it well as it should be, but thankfully, we could rely on a momentum, at international level, to create direct obligations upon member-states to abide by human rights provisions in the course of intelligence gatherings and counter-terrorism.

And we hope it doesn’t stop.

 

Judicial activism and the right to truth: al-Hawsawi and Lithuania

Mustafa al-Hawsawi, 2012

Last month, an extremely important case hearing took place in Strasbourg, at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It detailed the collusion of the government of Poland with the CIA in creating a secret prison on its territory, in which prisoners were detained, interrogated, tortured, then shipped to the United States on unchartered flights before being detained again at the horrific naval base of Guantanamo Bay. The worst illustration of a lethal EU-US partnership in the so-called War on Terror was finally exposed, after much obstacles were removed. Lack of transparency, hyperclassification, judicial deference, protection of “vital foreign interests”, and the usual disdain for the basic fundamental rights of terror suspects have led to a considerable delay in trying the Guantanamo Bay inmates, but also to broadcast in a court of law the crimes committed by the nation states and their agents. In the fight against terrorism, counter-terrorism is also on trial.

The establishment of CIA black sites on European soil has been a profound source of shame, a delicate diplomatic issue. Yet a comprehensive document dating back to 2006, the Marty Report, commissioned by the European Parliament to investigate and assess the extent of member-states collaborating with the CIA , brought to light how massive the scale of cooperation has been. If the case of Poland has become a textbook situation for collusion –  from paying airport employees in cash to hide departing flights to the US, to refusing access to classified documentation to defence lawyers – it is important to keep in mind it is not an isolated situation. This week, Lithuania has managed to score a victory in its judicial battle within its own domestic courts, without the help of Strasbourg, in a case that highlights two fundamental difficulties and hurdles in the prosecution of the CIA torture program: not only had the Lithuanian prosecutor refused, twice,  to open an investigation into the prison located in the small village of Antaviliai, but all the information used to re-open the case was not governmental documentation at all – it was journalistic investigation made public that had allowed to provide new information.

Mustafa Al-Hawsawi is a Saudi national, currently detained in Guantanamo Bay as a high value detainee and faces trial by a military commission for his role as a financial backer of the 9/11 attack. He was captured in 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. According to him, he was then transferred to Lithuania where he was handed to US authorities, subjected to torture and disappeared – he would have remained in the secret prison for two whole years, between 2004 and 2006. It’s only then, in September 2006, that US officials formally acknowledged his detention at Guantanamo Bay. As a high-value detainee, Al-Hawsawi was at a much higher risk of torture than any other inmate, according to a report by the ICRC; later, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism – who filed as a third party in the Abu Zubaydah v Poland case – reported, in 2013, that the situation of CIA black sites and the practice of extraordinary rendition for terror suspects involved 54 nation states total, from Lithuania to Morocco and from Poland to Thailand.

The forest on the road from Vilnius to Antaviliai, Lithuania

Thanks to investigative journalist Jason Leopold, we know much more about the arrest, disappearance, detention and torture of Abu Zubaydah than we could have ever hope to find if we had followed the often blocked, often stonewalled round of a traditional legal investigation. In the case of Al-Hawsawi, the road was paved with ill-intentions, over a five-year period: in 2009, an initial investigation into the case was made thanks to a report by ABC news, yet charges were dropped seemingly due to lack of evidence. Back then, Defense Minister Rasa Junkeviciene had released this statement:

“Prosecutors need facts. This is how I understand their decision. One shouldn’t forget that this is not only a Lithuanian issue, and if other states fail to give necessary information, or people who know something also don’t want to give information, then in fact it’s pretty hard to say something.”

Although this sounds logical and a fair assessment of how charges could be dropped in a case of serious violations of international law, this highlights the difficulty to access information when so much redaction, red tape or complete classification of material can not be accessible through the classic and regular means of transfer of information in a transnational case. It was obvious that due to the lack of compliance displayed by the United States at the time, further investigation into the lost two years of Al-Hawsawi’s life would lead to empty boxes, unaccessible documentation, or even possibly a request not to look further into this case. However, thanks to the ABC News report, the Lithuanian Parliament created a committee tasked with investigating the alleged CIA black site. And they found one. In fact, they found two. But those were empty, and there was absolutely no written trace, documentation, or evidence made available to them that any prisoners under any authority had been brought to those sites.

