U.N. human rights investigators are launching a year-long global investigation into secret places of detention. They note the use of such facilities has increased since the global war on terror was declared after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States. The investigators say their probe will look at so-called rendition flights used by the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, in the United States to secretly transfer suspects to third countries for interrogation. The UN probe also will examine the policies of secret detention as practiced by other nations around the world.
Cracks are appearing in the wall of silence surrounding the secret practice of extraordinary rendition as prisoners are coming forward to tell of their ordeals.
"The torture was going on sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly," said a former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Binyam Mohamed, who accuses the British security service MI5 of helping U.S. intelligence agents interrogate him after he was seized in Pakistan in 2002. Mohamed claims U.S. agents took him to Morocco, where he was tortured.
"I want to see people taking responsibility for what has happened over the seven years," said Mohamed. "If we let people just do what they want to do and not be held accountable, that is opening up the doors to torture and abuse."
The U.N. investigators who are launching a probe into secret places of detention agree with Mohamed. They contend people who are detained in these facilities are intentionally placed outside the protection of the law.
They say people who are confined in such places run great risks of being tortured and even disappearing for good.
UN Special Investigator on Torture, Manfred Nowak, says secret places of detention, enforced disappearances and torture are closely interconnected. He adds the risk of being subjected to torture is particularly high in these facilities.
"We have had the experiences in many Latin American states, but also in many other states where enforced disappearances were practiced," said Nowak. "Also, in the form of fighting terrorism. There is nothing new that now after 9/11, in the global fight against terrorism, that secret places of detention again came to the forefront of our attention, of course, in the context of CIA practices, but going far beyond that."
The U.N. probe will look at CIA rendition flights that secretly transferred terror suspects for interrogation, mainly in North Africa and the Middle East. Nowak is very critical of the widespread use of this practice by the former Bush administration.
"The very purpose of so-called extraordinary renditions employed by the Bush administration was that in cases where the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA in places like Guantanemo Bay, etc. were not 'successful' ... enough, that they were then sent to countries known for their torture practices by means of extraordinary rendition flights," said Nowak.
U.N. human rights investigators applaud moves made by President Barack Obama in pledging to close Guantanamo Bay and stopping the practice of torture and extraordinary rendition. But, they say they will not let the president off the hook until a number of important questions are answered and certain reprehensible acts are ended.
UN Special Investigator on terrorism, Martin Scheinin, says he will be watching the president's moves closely.
"We can at least hope that this is a real change, which will put an end to the most horrendous forms of extraordinary rendition," said Scheinin, "where persons were not brought to the United States at all, but were dumped in third countries for the purpose of torture."
Member of Parliament in Pakistan, Sanaullah Baloch, praises the investigation that is getting under way. But, he tells the U.N. experts to expand their focus to include countries like his own in their probe.
"In Pakistan, the Asian Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has identified 52 illegal detention centers in Pakistan," said Baloch. "So my suggestion is that there should be a type of mechanism that United Nations aid, United Nations cooperation and United Nations support to the democratic regimes must be linked, should be linked with this protection of human rights and particularly getting rid of this practice of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and secret detention centers. "
The U.N. investigators agree that torture in secret places of detention might be useful in eliciting information. But, they argue that more often than not, the information received is wrong and might end up being counterproductive.
Regardless of the quality of information received, they note torture, under any circumstances, is absolutely prohibited under international law.
The experts expect their one-year global probe into secret detention centers to shine more light on the extensiveness of these facilities and how they operate.
They acknowledge they will not be able to prevent similar practices in the future, but they are hopeful their study will promote changes for the better.