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One of the First Victims of US Torture Is Now Missing in Afghanistan

The fate of Redha al-Najar — a Tunisian man who was repeatedly tortured during more than 13 years in US custody — remains a mystery after the US handed him over to the Afghan government.
Photo via AP/ Dar Yasin

On the same day a Senate committee released its report detailing a decade of abuse within the CIA's detention and interrogation program, a man cited in the report as one of the first people subjected to the agency's torture techniques was released from the detention center at Bagram Airfield, near Kabul, into Afghan custody.

Redha al-Najar, a Tunisian man identified by the CIA as a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, was handed over to the Afghans on Tuesday, but his whereabouts and condition remain unknown, one of his lawyers told VICE News.


Al-Najar, 49, who is described in the CIA report as "clearly a broken man" and "on the verge of complete breakdown," was never charged, was not a prisoner of war, and never had his day in court, his lawyer said — but the US government is scheduled to respond soon to ongoing litigation about his treatment in case that has now reached the Supreme Court.

"We found out that he'd been released the day after the Senate report was released and we were told he'd been released from Bagram to Afghan custody the day before," Caitlin Steinke, an attorney with the International Justice Network, told VICE News. "We don't think it was a coincidence."

"We think that the US government transferred him to the Afghans to be able to say, 'he's not our problem anymore, our hands are clean of this, he's no longer our responsibility,'" she added.

A Broken Man
Al-Najar was seized from his home in Karachi, Pakistan in May 2002, the CIA report reveals. Steinke said unidentified agents seized him in front of his wife and child, and that he "was essentially disappeared." In 2003, he turned up at Bagram, which was controlled by the US military for more than a decade until it was handed over to Afghan authorities last March.

"The question has always been, where was he, during the year and a half between those two locations?" Steinke asked. "We have always believed that he was held in CIA black sites and we certainly believe that he was tortured there."


Excerpts of the redacted CIA Torture Report. 

The report released earlier this week sheds some light on the mystery. The report describes al-Najar as the first detainee to be held at a location identified in the report as "Detention Site Cobalt." The report also says al-Najar was considered a "high priority [redacted] detainee," and describes "internal discussion at the CIA" regarding the enhanced interrogation techniques to which to he might be subjected.

The report says al-Najar was in CIA custody for at least 690 days.

A cable from July 16, 2002 suggested utilizing "Najar's fear for the well-being of his family to our benefit," and using "vague threats" to create a "mind virus" and force him to cooperate. The other tactics included using a hood, restraints, and music in order to subject him to "sleep deprivation through the use of round-the clock interrogations." Ten days later, officers that the report states had not been trained in the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques suggested keeping him in "isolation," using "sound disorientation techniques," and a "sense of time deprivation."

On that occasion, the CIA officers involved said they thought they had a "reasonable chance of breaking Najar" to extract intelligence on bin Laden and his family's whereabouts.

By September 2002, CIA interrogators described al-Najar as "broken" and "willing to do whatever the CIA officer asked." But the following November, again, other CIA officers described new plans to keep the detainee "in total darkness, lowering the quality of his food, keeping him at an uncomfortable temperature (cold), [playing music] 24 hours a day, and keeping him shackled and hooded."


On that occasion, they described al-Najar as having been left hanging — handcuffed from his wrists — for 22 hours a day for two consecutive days "in order to break his resistance." They also noted that he was wearing a diaper and had no access to toilet facilities.

Al-Najar's detention became "the model" for the treatment of other detainees at the same facility, the report notes.

The End of Bagram
The International Justice Network took on al-Najar's case in 2008 after his family contacted the organization. The group sued the US government "with the purpose of having a court hear his case," his lawyer said.

"We wanted the US government to have to justify his detention because no charges had been brought against him and we wanted a court to step in and demand that the government explain why Redha has been detained and grant him the opportunity to defend himself," Steinke said.

It's unclear whether the Afghans have charged him or plan to charge him with anything, she added, calling the state of legal limbo a reason for concern, along with the fact that his lawyers have not yet been able to communicate with him.

"This entire process is so cloaked in secrecy because we still have no access to our client," Steinke explained. "This was denied by the US military while he was held at Bagram — all Bagram detainees were denied access to legal counsel."