Former president Valdus Adamkus and former prime minister Algirdas Brazauskas, the executive authority in place at the time, denied any allegations. The investigation, which came to a screeching halt in 2011, had however unearthed some pretty disturbing evidence, that, linked to other similar cases of detention and torture at CIA black sites, could determine a pretty serious pattern of corrupting local officials, building sites in remote rural areas, and circumventing airport rules for flights to depart and land unsuspected. According to the Prime Minister, who took part in the committee:

The committee also said that five airplanes “linked to the CIA” landed in Vilnius and Palanga airports from 2002-2005, and on at least two occasions border procedures were bypassed with the help of high-ranking Lithuanian State Security officials.

As I wrote in December following the Abu Zubaydah hearing, which I attended, the facts of the case soberly enunciated by the lead counsel, Ms. Singh, illustrated one thing – that it would have been impossible for the CIA to have operated in Poland without national officials knowing about the site. In fact, as it was said then – “not only should Poland know, but Poland did know.” Ms. Singh recounts the different steps taken into the detention and rendition of Abu Zubaydah:

Singh insisted that Poland was not only guilty of facilitating the detention of Al-Nashiri, but also to actively cover-up US rendition flights, and not act under the law when they knowingly assisted the torture of the applicants. Payment of fees to CIA officials, extra bonuses in cash granted to Polish officials and airport workers who assisted in the cover up and departure of rendition flights  have all been documented by what the counsel asserted were credible sources, while Poland carried out claiming that bias from witnesses and anonymity of testimonies made them, apparently, unreceivable. Singh added, in a moment that sent a chill down the audience’s spine, that there had even been agreements between Polish and US officials as to the procedure to adopt should a prisoner die during the detention.

al-Hawsawi at his arraignment in 2008. (c) Janet Hamlin

If Poland appeared to have maintained a political facade since the case was first brought to its attention in 2008, things were not sailing smooth with Lithuania: the Foreign Minister resigned in 2010 over the black site investigation. Back then, President Grybauskaite had publicly acknowledged she knew about the presence of CIA black sites in the country, but following the Parliament report lacking information regarding prisoners, their identity, and travel dates to the prison, Usackas, then Foreign Minister, strongly dismissed all allegations that any torture site, CIA-operated or otherwise, had detained prisoners. Grybauskaite said she had lost trust in the members of her government at the time, and asked her Prime Minister to dismiss Usackas. Usackas, in turn, resigned from his position.

In 2011, Amnesty International obtained information that was relevant to the case and urged Lithuania to re-open an investigation into the secret prison. The claim made during the Abu Zubaydah hearing that an investigation into collaboration with the CIA was “politically inconvenient” echoes the case of Lithuania. It appears that the Parliament report should have consisted in enough evidence to either admit or dismiss the case in court. Since the report could neither assess the presence of prisoners nor the knowledge of executive officials at the time, counsel for Al-Hawsawi relied on investigative missions and victims’ testimonies to provide new information to the Court. The admissibility of this evidence was contested by the Prosecutor. In Poland, lawyers for the government alleged that media publicity and “interference” (sic) with the investigation had made it difficult to carry on in what they believe would be a consistent and objective manner; that NGOs were pressing an agenda on Poland to prosecute human rights violations they weren’t sure existed. The issue of transparency and the obtention of material outside the realm of the legislative inquiry or the executive’s agreement to disclosure is yet another pattern in the prosecution of CIA crimes. Disclosures, both prosecutors argued, are premature, and affect the course of the inquiry by being influential.

They’re influential because they expose the failure of the authority to comply with the judicial inquiry.

In the case of Lithuania, however, the prosecution failed short of upholding the important role of journalistic investigation and obtention of victims in the care of human rights-focused organisations. Says Joe Margulies, a professor of law at Northwestern and counsel for one of the victims, said in 2011:

“[t]he Prosecutor is trying to deflect blame for the failure of his investigation onto NGOs and the media. It’s ironic that an official investigation into a secret torture facility should claim to be thwarted because the media is insufficiently transparent.”

In September of last year, things moved at an incredibly fast pace. Basing their evidence on publicly available information such as EU Parliament reports, flight data gathered by NGOs Reprieve and REDRESS, the counsels submitted a new complaint calling for a new investigation into the detention of Al-Hawsawi. The complaint explained that a thorough and effective investigation had to be made to “secure evidence, seek clarification, seek urgent preservation and disclosure of all relevant evidence, and identify all officials involved in the alleged violations with a view of ensuring they are prosecuted.”

