Craig Whitlock / Washington Post – 2004-07-26 22:44:14
STOCKHOLM (July 25, 2004) — The airport police officer was about to close his small precinct station for the night, when two men wearing suits walked in. The visitors said the special Swedish security police had just arrested two suspected terrorists – very dangerous men – and needed a place to hold them until a plane could take them away.
The airport policeman recounted in an interview that he agreed to let them borrow his cramped office that night, December 18, 2001, and stepped out of the way. But there was something strange about this operation. The two men in suits, who were soon joined by two uniformed Swedish police officers, did not speak Swedish, he said, and their English sounded distinctly American.
Another oddity: When the suspects arrived a few minutes later, they were escorted by a half-dozen security agents wearing hoods.
The hooded agents took the suspected terrorists into the precinct’s dressing room. Inside, the agents cut off the prisoners’ clothes with scissors, changed the men into red overalls and bound them with handcuffs and leg irons. Then they were hustled out the door and onto the tarmac, where a US-registered Gulfstream V jet was waiting.
The men with covered faces “were very quiet,” recalled Paul Forell, the police officer on duty at Stockholm’s Bromma Airport that night. “When they gave orders to each other, they kept their voices down. It seemed like they had done this before. They were very professional.” Forell said he could not hear them well enough to get a feel for their nationality.
The plane’s destination was Cairo. Its two unwilling passengers were Egyptian nationals who had applied for asylum in Sweden more than a year earlier, hoping to take advantage of its extensive programs for refugees facing political arrest or persecution in their home countries. After welcoming the men at first, the Swedish government reversed its position after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The deportation was carried out swiftly and outside Sweden’s normal legal channels. Officials gave final approval to the expulsion order at 4 p.m. on Dec. 18, according to accounts issued later by the government. The men had been grabbed on the street without warning by 5 p.m. and were in the air by 9:47 p.m. Their lawyers were not officially notified of the expulsion until after the plane had departed, to prevent them from filing appeals.
Playing a central and secret role in the operation: the US government, which provided the plane, some agents and other logistical support, according to classified documents recently released by the Swedish government, as well as interviews in Stockholm and Cairo.
The CIA refers to such cases as “extraordinary renditions” — the fast and forcible transfer of foreign terrorism suspects to other countries, often their places of origin, where they can be detained or interrogated more freely, often without all the legal protections available in the country they left.
Details of such operations are almost always secret, and the United States has not acknowledged its role in the deportation of the two Egyptian men. But CIA officials have testified in Congress about engaging in about 70 renditions before 2001. Security analysts said the number has increased substantially since then, as the US government has become more aggressive in its global hunt for people considered a threat to national security.
Critics have charged that the practice is vulnerable to abuse, noting that suspects are usually deported to countries that are friendly to U.S. intelligence agencies but also have records of permitting torture or other human rights violations. In organizing such transfers, the U.S. government is engaging in practices abroad that would be illegal and unconstitutional at home, those critics have said.
Evidence of Electric Shocks and Other Torture
The fate of the two Egyptian men offers a rare glimpse into such a case, as well as an example of what can go wrong. The Swedish government, for instance, agreed to deport the suspects only after receiving assurances from Egypt that they would be given fair trials and “not be subjected to inhuman treatment or punishment of any kind,” according to a confidential memo prepared by Swedish diplomats six days before the expulsion.
Records and interviews show, however, that the agreement was broken almost as soon as the two men arrived in Cairo. Their lawyers, relatives and human rights groups said there is credible evidence that they were regularly subjected to electric shocks and other forms of torture. One suspect was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a military tribunal after a trial that lasted less than six hours. The other spent almost two years behind bars without being charged.
Swedish government officials now say the deportation was an embarrassing mistake. The government has called for an international investigation, possibly under the authority of the United Nations, into how the two men were treated. Separately, the Swedish parliament has opened an internal probe to determine the exact role played by U.S. intelligence agents.
“We have taken the allegations seriously, very seriously,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hans Dahlgren said in an interview in Stockholm. “We have asked for an independent, international investigation…. It would be in the best interests of the government of Egypt to do this” if the allegations are false.
Ties to Al Qaeda
The better known of the two repatriated men is Ahmed Agiza, a 42-year-old physician whose wife and five children remain in Sweden. His attorneys have acknowledged that he once worked closely in Egypt with Ayman Zawahiri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who later merged that group with al Qaeda, becoming Osama bin Laden’s second in command. Agiza was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which the State Department has designated a terrorist group.
Agiza said he had once met bin Laden, according to a jailhouse interview he gave to a Swedish radio reporter in 2002 shortly after he returned to Egypt. His attorneys said he cut ties with Zawahiri a decade ago and has denounced the use of violent tactics by Islamic radicals, including al Qaeda. Agiza left his homeland in 1991, saying he had been repeatedly harassed by Egyptian security forces.
In 1999, while living in Iran, he was convicted in absentia by an Egyptian military court — along with 106 other defendants — of belonging to a banned Islamic organization. One year later, he and his family arrived in Sweden on false passports and applied for political asylum.
