‘Ghost prisoners’ not accounted for after held by CIA

Rights groups wonder where the roughly 30 are being kept


On Sept. 6, 2006, President Bush announced that the CIA’s overseas secret prisons had been temporarily emptied and 14 al-Qaida leaders taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But since then, there has been no official accounting of what happened to about 30 other “ghost prisoners” who spent extended time in the custody of the CIA.

Some have been secretly transferred to their home countries, where they remain in detention and out of public view, according to interviews in Pakistan and Europe with government officials, human rights groups and lawyers for the detainees. Others have disappeared without a trace and may still be under CIA control.

The bulk of the ghost prisoners were captured in Pakistan after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Among them is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a dual citizen of Syria and Spain and an influential al-Qaida ideologue who was last seen two years ago. On Oct. 31, 2005, the red-bearded radical with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head arrived in the Pakistani border city of Quetta, unaware he was being followed.

Nasar was cornered by police as he and a small group of followers stopped for dinner. Soon after, according to Pakistani officials, he was handed over to U.S. spies and vanished into the CIA’s prison network. Since then, various reports have placed him in Syria, Afghanistan and India, though nobody has been able to confirm his whereabouts.

Virtually all the Arab members of al-Qaida caught in Pakistan were given to the CIA, Pakistani security officials said. But the fate of several Pakistani al-Qaida operatives who also were captured remains murky; the Pakistani government has ignored a number of lawsuits filed by relatives seeking information.

“You just don’t know – either these people are in the custody of the Pakistanis or the Americans,” said Zafarullah Khan, human rights coordinator for the Pakistan Muslim League, an opposition party.

Where are they going?

Others have been handed over to governments that have kept their presence a secret.Since 2004, for example, the CIA has handed five Libyan fighters to authorities in Tripoli.

Two had been covertly nabbed by the CIA in China and Thailand, while the others were caught in Pakistan and held in CIA prisons in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and other locations, according to Libyan sources.

The Libyan government has kept silent about the cases. But Libyan political exiles said the men are kept in isolation with no prospect of an open trial.

Other ghost prisoners are believed to remain in U.S. custody after passing into and out of the CIA’s hands, according to human rights groups.

Relatives of a Tunisian al-Qaida suspect known as Retha al-Tunisi, captured in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002, received notice recently from the International Committee of the Red Cross that he is detained at a U.S. military prison in Afghanistan, said Clara Gutteridge, an investigator for Reprieve, a London-based legal rights group that represents many inmates at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Other prisoners, since released, had previously reported seeing Tunisi at a secret CIA “black site” in Afghanistan.

At least one former CIA prisoner has been quietly freed. Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence agent captured after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was detained at a secret location until he was released last year.

Ani gained notoriety before the Iraq war when Bush administration officials said he had met in Prague with Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohamed Atta. Some officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, cited the rendezvous as evidence of an alliance between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. The theory was later debunked by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Sept. 11 commission, which revealed in 2004 that Ani was in U.S. custody.

The Iraqi spy resurfaced two months ago when Czech officials revealed that he had filed a multimillion-dollar compensation claim. His complaint: that unfounded Czech intelligence reports had prompted his imprisonment by the CIA.

CIA resumes

When Bush confirmed the existence of the CIA’s prisons in September 2006, he said they had been vacated for the time being. But he said the U.S. government would use them again, if necessary.The CIA has resumed its detention program. Since March, five new terrorism suspects have been transferred to Guantanamo. Although the Pentagon has not disclosed details about how or precisely when they were captured, officials have said one of the prisoners, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, had spent months in CIA custody overseas.

Details of the secret-detention program remain classified. U.S. officials have offered only vague descriptions of its reach and scope.

Last month, in a speech in New York, CIA Director Michael Hayden said “fewer than 100 people” had been detained in the CIA’s overseas prison network since the program’s inception in early 2002.

In June, a coalition of human rights groups identified 39 people who may have been in CIA custody but are missing.

Many of those on the list, however, were identified by partial names or nom de guerres, such as one man described only as Mohammed the Afghan.

Still in ‘proxy detention’?

Joanne Mariner, director of terrorism and counterterrorism research for Human Rights Watch, said the CIA has moved many prisoners from country to country and relied on other spy services to take custody of suspects, sometimes temporarily and sometimes for good.”The large majority have gone to their countries of origin,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean all of them. There could be some that are still in proxy detention.”

In a footnote to its 2004 report, the Sept. 11 commission named nine al-Qaida suspects who were in U.S. custody at black sites. Seven were later transferred to Guantanamo.

Still missing is Hassan Ghul, a Pakistani national captured in northern Iraq in January 2004. U.S. officials have described him as a high-level emissary between al-Qaida’s core command in Pakistan and its affiliates in Iraq.

Another prisoner on the commission’s list was Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi, a Saudi accused of planning attacks in the Arabian Peninsula. He surrendered to Saudi authorities in June 2003.

Repeated queries to U.S.

Although the Sept. 11 commission reported that Ghamdi was in U.S. custody, Saudi officials said that was not the case. They said he remains in prison in Saudi Arabia and has never left the country.”He was never, under no condition, in U.S. custody,” said a Saudi security source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Officials with the International Committee of the Red Cross said they have failed to find dozens of people once believed to have been in CIA custody, despite repeated queries to the U.S. government and other countries.

“The ICRC remains gravely concerned by the fate of the persons previously held in the CIA detention program who remain unaccounted for,” said Simon Schorno, a Red Cross spokesman in Washington.”The ICRC is concerned about any type of secret detention.”

The CIA declined to comment on whether certain individuals were ever in its custody.

“Apart from detainees transferred to Guantanamo, the CIA does not, as a rule, comment publicly on lists of people alleged to have been in its custody – even though those lists are often flawed,” said Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman.