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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, February 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Ex-CIA Prisoners Sue Architects of Torture

(CN) - The family of a man who froze to death in CIA custody joined two former prisoners Tuesday in a federal complaint for war crimes against psychologists whom the agency paid $81 million to spearhead its "enhanced interrogation program."

Psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen have been known as the architects of the CIA's torture program since December 2014 when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a heavily redacted summary of its report on the agency's detention and interrogation program.

Their roles shaping the program came under an even harsher spotlight in a 542-page independent report from July, outlining the American Psychological Association's complicity with the CIA's tactics.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal complaint on behalf of three former prisoners, accusing the psychologists of trying to gloss over a "torture program with a scientific veneer" based on half-century-old experiments on dogs centered around the concept of "learned helplessness."

Steven Watt, a senior staffer with the group's human rights program, called the program "unlawful and its methods barbaric."

"Psychology is a healing profession, but Mitchell and Jessen violated the ethical code of 'do no harm' in some of the most abhorrent ways imaginable," Watt said in a statement.

The CIA detained all three men whom the ACLU is representing at a prison in Afghanistan code-named Cobalt, identified in press reports as the "Salt Pit."

One of the men, Gul Rahman, died of apparent hypothermia with the contributing factors of "dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to 'short chaining'" in November 2012, Senate investigators found.

The others, Tanzanian fisherman Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Libyan marble worker Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, survived and are now living in their native countries with their wives and families.

They tell similar stories of their nightmarish ordeals, in today's 82-page complaint.

Salim says his abduction in Mogadishu left him with a broken nose and fingers, and that CIA personnel cut the clothes off his body before shoving him on a rendition plane.

"Once he was naked, they forcibly inserted an object into his anus, causing him excruciating pain," the complaint says. "They photographed him; Mr. Salim could sense the flash of a camera. He was then dressed in a diaper, a pair of trousers, and a short-sleeved shirt."

Salim and Ben Soud both reported being shackled and forced to wear earplugs, goggles, headphones and a hood.

"Disorientated and terrified, Mr. Salim was shoved aboard a small aircraft, chained to the floor between two guards, and flown some eight or more hours," the complaint says.

At Cobalt, the CIA traded the sensory deprivation for "ear-splitting" levels of Western music, both men say.

Salim says that he heard someone say, "There's no God, no God, no God," among a cacophony of voices speaking English, Kiswahili and Somali.

Interrogators doused him with "gallons of ice-cold water," padlocked him in a box and subjected him to beatings, waterboardings and sleep deprivation during the so-called "aggressive phase" of his detention, the lawsuit says.

Salim says he stockpiled painkillers in his cell to kill himself but that the guards "stormed into his cell and stopped him."

He was released five years after his abduction without charges.

In a statement, Salim said that the "terrible torture I suffered at the hands of the CIA still haunts me."

"I still have flashbacks, but I've learned to deal with them with a psychologist who tries to help people, not hurt them," he added.

Ben Soud, who is now 46, had settled in a number of different countries after fleeing his native Libya in 1991 because of his opposition to strongman Muammar Gadaffi.

When U.S. and Pakistani forces raided his Pakistan home and shot him in the leg in 2003, Ben Soud had been living with his wife and their 9-month-old daughter, according to the complaint.

He says authorities from both countries engaged in abusive interrogations of him for two weeks, seeking intelligence over what he insists were nonexistent al-Qaida ties.

When Ben Soud arrived at Cobalt, he claims he could hear a woman shouting at him through a translator that "he was a prisoner of the CIA, that human rights ended on September 11, and that no laws applied in this prison."

For Ben Soud, sleep deprivation had been the "worst form of torture that he had to endure," according to the lawsuit.

Quoting the Senate report, the lawsuit says: "Guards would take him from his cell and force him to march around the prison naked, '15 minutes every half-hour through the night and into the morning.'"

"After two to three weeks, the interrogation team assessed Mr. Ben Soud as 'broken' and 'cooperative,' and stopped the 'aggressive phase' of his torture," the complaint says.

In 2004, Ben Soud had a short transfer to another CIA prison code-named "Orange" before his transfer to Gaddafi's Libya, where he remained behind bars until the dictator's overthrow in 2011.

Ben Soud now lives there with his wife and three children, ACLU staff attorney Dror Ladin said in a phone interview.

Along with photos of its clients, the ACLU has shared drawings Ben Soud made of his detention at Cobalt upon his release. These sketches show how Ben remembers his cell, and the various torture techniques he experienced, including standing sleep deprivation and waterboarding.

Before Rahman died, he endured "at least 6 of the 10 coercive techniques" the psychologists devised for the torture program, the ACLU says.

"An autopsy report and internal CIA review found that Mr. Rahman likely died from hypothermia caused 'in part from being forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants,' with the contributing factors of 'dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to 'short chaining,'" the complaint states.

Obaid Ullah is pursuing Rahman's claims as the representative of his uncle's estate.

The CIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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