It is not clear whether Agiza knew Muhammad Zery, 35, the man with whom he would later be deported to Cairo. Zery also left Egypt in 1991, after he was harassed and physically abused there, according to his lawyer. He traveled to Saudi Arabia and Syria before arriving in Sweden in 1999 and requesting asylum.
Swedish officials have said that Zery, too, was convicted in absentia in Egypt and that he was a suspect in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, when he would have been 13 years old. But his attorneys and human rights groups that have worked on his behalf said there is no record that Zery was charged with any offenses in Egypt and they can’t understand why he was expelled.
The allegations against him are all clearly erroneous, said his Swedish attorney, Kjell Jonsson. “The representatives of the [Swedish] government have been lying or not telling the full truth on this since the beginning.”
Bo Johansson, a Stockholm lawyer who has represented Agiza, said Swedish diplomats in Cairo later told the Egyptian man’s parents that he was deported because Sweden was under “international pressure” to do so. “I think the American influence is a very important factor in all of this,” Johansson said. “It is becoming clearer as more information comes out. Something happened very quickly after Sept. 11…. We had always thought there was an X factor at work here. Now we know that it must have been an American factor.”
A Secret US Role
The US involvement remained a secret until two months ago, when a Swedish television program — Kalla Fakta, or “Cold Facts” — broadcast a documentary reporting that US agents assisted in the apprehension of Agiza and Zery, and that the plane chartered to Cairo had been used in a previous rendition case in Pakistan.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment for this article and State Department officials declined to comment on the record. But the Swedish government has released previously classified documents that confirm the American role.
In a Feb. 7, 2002 memo, a partial reconstruction of the case by the Swedish security police noted that “the American side” had offered to help in the deportation “by lending a plane for the transport.” In addition, lawyers from the Swedish Justice Ministry wrote in a separate memo on April 12, 2002 that “the transport from Sweden to Egypt was carried out with the help of American authorities.” Both documents were heavily redacted before their release.
A flight plan filed with Swedish aviation authorities shows that the Gulfstream jet was registered to a Massachusetts company, Premier Executive Transport Services. U.S. aviation records show that the firm has only two registered aircraft and that they have permits to land at U.S. military bases around the world.
Advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an inquiry into the case.
“The only way to discover what the US role was is through an international inquiry under the auspices of the UN,” said Julia Hall, a lawyer for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “There’s no transparency otherwise. We just don’t know what buttons were being pressed by whom.”
While Sweden has said it would welcome such an investigation, the United Nations is unlikely to act unless Egypt agrees to cooperate, human rights groups said. Egyptian authorities declined to comment on that possibility. But Hossan Salama, an official with the Egyptian state security service, denied that the United States was directly involved in the deportation. “The Americans had absolutely nothing to do with this capture,” he said in a brief interview. “It was something completely done with the Swedes.”
As part of their agreement with the Egyptian government, Swedish diplomats insisted that they be allowed to visit Agiza and Zery in prison regularly to ensure that they were not mistreated.
Swedish officials did not schedule the first visit until more than a month after the men arrived in Egypt. They were not allowed to see them except in the presence of prison guards and were forced to rely on an interpreter provided by the Egyptian security services.
In a report made public shortly afterward, Sven Linder, the Swedish ambassador to Egypt, wrote that Agiza and Zery told him they had been treated “excellently” in prison and that to him “they seemed well-nourished and showed no external signs of physical abuse or such things.”
Another section of the ambassador’s report that remained classified until recently, however, offered a different appraisal. It noted that Agiza had complained that he was subjected to “excessive brutality” by the Swedish security police when he was seized and that he was repeatedly beaten in Egyptian prisons. Swedish diplomats in Cairo declined to comment on the case.
Agiza’s parents and lawyers said in interviews that he was severely punished by his Egyptian captors after he complained to the Swedish officials and was warned to keep quiet during future visits.
“Torture is a systematic thing in these prisons,” said Mohammed Zarai, director of the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners in Cairo. “Every time when these people visited him, as soon as they left, he was beaten and tortured. They would ask him:…. Are they telling the Swedes to come visit?”
Agiza’s mother, Hamida Shalaby, said he told her during separate visits that he was given electric shocks and that prison doctors tried to cover up scars on his body by applying a special cream. “He couldn’t even pick up his arms to hug me,” she said in an interview. “He was very slow and very tired and very weak.”
Agiza’s attorney in Stockholm has filed a complaint about the handling of his asylum case with the UN Committee Against Torture. Although the committee has no power to free him, it could rebuke Sweden for violating international conventions prohibiting torture if it determines that the Swedish government was liable for his alleged mistreatment by expelling him to Egypt.
“The Swedish government is facing a very hard situation now,” said Hafez Abu-Seada, a Cairo lawyer who represented Agiza at his trial and serves as general secretary for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “Their reputation as a leading human rights nation is at stake.”
Zery’s attorney in Stockholm has filed a similar complaint on his client’s behalf with the European Court of Human Rights. Zery was released from a Cairo prison in October but is not permitted to leave the country and remains under strict surveillance by Egyptian security forces.
In a brief telephone conversation last week, he said he was willing to grant an interview and invited a reporter to visit. He canceled the appointment an hour later, however, saying that an Egyptian security official had ordered him not to talk.
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