US sent hundreds of terror suspects to foreign prisons

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The CIA has transferred an estimated 100 and 150 terrorist suspects to foreign countries for questioning - and, it is widely alleged, torture - since rules governing the American policy of "rendition" were relaxed immediately after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The CIA has transferred an estimated 100 and 150 terrorist suspects to foreign countries for questioning - and, it is widely alleged, torture - since rules governing the American policy of "rendition" were relaxed immediately after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The disclosure, in The New York Times yesterday, throws new light on a practice fiercely criticised by human rights groups, who claim Washington is ignoring the standards it urges on others. Among the countries to which detainees have been sent are Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, all named in the State Department's annual report on human rights worldwide as countries that use torture in their prisons.

The practice of rendition long predates the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, but it was previously applied on a specific case-by-case basis, needing approval by several government departments. According to George Tenet, the former CIA director, 72 suspects were moved in this way, some of them from foreign countries into the US from abroad, before 11 September 2001.

But since then the traffic has grown much heavier, under a directive approved by President Bush shortly after 11 September, allowing far greater latitude to the CIA. In recent days, several cases, where individuals were quietly sent back to their countries of birth and then held incommunicado and beaten and tortured before being released with no charges being brought, has brought the controversy to a new pitch.

In one instance, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria was picked up at JFK airport in New York and sent to Syria where he claims to have been imprisoned for 12 months and beaten. Another detainee, Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian, was detained in Pakistan in late 2001 and says he suffered similar treatment in prisons in Egypt, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, before being released in January. Mr Habib's lawyer has described rendition as "outsourcing of torture".

A similar debate surrounds the case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a US citizen and son of Jordanian immigrants, accused of being an al-Qa'ida member and plotting to assassinate President Bush. Mr Abu Ali says the US authorities prodded the local police to detain him while he was studying in Saudi Arabia. There, he says, he was tortured, before being returned to the US for trial.

In every instance the complaint against the US is the same, that, in violation of previous US practice and the spirit of international treaties outlawing torture, it routinely handed over prisoners to countries where the use of torture was commonplace.

US officials told the Times that rendition was just one among several methods of dealing with terrorist suspects, and that it had made every reasonable effort to ensure that transferred prisoners were treated properly. The Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales - under fire himself for endorsing more permissive policies on torture when he was White House counsel during Mr Bush's first term - insists that the US in no way condones torture.

In another move, Washington has begun a major overhaul of its counterintelligence operations, to carry the battle directly against agents of al-Qa'ida and the intelligence services of Iran and other countries considered hostile to America. Henceforth, the separate counterintelligence branches of the currently fragmented US intelligence community will be united in a new Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive.

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