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Djibouti Was Complicit in CIA Torture of Terrorism Suspects, Report Charges

The small African nation is home to the US military's Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa and an important US counterterrorism partner.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

One of America's most important counterterrorism partners has been singled out in a new report by a human rights group for allegedly allowing its country to be used for the temporary detention, interrogation, and torture of terrorism suspects by US intelligence and military personnel.

The report, prepared by the UK-based Justice Forum and Kenya-based Haki Africa and ICJ-Kenya and shared exclusively with VICE News, says at least six terrorism suspects captured by US authorities after 9/11 were held incommunicado in Djibouti, a former French colony, where they were interrogated about their alleged ties to terrorism and subjected to interrogation techniques that rose to the level of torture.


"The facts documented in this report primarily involve acts of foreign (US) officials on Djibouti's territory. Those officials acted either with Djibouti's consent or acquiescence," the report says.

The report was submitted to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, a quasi-judicial body that opened a two-week long session in Gambia Tuesday to discuss a report submitted by Djibouti and other African nations addressing their compliance with the commission's human rights charter. The sessions will include panel discussions and presentations on issues like accountability for torture.

Related: Senate torture report finds the CIA was less effective and more brutal than anyone knew

Djibouti submitted its report on compliance with the human rights charter to the commission last year, but it is only undergoing a review by the commission now. Its report says the country "makes every effort to prevent and punish acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."

However, the Justice Forum report says, "No acknowledgment of even the bare, publicly known allegations have appeared in Djibouti's report on its international legal compliance submitted to the African Commission."

The Justice Forum's investigation into Djibouti's alleged role in the torture of terrorism suspects is based on US government documents, sworn statements from former detainees, investigations over the past decade by human rights researchers and journalists, and flight records that demonstrate CIA-linked aircraft flew in and out of Djibouti.


Some of the detainees identified in the shadow report were also named in a declassified executive summary released last December by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which spent five years investigating the CIA's detention and interrogation program and the efficacy of the intelligence gleaned from war on terror detainees who were subjected to so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

The Senate's executive summary, part of a still-larger 6,700-page classified report, did not name any of the countries that hosted CIA black site prisons. But sources familiar with the classified report's conclusions told me last year that Djibouti was identified as one of the countries where the CIA temporarily held and interrogated suspected terrorists.

Margaret Satterthwaite, a professor at New York University's Global Justice Clinic and attorney for Yemeni Mohammed Al-Asad, one of the detainees named in the report who alleges he was detained and tortured in Djibouti, said, "The cooperation of countries all over the world - including Djibouti - was central to the operation of the US rendition, secret detention, and torture program."

In 2013, Open Society issued a report called Globalizing Torture, which found that 54 countries, including Djibouti, were complicit in the extraordinary rendition of 136 CIA prisoners.

For more than a decade, Djibouti has hosted the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa at Camp Lemonnier, which in 2003 was targeted for attack by Al Qaeda, according to intelligence officials. The Senate's executive summary said one detainee, Gouled Hassan Dourad, also identified as one of the victims in the Justice Forum report, was captured in Djibouti a year later "based on information obtained from a foreign government and a CIA source" and subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques." The Senate's executive summary said the CIA claimed that information gleaned from the detainee after he was tortured "thwarted plotting against the U.S. military base. Camp Lemonier, in Djibouti." But "these representations were inaccurate," according to the Senate's executive summary.


Dourad has been detained at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility since September 2006.

The US Air Force also reportedly uses Djibouti as a base for a fleet of drones to strike at al Qaeda and Al-Shabab suspects in Yemen and Somalia. The Obama administration reportedly continues to render suspects to Djibouti for short-term detention. Although President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2009 banning the CIA's use of black-site prisons, the order states that it does "not apply to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis."

The Justice Forum report is also being released at a time when there is renewed pressure on the Obama administration to hold accountable government officials and former interrogators who participated in the rendition, detention, and interrogation of terrorism suspects. On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued its own report, Crimes and Impunity, a harshly critical analysis of the Obama administration's handling of Bush-era torture practices. It says the administration has not taken any meaningful steps since the release of the Senate report toward ending the impunity associated with the CIA's torture program.