Ben Emmerson, QC

The importance and effect of publicly available information and thorough disclosure could not be stressed enough in this case. The similar that has emerged against Poland will pave the way for those that will surely follow. Ben Emmerson had re-affirmed his commitment to the right to truth as a universal human right and a cornerstone of the legal commitments binding on all member-states not just at the Council of Europe, but at the United Nations. From our piece on Abu-Zubaydah, again:

“the right to truth is collective. Information is essential to a democratic system – in the context of human rights violations, there needs to be a clarification of the circumstances, of context, of policies, and of the institutional failures that let those happen in order to restore confidence in the system. The right to know what happened is fundamental for participatory decision-making in society.” It may appear counter-intuitive, Emmerson continued, “to conventional lawyers – but once it is recognized, every individual is entitled to invoke that right.”

The month following the filing, the Prosecutor informed both NGOs that he refused to launch an investigation. They immediately appealed his decision. The EU Parliament in Strasbourg adopted a resolution on October 10, 2013 urging Lithuania to re-open an investigation into CIA black sites, in regards to 4 cases already pending at the ECtHR, and a fifth application made in a domestic court in Italy:

whereas Parliament has condemned the US-led CIA rendition and secret detention programmes involving multiple human rights violations, including unlawful and arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, violations of the non-refoulement principle, and enforced disappearance through the use of European airspace and territory by the CIA; whereas Parliament has repeatedly called for full investigations into the collaboration of national governments and agencies with the CIA programmes;

whereas the Lithuanian authorities have reiterated their commitment to reopening the criminal investigation into Lithuania’s involvement in the CIA programme if new elements emerge, but still have not done so;

Reiterates its call on those Member States which have not fulfilled their positive obligation to conduct independent and effective inquiries to investigate human rights violations, taking into account all the new evidence that has come to light, and to disclose all necessary information on all suspect planes associated with the CIA and their territory; calls in particular on the Member States to investigate whether operations have taken place whereby people have been held under the CIA programme in secret facilities on their territory; calls on the Member States concerned (France, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Sweden) to respond to the letters sent by the UN Special Procedures;

In this staunchly strong-worded resolution, which urges member states to launch thorough and detailed investigations from government records to phone records, and even forensic investigations at the prison sites themselves, the EU Parliament follows a trend of transparency regarding the collaboration with CIA of EU member states, and has called on every member states not to just comply with recommendations and requests of the ECtHR, but also those made at the UN. The practice of rendition and black sites by the CIA is not an American concern; it is a worldwide concern, that must be addressed by all member states.
In spite of this call, the appeal was just as quickly dismissed.  Yet another one was made, in a remarkable show of consistency and perseverance in the pursuit of truth and justice – and this time, the Vilnius Regional Court upheld the demand for an investigation, and the case is now re-opened. The Regional Court claimed that previous dismissal by the Prosecutor General had been “groundless”.  Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert on counter-terrorism and human rights, was justifiably and understandably delighted with the news. The persistence of the counsel for Al-Hawsawi must be commanded. In a statement released shortly following the decision of the Vilnius Regional Court,
“The Lithuanian government and Prosecutor General must now open a full and effective investigation into Mustafa al-Hawsawi’s claims and ensure that any other individuals who have alleged that they were held in secret CIA detention there are afforded the same right.”
As of today, investigative journalist Jason Leopold, whose thorough body of work includes the obtention and publication of the diaries of Abu-Zubaydah, clearly detailing his arrest, detention, and torture, has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to obtain a copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report and CIA activities, chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein. This is the exact same report that Ben Emmerson asked to be released in this UN report from March 1, 2013; a situation he called “a pressing concern”.  After Leopold’s amended claim, a response came, a peculiar and unusual one: his request was denied; the Senator has “full control” over the report and its hypothetical release. The Court argued it had no jurisdiction over Leopold’s claim. The Senate’s torture report will not be released anytime soon.

Al-Hawsawi is still detained in Guantanamo. NGO REDRESS, represented pro-bono in the case, filed a motion on October 17, 2013 to submit against the classification regime blocking them from accepting complaints to third countries, hindering the investigations in the case, which amounts to a violation of his right to a fair trial. On November 27, 2013, the military judge denied the motion.