Sri Lanka’s role in CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’



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By Shamindra Ferdinando


In a statement issued on Dec. 10 to commemorate the Human Rights Day, Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, proudly declared: "Sri Lanka’s commemorations will not only be symbolic – it will also be substantive. So, I am very pleased to announce that Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, will today, this morning in New York, in fact, will be signing the International Convention on Enforced Disappearances."


In a hard hitting statement, Minister Samaraweera said that during the last decade or so, in Sri Lanka, human rights, were always spoken as an alien concept. The universal values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, were made out to be alien concepts or western values, as the previous government called it, and they used to say it’s western values and infringing on our country’s sovereignty. Although, the previous Rajapaksa administration cannot absolve itself of some of its actions, since the end of the war, in May, 2009, it took tangible measures to eradicate terrorism. Sri Lanka resorted to desperate measures. The world’s solitary superpower, and its allies, did the same at the expense of accountability in the wake of the al-Qaeda challenge.


Devastating al-Qaeda suicide attacks, on four US landmarks, on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 2011, prompted the then Bush administration to launch the War on Terror campaign. In accordance with its overall military objectives, the US adopted extraordinary offensive security measures against al-Qaeda. The strategy included extraordinary rendition. The clandestine project was meant to facilitate the transfer of terrorist suspects, arrested in various parts of the world, by the US, or at the behest of the US, to countries where they could be interrogated without any restrictions. Invariably, suspects were subjected to torture. Over 50 countries joined the project, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The exclusive club, included Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government not only facilitated the transfer of al Qaeda suspects but arrested a person wanted by the US, hiding here and handed him over to the CIA, at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in Aug. 2003. Could Sri Lanka be faulted for cooperating with the US and its allies battling al-Qaeda? Would the US have tolerated Sri Lanka’s refusal to assist the extraordinary rendition project against the backdrop of its support to successive Sri Lankan governments to fight the LTTE?


The Extraordinary al-Qaeda challenge forced the US to adopt unprecedented tactics. Nineteen al-Qaeda operatives crashed three seized passenger planes into the north and south towers of the World Trade Centre, New York, and Defence Department headquarters, aka, Pentagon. The fourth suicide attack went awry due to some passengers making an abortive attempt to overwhelm al-Qaeda operatives in control of the aircraft.


The New York - based Open Society Foundations, in a special report that dealt with the extraordinary rendition project, revealed Sri Lanka allowed the US to use its airspace and BIA. The NGO alleged that Sri Lanka had never inquired into its role in the US project.


Those who had been demanding Sri Lanka to explain its conduct, during the war against the LTTE, are silent on her role in the US project. The US wouldn’t have contemplated such a project if not for the al-Qaeda challenge. Sri Lanka should never be ashamed of cooperating with the US or extending support in case of future emergency. Unprecedented challenges require bold responses, regardless of consequences.


Let me reproduce the entire list of countries which had been involved in the worldwide abduction project. Among them are some of the leading human rights champions, demanding Sri Lanka be hauled up before a hybrid war crimes court. The extraordinary rendition had been just one part of the massive war, launched by the US and its allies, against Taliban, in Afghanistan. The following countries participated in the extraordinary rendition programme: Afghanistan, Albania (current member of the UNHRC), Algeria (current member of the UNHRC), Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany (current member of the UNHRC), Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan (current member of the UNHRC), Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa (current member of the UNHRC), Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom (current member of the UNHRC), Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. Among those countries involved in the extraordinary rendition project were European Union members. The EU and the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council turned a blind eye to what was going on, though the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Mui┼żnieks, called for a comprehensive investigation into the US project. In a statement issued to mark the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Nils Mui┼żnieks said:"By allowing unlawful detentions and interrogation techniques amounting to torture, the US response caused further suffering and violated human rights law."


He added that governments hadn’t establish the truth or "ensure accountability for their complicity in the unlawful program of ‘extraordinary renditions’ – involving abduction, detention and ill-treatment of suspected terrorists – carried out by the CIA, in Europe, between 2002 and 2006." The bottom line is that European human rights champions had no misgivings in joining the US project.


Open Society Foundation in its report (page 109); "...at least one flight operated by Richmor Aviation (a company that operated flights for the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme) landed in Sri Lanka in 2003. The documents show that between August 12 and 15, 2003, a Richmor flight, registered as N85VM, took off from Washington, D.C., and stopped in Bangkok before making another stop at Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport, in Colombo, and then flying on to Kabul, Dubai, and Shannon airport in Ireland. That flight coincided in time with the capture of Riduan Isamuddin (Hambali) in Bangkok in 2003. Isamuddin spent the next three years, in secret CIA prisons, before ultimately being transferred as a "high value detainee" to Guantanamo Bay, in September, 2006, where he remains detained. There have been no known judicial cases, or investigations, in Sri Lanka, relating to its participation in CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations."


The US had no qualms about securing the expertise of those who had been widely accused of gross human rights violations. Iran, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia worked closely with the US. The CIA project underscored the US readiness to secure the assistance of those it publicly despised for its benefits. The enhanced interrogation methods, used on al-Qaeda, had been compared with those employed by Nazi Germany. Journalist, Ben Norton, in Dec. last year, in a report titled, ‘The anti-imperialist nations of Iran, Syria and Libya, participated in CIA torture programme, pointed out that whistle-blower, John Kiriakou, had been the only person to receive punishment for the CIA torture project. Kiriakou had been the first to confirm the existence of the clandestine operation, in 2007. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison for the worst crime of all: telling the truth.


The US cannot be faulted for securing the support of all countries for the implementation of a project which it considered necessary for its security. The US killed the mastermind of the humiliating al-Qaeda raid, Osama bin Laden, carried out on May 2, 2011. Although the US proudly declared that its special forces had hunted Osama, hiding in Pakistan, on its own, some asserted that Islamabad facilitated the raid. The US, or Pakistan, will never confirm what really happened, on May 2, 2011 or the circumstances leading to the raid. Whatever the circumstances, the US raid proved that a wanted terrorist could be taken out anywhere (with or without the cooperation of the government in control of the country giving refuge to him or her).


Against the backdrop of the National Unity Government questioning the conduct of the military, during eelam war IV (Aug 2006-May 2009), it would be pertinent to examine a statement made by wartime US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Robert O Blake, during a visit to Colombo, close on the heels of Osama killing (Blake unaware of UN raising accountability issues over Osama killing, with strap line, Denies U attempt at regime change in SL-The Island May 5, 2011)


Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Blake, told the media, at the US Embassy, in Colombo, on May 4, 2011, that al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, had been a ‘lawful target’ and the government of the United States of America stood by its actions.


However, he said as he had been travelling in Sri Lanka over the last few days, he wasn’t aware of specific allegations levelled against the US over the Osama killing. "Let me tell you, that Osama bin Laden was the leader of an armed group that was engaged in armed conflict against the government of the United States. He was, therefore, a lawful target. We certainly stand by our actions," Blake said.


Osama’s killing was an important step in America’s fight against international terrorism, he said.


The Assistant Secretary was responding to a query by the writer at the press briefing held at the USIS, whether his country’s battle against international terrorism was likely to be undermined by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and groups, such as the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, raising accountability issues on the grounds that bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was shot.


Pillay has urged the White House to make public the "precise facts surrounding Osama’s killing’ to ensure the operation adhered to international law.


The statement was made in the wake of President Obama’s Press Secretary, Jay Carney, acknowledging Osama hadn’t been armed at the time he was shot in his head and chest by the raiding party.


Responding to another query, Assistant Secretary Blake said that for want of a domestic mechanism to investigate issues of accountability, international mechanisms could become appropriate in case the state concerned was unable to meet its obligations (Blake was referring to Sri Lanka. Of course, he didn’t see anything wrong in Sri Lanka’s role in extraordinary rendition)


Blake served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. mission, in New Delhi, from 2003 – 2006, before moving here as Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. At the conclusion of the war, in May 2009, he received the appointment as Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs.


Assistant Secretary Blake said that he had had the opportunity to meet Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris. Blake arrived in Colombo, on Monday (May 2), within 24 hours after heli-borne elite US team stormed Osama’s hideout outside Islamabad.


Blake said that he accepted congratulations of the Government of Sri Lanka on the killing of bin Laden.


The US resorted to unprecedented security measures in accordance with its overall security plan to meet the al-Qaeda challenge. The US went all out to apprehend those wanted for terrorism. The then US President, George W. Bush, personally intervened, in 2003, to have the wanted foreign al-Qaeda suspect extradited from Sri Lanka to an unknown destination. The then UNP-led UNP administration operated on the so-called need-to-know basis. Having received a request from the US for immediate cooperation to track down one of those high on the CIA’s wanted list, the government launched a countrywide hunt, quickly leading to the arrest of the fugitive taking refuge in the Puttalam police division. The arrest had been made by a special Criminal Investigation Department (CID) squad.


The Defence Ministry confirmed the arrest of the fugitive and handing him over to the CIA in Colombo. A senior New Delhi-based US official had arrived in Colombo, immediately after the arrest was made, to take charge of the suspect.


Later, a special private flight, hired by the CIA, had landed at the Bandaranaike International Airport to move the suspect to a secret interrogation facility. Sri Lanka never bothered at least to record a statement from the suspect.


When the then government explained the difficulty in handing over a non-Sri Lankan to the CIA in violation of the international law, the US Embassy had promptly issued a travel document identifying the suspect as a US national to facilitate the transfer.


Those involved in the operation had sedated the suspect before moving him to the special aircraft under guard. Airport authorities, too, were kept in the dark as regards the prisoner transfer.


During that time, Sri Lanka and the US agreed on non-surrender of ‘criminals’ to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Israel, Pakistan, Kuwait and Afghanistan were some of the countries which reached bi-lateral agreements with the US.


Under the agreement, the US and Sri Lanka will not surrender, or extradite people, including security forces and politicians of either party, present in the territory of the other, to the ICC, without the consent of the country concerned.


President Mahinda Rajapaksa joined the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in early 2007 to facilitate US military operations. The highpoint of US-Sri Lanka cooperation was the Sri Lanka Navy receiving intelligence to hunt down four LTTE ships in two separate confrontations in 2008. Both agreements remain in force.


No country should be criticized for adopting security measures which a particular government deemed is necessary for the protection of its citizens. Having experienced devastating ISIS attacks in Paris, France resorted to unprecedented security measures. France never realized the requirement for tangible security measures meant to face the threat of terrorism, until ISIS humiliated the French on their soil. The terror on French soil prompted the 28-country European Union to take unprecedented measures to tackle the growing domestic security threat posed by groups like the Islamic State. 


France, for the first time, activated a special law that required its European neighbours to help them by all means possible, in light of "armed aggression" within its borders. But, the EU never took the threat posed by the LTTE to the Sri Lankan state though the EU proscribed the LTTE during Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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