By Angelina Kaneva
International Women's Initiative Staff Writer
Following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin covertly detaining people suspected of terrorist activities. Although secret detention is considered by many experts and rights activists to lead to violations of individuals’ rights to not be detained without a legitimate reason and to have a fair trial if charged with a crime, within a year lawyers from the US Department of Justice had already drafted a series of memoranda which drew a “legal” line between what constituted so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and what could reasonably be considered torture. These techniques included, among many others, waterboarding, stress positions, cramped confinement in a box, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, and dietary manipulation.
Since then, hundreds of individuals have been extraordinarily rendered or secretly detained and tortured in CIA black sites in third-party states all over the world. In late 2005, Human Rights Watch found that certain eastern European states had hosted CIA-controlled secret prisons operating as part of the extraordinary rendition program during the War on Terror. The response in Europe was to establish a European Parliament-led inquiry and a Council of Europe-led investigation into the allegations. Both of their findings confirmed these reports, revealing the existence of a global “spider’s web” of illegal secret detention centers, as well as evidence of the use of military airbases and aircrafts for transporting the detainees – with countries including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Macedonia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Turkey, and the United Kingdom all complicit in these activities.
The program was intended to protect the United States from terrorism but, as described by the Open Society Justice Initiative’s report on the topic, instead stripped detainees of some of their most basic rights, facilitated gruesome forms of torture, and damaged the United States’ reputation worldwide as a defender of human rights. The practice continued for nearly a decade until President Barack Obama signed an executive order repudiating torture.
Despite fierce objections from the CIA, the White House and leaders within the Republican Party, in December 2014 the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released what became known as the Torture Report, a 500-page executive summary of a roughly 6,700-page investigative report (the actual report remains classified). This summary not only revealed the brutality of the interrogation techniques but also indicated that these techniques proved to be largely ineffective; many victims yielded no intelligence, or simply provided false information, to their captors.
Amid all the details included in the Torture Report, one thing stands out: all the detainees subjected to torture were reportedly men. The word “she” appears fewer than 20 times in the extensive document, and all its uses refer to either female senators or to former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. According to Nimmi Gowrinathan, there are a couple of possible explanations for this. The omission of women from the report might have been a calculated decision arising from mounting fears about a possible backlash in the Muslim world to the Torture Report’s release. “In areas of ongoing conflict, particularly in culturally conservative societies, attacks on women are often seen as a deeper symbolic wound,” says Gowrinathan. However, it could also be part of a general trend of overlooking women in torture reporting. To this end, the Danish Dignity Institute has noted that only a quarter of the reporting on torture and detention in the past six years has made any reference to women.
Although the number of women held in torture chambers was almost definitely lower than that of men, evidence indicates that there have, in fact, been female terrorist suspects held in US custody. These women share similar profiles with the men who were subjected to degrading treatment. One example is Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born and MIT-educated neuroscientist who was suspected of being a courier and financier for Al-Qaeda upon leaving the United States for Pakistan in 2003 after the War on Terror began. Aafia had been placed on a “wanted for questioning” list by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and it is widely believed that she was then held against her will at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, a site that became infamous for reports of torture and prisoner abuse by US military personnel. As Gowrinathan suggests, it is difficult to accept that Aafia would have been held in secret if the CIA had not intended to use its “information gathering techniques” on her.
Another known victim of the extraordinary rendition program is Fatima Bouchar. Along with her husband, a Libyan Islamist militant fighting Muammar Gaddafi, Fatima was abducted in Bangkok in 2004 and flown to one of Gaddafi's prisons in Libya; she was 30 years old and pregnant at the time. Three American personnel reportedly forced her to lie on a stretcher and subsequently wrapped her entire body in tape, rendering her unable to move. She was then dragged away from her husband and taken to a cell where her left wrist was chained to the wall and both ankles to the floor. After being held for five days in an unknown place, Fatima was transferred to another site east of Tripoli where she then spent four months in a cell undergoing interrogation for approximately five hours a day. “At one point a cot was brought in the cell along with some baby clothes, nappies, a bed cover and a baby bath,” Fatima recalls. “I really thought I was going to have to have my baby there, and that we would both be held there.” Fortunately, she was released shortly before giving birth to a son, apparently because word of her husband's capture had reached the outside world.
These are only two of the stories of women held as part of the CIA’s secret torture program, but it is very likely that there are numerous other women who were hidden, detained and tortured in secret intelligence facilities around the world. While women’s rights are often considered a cornerstone of the United States’ moral authority, and while the War on Terror in fact began with a military intervention in Afghanistan that was frequently justified as a way to liberate the country’s oppressed women, Aafia’s and Fatima’s stories seem to contradict those assertions.
The human rights violations suffered by these two women, as well as hundreds of other women and men, cannot be tolerated. Failing to conduct proper investigations, if not actively concealing the truth, is inconsistent with the standards set forth by the US Constitution and international human rights law. A thorough investigation of the role of the United States in the torture of detainees, and an exposure of other cases of detained women that have thus far remained undisclosed, should not be delayed.