Washington comes clean on secret prisons

Just days before the fifth anniversary of the 11 September attacks, United States President George W Bush admitted, for the first time, that the CIA has been operating secret prisons outside the US where terrorism suspects were being held and interrogated. The announcement did not come as such a revelation, for the existence of such sites had long been suspected and widely reported in the media. The American president defended the controversial secret detention facilities, saying that they have been vital for gathering intelligence in the war on terror.

"Were it not for this programme, our intelligence community believes that Al-Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland," Bush said in a speech last week. "By giving us information about terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else, this programme has saved innocent lives."

Given the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons, there had been fears that those held in secret locations, outside any legal framework, were at risk of being subjected to even worse treatment. President Bush denied any torture, but did admit to the existence of "an alternative set of procedures" aimed at eliciting information from detainees held in CIA-run secret prisons. Some of the techniques applied to draw out information from detainees, which US authorities call "enhanced interrogation techniques", are widely accepted as violating the ban on torture and have been strongly condemned, especially in Europe.

The Council of Europe launched an investigation earlier this year after reports that some of the secret CIA detention centres, the so-called "black sites", were located in Europe and that European airspace and airfields were being used for "extraordinary rendition" flights — flights carrying terrorism suspects to secret locations where they were to be interrogated and possibly tortured.

US authorities have consistently denied any ill-treatment of detainees in American hands, but torture allegations have dogged the Bush administration. Under new guidelines issued by the Pentagon last week, all terrorism suspects in US custody are to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. This is a major departure from the previous stance of the administration, which had persistently denied prisoner of war status to captives suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda or the former Taliban regime of Afghanistan — calling them "unlawful combatants" and insisting that they were not entitled to the protections granted under the Geneva Conventions. Interrogation techniques approved by the US defence department, which many consider torture purely and simply, have also led to much criticism about the legality of some of the tactics employed in the war on terror. A technique known as "water boarding" is one of the most controversial aspects of these interrogation methods. The technique, which has been described as a mock execution and which is widely accepted as amounting to torture, involves submerging prisoners in water to make them believe that they are drowning. The new guidelines, contained in a US Army Field Manual, outlaw all forms of torture, water boarding, the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners and other controversial interrogation methods.

In his address formally acknowledging the existence of CIA- operated secret prisons, President Bush announced that at least 14 suspected key Al-Qaeda figures, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 11 September attacks, have been transferred to the Guantanamo Bay military prison on the island of Cuba. American military officials have said that they hoped to put on trial before military tribunals about 75 Guantanamo Bay detainees, including the 14 men who have recently been transferred to the base.

Amnesty International, which had been very vocal on the issue of secret prisons, has welcomed the Bush administration’s decision to transfer the men from the secret prisons and the announced intention to try them. "It is essential that any trial meets international standards of fairness, including the right to be present at one’s own trial and the exclusion of evidence obtained through torture or other ill-treatment," Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.

Planned trials of terrorism suspects before military commissions were put on hold after the US Supreme Court ruled in June that the commissions were illegal under both American and international law. One of the most contentious aspects of the military tribunals, set up by President Bush in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, was that the procedures allowed for the exclusion of a defendant from his own trial, or parts of the proceedings, and the admissibility of evidence obtained through coercion. "The Supreme Court’s recent decision has impaired our ability to prosecute terrorists through military commissions and has put in question the future of the CIA programme," Bush said. To clear this legal hurdle, the American president has asked Congress to pass legislation authorising the controversial military commissions.

Bush’s announcement of the transfer of suspected top Al-Qaeda figures to Guantanamo Bay and their expected military trials was apparently intended to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the 11 September attacks and aimed at bolstering support for the war on terror before Congressional elections in November.

Meanwhile commemoration ceremonies for the victims of the attacks, the deadliest terrorist strike on American soil in history, were held on Monday. Ceremonies took place in Washington, in Pennsylvania and in New York City, where relatives of the victims laid flowers at Ground Zero — the site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood — and the names of the 2749 people who lost their lives in the attacks were read aloud.

President Bush attempted to garner support for the Iraq war during the fifth anniversary of 11 September, saying, "This war will be long … but it’s a war we must wage and a war we will win." But one group of Americans — its members among those most affected by the terrible terrorist attacks — opted to mark the occasion in quite an opposite manner.

The September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows held an international peace conference in New York from 5 to 11 September. Jody Williams, the winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, was among the keynote speakers at the conference, which brought together peace activists and people affected by terrorism and conflict from around the world, including places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Colombia and Northern Ireland.

"Each of these people has broken the cycle of violence and has been successful in creating groups dedicated to healing, reconciliation and genuine peace," David Potorti, the director of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows told Al-Ahram Weekly. " We want to combine all of our efforts into an ongoing international network that will share ideas, initiatives and actions for peace. We also think it is important for people in the United States to learn that there are effective alternatives to war." Potorti lost an elder brother, Jim, at the World Trade Center.

The September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows was founded in February 2002 by members of the victims’ families who wanted to turn their personal grief into action for peace. The organisation was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2003 and 2004.

Meanwhile, BBC World is airing "Peacemakers", a special programme dedicated to conflict resolution, throughout this September. Programming includes debates, documentaries and testimonies from places affected by war, including Bosnia- Herzegovina, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and Colombia. Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, is among the high profile guests contributing to the discussions on BBC World.

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