"The Obama administration can't just sweep the Senate torture report under the rug," said Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty Internaitonal USA's Security and Human Rights Program. "The torture program was calculated, unlawful, and known about on almost every level of government. As long as the United States' use of torture remains unchallenged, the whole point of the 6,700-page Senate report is lost."


But Clara Gutteridge, the principal author of the Justice Forum report and the director of that organization, told VICE News that human rights groups are increasingly turning to foreign governments and international legal bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights - which recently held Poland accountable for the torture of two high-value CIA captives on its soil - and the African human rights commission for redress.

She said her shadow report deals with "Djibouti's systemic violations in the context of US-led renditions and detentions, which violates the African human rights commission's charter. Djibouti has not addressed any of these allegations in its State Report."

"In light of its clear obligations under international law, Djibouti should reverse its longstanding refusal to seriously consider these very serious allegations of systemic complicity in US rendition and torture," she added. "Djibouti must urgently disclose exactly who has been detained in and rendered through Djibouti, where they were held, and what was done to them on Djiboutian soil or in its territorial waters."

The report suggests the African commission press Djibouti government officials for answers to nearly a dozen questions, such as:

What information has Djibouti sought or received from the United States regarding the treatment of the following [US terrorism suspects held] within Djibouti: Suleiman Abdallah, Mohammed al-Asad, Gouled Hassan Dourad, Mohammed Ali Isse, Abdulmalik Mohamed, and Ismail Mohamed?


What was done to these individuals whilst they were in Djiboutian custody and/or on Djiboutian territory and waters (including on foreign military bases and vessels).

What steps has Djibouti taken to investigate allegations of grave violations of these and any other individuals whilst held in Djiboutian custody and/or on Djiboutian territory and waters (including on foreign military bases and vessels).

According to the Senate's executive summary on the CIA detention program, Suleiman Abdallah, a Tanzanian captured in Mogadishu in 2003 and sold to the US for a bounty, was held at a CIA prison in Afghanistan named COBALT. There, he was "subjected to some enhanced interrogation techniques," such as water dousing, that was not approved by CIA headquarters. He was "stripped and shackled, nude, in the standing stress position for sleep deprivation or subject to other enhanced interrogation techniques prior to being questioned."

Prior to being rendered to the Afghanistan black site, however, the Justice Forum report claims Suleiman, suspected of taking part in the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi, was held in Djibouti at an airport where he was "physically abused by American personnel."

"The mistreatment that Suleiman has described being subjected to in Djibouti was for him the worst abuse during his entire time in US detention and he will not allow us to speak publicly about the worst of what happened to him there," Gutteridge said.


Suleiman was released in 2008 without charge.

Suleiman's case is similar to that of Satterthwaite's client, Al-Asad, who was also named in the Senate report and was detained and interrogated in Djibouti and Afghanistan about his ties to a now defunct Saudi charity. Last year, Al-Asad, released from US custody in 2005, sought redress from the African Commission on Human Rights for Djibouti's role in his detention and torture. But the commission last summer dismissed the case citing a lack of evidence.

The Justice Forum report has called upon the African commission to force Djibouti to compensate and apologize to detainees who were tortured in the country "and implement measures to ensure that such violations will not be repeated."

Related: Watch 'The Architect,' the VICE News interview with James Mitchell

A spokesman at Djibouti's embassy in Washington, DC, declined to comment on the Justice Forum report, saying he has not yet seen it. Still, Djibouti government officials have vehemently denied that they "knowingly" supported the CIA's rendition, detention, and interrogation program.

Last year, Djibouti's ambassador to the US, Roble Olhaye, told me his country was not a "knowing participant" in the CIA's rendition program. He also rejected Al-Asad's allegations that he was temporarily imprisoned there, calling the former detainee a "liar."

"Everything about his case relies on hearsay and conjecture," Olhaye said.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold

Photo via Wikimedia Commons