The World

The World Reacts to the Torture Report

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Dec. 10, 2014. 

Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Following Tuesday’s release of a long-awaited Senate report on Bush-era interrogation practices, countries that are usually on the receiving end of human rights criticism were quick to pounce.

“China has consistently opposed torture. We think the U.S. should reflect on that and correct related practices, to earnestly abide by and honor the regulations of international conventions,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei. There are frequent allegations of torture in Chinese jails and according to Amnesty International, the country is one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of torture devices.

KCNA, the official news agency of the North Korean government, which was accused of systematic crimes against humanity earlier this year, asked “why the UNSC is turning its face from the inhuman torture practiced by the CIA.”

The English-language Twitter account of Iran’s Supreme Leader has also been active, featuring a stream of criticism of the “corrupt capitalist regime” using both the #torturereport and #ferguson hashtags:

One exception to this parade of criticism: The Guardian notes that Russia’s state-sponsored media, which normally jumps on opportunities to highlight American hypocrisy, has been unexpectedly quiet.

Leaders of allied governments, including Britain and Germany, also condemned the activities in the report but praised the U.S. for releasing it.

The most interesting countries to watch are those whose governments hosted the “black site” facilities where the torture took place—most significantly, Afghanistan, Poland, and Thailand. The 500-page summary of the 6,000 page document that was released on Tuesday redacts the names of these countries, but there’s enough information in the document when combined with previously published reports to piece together which countries are being discussed (and media outlets haven’t been shy about reporting on them by name). U.S. embassies have warned U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, Thailand, and Pakistan to beware of anti-American protests and violence, which so far don’t seem to have broken out.

Afghanistan hosted the facility referred to in the report as COBALT, described by one interrogator as a “dungeon,” where one detainee died in custody. At this facility, according to the Senate report, detainees were “kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste.” “COBALT was itself an enhanced interrogation technique,” said one CIA officer.

Afghanistan’s recently elected President Ashraf Ghani delivered a televised address to respond to the report, saying that the practices described violate “all accepted norms of human rights in the world.” He vowed to investigate the practices and reminded viewers that starting next year, when the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan formally ends, Americans will no longer be handling detainees in the country. Afghanistan has also been accused of torture at its own prisons.

Thailand was the country where the CIA “enhanced interrogation” program began with the waterboarding of detainee Abu Zubaydah. In one session, according to cables cited in the report, Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” Some of the interrogators themselves were “profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up.”

Why Thailand? According to the Bangkok Post, the “ U.S. Senate’s unedited report claims the CIA chose Thailand as the site of its safe house because of the close ties between the U.S. agency and Thai intelligence officers.” The report also claims that then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was informed of the facility only after it began operating. But according to the Post, the report has been met with public disappointment in Thailand as it “blanked out all information about the country’s role in waterboarding, housing terrorist suspects from around the world, and the exact involvement of [the] Thaksin Shinawatra government, National Security Agency, and Royal Thai Army.” In any event, Shinawatra is currently in exile, facing a variety of criminal charges back home, and his sister Yingluck was overthrown in a military coup earlier this year. If any prominent members of the military junta that is now ruling the country were complicit in CIA torture, the report isn’t providing many answers.

Then there’s Poland, which from 2002 to 2003 hosted Stare Kiejkuty, the most important of the CIA’s black sites, where prisoners including Zubaydah, U.S.S. Cole bombing suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed were held and subject to brutal interrogations including waterboarding.

It was here that, according to the report, Nashiri was threatened with a gun and a drill, left in uncomfortable stress positions for days, and told that “his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused.”

Following the report’s release, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller admitted for the first time that they had been aware of the facility’s existence, though both say they were not aware that torture was taking place there. Polish prosecutors have been conducting an investigation into the program and prosecutors say the report could be used as evidence. Human rights groups have accused the Polish government of dragging its feet with the investigation.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in July that Poland had been complicit in the program and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to Nashiri and Zubaydah, both of whom are now being held at Guantanamo Bay.

While it’s extremely unlikely that any of the perpetrators of the acts described in the report will ever be prosecuted in the United States, there’s still a question of whether they could face consequences overseas. In 2009, for instance, an Italian court found 23 Americans and two Italians guilty in the kidnapping of an Egyptian terror suspect in Milan as part of the CIA’s extraordinary renditions program. The Americans were tried in absentia but the decision could put them at risk of arrest if they travel to Europe.

While the activities described in the Senate report were mostly already known, the graphic detail in which they were described—as well as the fact that they were acknowledged in a U.S. government document—could add to calls for the prosecution of the officials involved. This could happen either in the countries where the torture took place—the CIA also ran black sites in Romania and Lithuania—or elsewhere under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which courts in some countries have used to try individuals for serious crimes, even if they took place abroad. (Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in London in 1998 on a Spanish warrant, is the most famous example of this principle being carried out.) One Amnesty International official told the Guardian, “If I was one of those people, I would hesitate before making any travel arrangements.”