(WASHINGTON) — A new report from Human Rights Watch alleges that in the years before Libya’s popular revolution, the U.S. served up several captured anti-Gadhafi militants to the Libyan dictator — but not before the Americans “tortured” some of the militants directly, including at least one alleged instance of waterboarding that has gone previously unreported.
Human Rights Watch says the 215-page report, compiled through interviews with 14 former detainees and documents uncovered after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, gives detailed accounts of the alleged abuse of at least five of the detainees suffered while in CIA-run prisons in Afghanistan, including being chained to walls, being forced to stay in so-called “stress positions” and the one case of waterboarding.
In other cases, some of the detainees were allegedly “ill-treated” by officials from other countries, but it was the Americans who interrogated them about possible plots against the U.S. or information on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In each case, the detainees were eventually turned over to Libyan authorities, despite their protests, where many were further abused, the report said.
The report from the non-profit group comes just days after the Department of Justice announced it had completed a lengthy probe into harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA on detainees, including possible links to the deaths of two terror suspects, and had determined no criminal charges would be filed.
“The stories of the Libyans held by the U.S. and then sent to Libya make clear that detainee abuse, including mistreatment not necessarily specifically authorized by Bush administration officials, was far-reaching,” the Human Rights Watch report’s author, Laura Pitter, said. “The closure of the [Department of Justice] investigation, without any charges, sends a message that abuse like that suffered by the Libyan detainees will continue to be tolerated.”
In a statement, the CIA declined to comment on the specific allegations made in the report, but said the agency has “been on the record that there are three substantiated cases in which detainees were subjected to the waterboarding technique under the program.” The agency’s statement apparently refers to three instances of waterboarding publicly acknowledged in 2008 by former CIA director Michael Hayden and does not recognize the new allegation included in the Human Rights Watch report.
The CIA also noted that the agency had been cleared by the Justice Department’s probe when it came to allegations of other abuses, but officials at the agency declined to comment on the Human Rights Watch report and would not say if the cases described in the report were included in their investigation. Thursday, the U.S. State Department also referred all questions on the report to the Justice Department.
In response to Human Rights Watch’s criticism of the apparent close ties between the CIA and the Libyan regime’s intelligence arm, the CIA said, “It can’t come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency works with foreign governments to help protect our country from terrorism and other deadly threats. That is exactly what we are expected to do.”
In the report, Human Rights Watch acknowledges that most of the detainees they interviewed were self-identified former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group — a group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department since December 2004.
The LIFG carried out operations against the Libyan government, including at least four suspected assassination attempts against Gadhafi in the 1990s, and was also believed to be connected to a series of suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2003, the U.S. State Department reported. As relations between the U.S. and Gadhafi improved in the mid-2000s after Gadhafi agreed to dismantle the country’s nuclear program and renounce terrorism, some LIFG leaders allegedly cultivated relationships with top al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and were suspected of funneling fighters to Iraq to carry out operations against U.S. soldiers.
The designation of the LIFG as a terror organization in 2004 was meant as a “gesture of solidarity” with the Libyan government to fight terrorism, according to a March 2011 congressional report. Last August, Libyan ambassador to the U.S. Ali Aujali told ABC News the LIFG was never connected to al Qaeda and did not carry out terrorist operations.
“They were only opposed to Gadhafi during his rule and paid the price for that by being oppressed by the regime,” he said then.
The Human Rights Watch report claims the case of waterboarding took place around April 2004, months before the LIFG was declared a terrorist organization, but months after then-CIA director George Tenet told a congressional committee the extremist group had links to al Qaeda and was considered “an immediate threat” to the U.S.
The man who leveled the waterboarding accusation, Mohammed al-Shoroeiya, said he was subjected to it multiple times.
“While he was strapped to the board with his head lower than his feet, they would pour buckets of extremely cold water over his nose and mouth to the point that he felt he was going to suffocate,” the report says. “When asked how many times this was done to him, [al-Shoroeiya] said ‘a lot … a lot … it happened many times … They wouldn’t stop until they got some kind of answer out of me.'”
Khalid al-Sharif, who was detained along with Al-Shoroeiya at the time in Afghanistan and described a similar experience but without the board, told Human Rights Watch it was “clear” they were in American custody and when he arrived at the facility, he was approached by a tall man “in uniform” who said he was American. The man said that they could kill al-Sharif there, “no one will know,” the report says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Defense told ABC News the description of the uniform provided by al-Sharif, which included a red beret, is “not consistent with any American military uniforms that I’m aware of.” The spokesperson declined to comment further.
The controversial use of waterboarding and other so-called “harsh interrogation techniques” had been authorized under George W. Bush’s administration but the methods were rejected by executive order by President Obama shortly after taking office in January 2009.
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