Instead, the lawyers pieced their client's case together from accounts made to his family over sporadic phone calls and visits with the Red Cross — the only two forms of contact with the outside world allowed. They put the rest of the puzzle together through media reports and declassified documents.


"We know so little about what is going on in that detention facility," Steinke said, referring to Bagram. "We were getting all these pieces and putting together this puzzle to try to figure out what had happened to him."

That's not unusual. Procedures at Bagram have remained a mystery for years, with lawyers still not sure exactly about how many detainees were held there and who they were. It's also unclear if, when, and where some detainees were transferred.

All detainees at Bagram — non-Afghans who were captured by the US in various locations across the world — were supposed to be released, repatriated, moved to a third country, or handed over to Afghan custody by the end of the year, when the US military's jurisdiction over them expires.

The US Defense Department announced Thursday that all remaining detainees have been transferred and that Bagram's detention center was shut down.

"The Government of Afghanistan will be responsible for all detention facilities," starting on January 1, a spokesman with the US embassy in Kabul told Reuters on Thursday. The timing of the closure had to do with the deadline to end the detention program in Afghanistan this year, not to the Senate report, he added.

But some found the exact coincidence odd.

"We think the closure of Bagram and the transfer of the last detainees was definitely done at the exact same time that the senate report was released because it would be buried in the news," Steinke said. "The torture report would be what everybody is talking about and all of a sudden this detention center were people were held for over a decade without charge would sort of disappear."


And even with Bagram closed down, it's unclear where most detainees ended up. The International Justice Network, which, in addition to al-Najar, represents five other Bagram detainees — from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Tunisia and Jordan — said they only received confirmation that al-Najar's had been transferred, but they're not sure where he is. One of the other men, Lotfi al-Ghrissi, is also cited in the Senate report as a victim of CIA torture.

More Torture 
"We have no idea where they are," Steinke said.

"For a few of them we greatly fear torture and even death at the hands of the government in their own countries if they are being forcibly repatriated," she added. "This idea that they would transfer out the remaining detainees without fulfilling their legal and ethical obligations to make sure that they are transferred to a safe country where they will not be tortured is really reprehensible."

Over the past few weeks, US officials have rushed to release the last detainees that have remained in their custody since last March. Many of them, mostly Pakistanis, were returned to their countries, including a top Taliban commander repatriated last week. One Russian detainee was moved to the United States earlier this fall. For others, last-minute arrangements remained unclear — with some even suggesting, as a last resort, the possibility of moving them to Guantanamo.

But the end of Bagram may not necessarily mark the end of detention and even abuse for some detainees tortured prior to their arrival at the prison — including those handed over to Afghan custody, like al-Najar.


While four of the CIA sites identified in the Senate report are in Afghanistan, the torture of detainees and prisoners of war was hardly a new phenomenon in the country.

"After ending Taliban rule in 2001, the US used some of the very same abusive practices employed not only by the Taliban, but by the country's Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and feuding warlords in the 1990s," Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher on Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a post about the report. "While their scale of abuse far exceeded that of US forces, their practices — including beatings and the humiliation of detainees — were distressingly similar. From the perspective of many Afghans, the US was just repeating abusive practices of the past."

Nor is there any evidence those practices are over.

Since the US invasion, Afghanistan's government has repeatedly resisted calls by human rights groups for accountability and an end to abuses carried out by its own security forces, she added, and not a single member of the Afghan police or other security forces has been prosecuted for torture, despite its systematic use across Afghan detention centers.

"Given US unwillingness to prosecute torture by its own forces, the Hamid Karzai government doubtlessly felt no real pressure to see to it that its security forces were held to account," Gossman wrote, referring to the Afghan president at the helm of the country for the past decade, until this year. "Unfortunately, President Ghani will need to tackle torture without any helpful precedents from his predecessor or the US."

For al-Najar, who was in US custody for 13 years, the future remains uncertain.

"Our number one priority is making sure he is safe, that his arbitrary indefinite detention comes to an end," Steinke said. "And now that it's been revealed that he was very sadistically tortured, making sure that that never happens again to him, no matter whose custody he's in."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi