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Awaiting an End to Injustice: Rendition Victim's Wife Speaks About Accountability and Torture

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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June 25, 2009

Today, the ACLU’s Human Rights Program and Alkarama for Human Rights sent a request to two U.N. Special Rapporteurs (human rights experts) asking them to investigate the “extraordinary rendition”, detention and torture of Italian citizen Abou Elkassim Britel.

The ACLU represents Britel and four other men in a civil suit in the U.S. court system. The suit — Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen alleges that Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing, knowingly participated in the U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program by providing flight and logistical support services to the aircraft used by the CIA to transport Britel from Pakistan to Morocco in May 2002.

The request asks the two U.N. human rights experts to investigate the circumstances surrounding Britel’s apprehension, detention and interrogation in Pakistan and his clandestine transfer from that country to Morocco; his secret detention without charge or trial in Morocco; and his abusive interrogation also in Morocco. Britel is one of the few victims of the United States’ “extraordinary rendition” program whose identities are known, and the only European citizen, to our knowledge, still detained. To this day, Britel remains incarcerated in a Moroccan prison.

I recently spoke with Britel’s wife, Italian citizen Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzini, and asked her to share their story. The following is excerpted and translated from our conversation.

Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzini: March 10, 2002 was the last time I spoke to my husband and I remember that the phone connection was awful and scratchy. We thought we’d just continue speaking the next day. But then I didn’t hear from him — he disappeared. For 11 months I didn’t have any news. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

ACLU: On March 10, 2002, Britel, who was on a business tip in Pakistan, was arrested and detained in Pakistan on immigration charges. After several months in Pakistani detention, during which time he was interrogated by both Pakistani and U.S. officials, Britel was eventually transferred to the exclusive custody of U.S. officials. U.S. officials dressed Britel in a diaper and overalls and shackled and blindfolded him before flying him to Morocco for detention and further interrogation. Britel was detained incommunicado by Moroccan security services at Témara detention center, and subjected to beatings, sleep and food deprivation, and threatened with sexual torture, including sodomy with a bottle and castration Britel’s family only learned of his fate when Britel was released almost one year after his first disappearance, without charge, in February 2003.

Tragically, on his way back home to Italy in May 2003, Britel was re-arrested by Moroccan authorities, who detained him and under torture coerced him to sign a confession that he was involved in terrorist acts in Morocco. Britel was eventually convicted of terrorism-related charges and sentenced to nine years. To this day, he remains in a Moroccan prison.

Khadija Anna: On the evening of the day that Kassim was supposed to finally leave Morocco, May 16, 2003, there were terrorist attacks in Casablanca. This tragic event took 45 lives and prompted a large-scale police investigation. Kassim was picked up by Moroccan officials as he was leaving the country. His arrest was part of a wave of arrests that occurred immediately before these attacks. Once again, Kassim disappeared I had no idea where he was, I tried all over Morocco to find him. I asked the Italian embassy and the Moroccan authorities about him, but both denied they knew anything. I feared the worst because there had been a surge of disappearances by the Moroccan government; thousands were imprisoned, and others had even died during interrogations at the hands of the Moroccan police.

Later, I learned that Kassim had been secretly detained for four months at Témara; the same detention center where he had been detained and tortured only weeks before.

After four months of detention and interrogation, Kassim was whisked through a sham trial, which, according to his attorney, barely met basic fair trial standards. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but on appeal this sentence was reduced to nine years. Meanwhile, the Italian press heard of his story and reported that he was the mastermind behind the bombings in Casablanca — a lie that not even the Moroccan authorities would accuse him of.

Kassim is now incarcerated at Oukasha prison in Casablanca. He is only scheduled to be released in September 2012, yet he has done nothing wrong.

ACLU: In September 2006, following a six-year-long criminal investigation in Italy into Britel’s suspected involvement in terrorist activities, the examining judge dismissed his case, finding a complete lack of any evidence linking Britel with any criminal or terrorism-related activity. Since that time, members of the Italian parliament and European parliament have petitioned the government of Morocco to pardon and release Britel immediately. To date, Moroccan authorities have failed to act upon these diplomatic efforts, and since January 2007 the Italian government has done nothing further to represent Britel’s interests.

Khadija Anna: Official investigations have implicated four governments in my husband’s “extraordinary rendition” and torture. The Pakistani government tortured him so brutally that he confessed he was a terrorist. The CIA abducted and detained him in Pakistan before unlawfully rendering him to certain torture in Morocco; the Moroccan government detained and tortured him; and the Italian government was complicit in the whole affair; they knew full well what was going on and did little or nothing to help him.

The American government is influential, they must intervene to secure my husband’s release and bring him home to Italy. If the American government intervenes, I believe that Italy will call for Britel to be liberated and Morocco will comply. It’s the least they could do given their involvement in his “extraordinary rendition”. I’ve already asked the American embassy in Morocco for a meeting or for an intervention to liberate my husband. I’ve also visited the embassy twice, and spoken to the staff there. Suffice to say, my request has fallen on deaf ears and I don’t know where else to turn.

ACLU: Since March 2002, Britel has been subject to physical and psychological torture and cruel treatment — including severe beatings, isolation, sleep deprivation, and death threats. Britel’s experiences are part of a larger pattern of widespread torture and abuse committed by the U.S. government under the Bush administration. Meaningful accountability for crimes committed in the name of national security must include recognition and compensation for torture victims.

Khadija Anna: Physically, Kassim is weak, and has many physical problems due to the torture and abuse he went through. This has left traces, not only on his soul but also his heart. He’s fighting to stay alive. He’s also fighting for the rights of the other prisoners detained along with him; to improve their conditions as well as his own. He’s gone on hunger strikes many times, sometimes on his own, other times with other prisoners — hoping to bring attention to the conditions inside the prison and to protest his torture.

As for me, I am always tired, and always waiting. It’s been over seven long years since Kassim disappeared. These years have been so painful, but I know that the injustice that I’ve gone through will soon be over. I haven’t given way to hate; nor has Kassim. Instead, we’re waiting for his liberation. We want to live our lives, and to reclaim our rights to live in dignity as citizens and human beings. We look towards to the future; when truth will be heard, when our rights will be restored and when justice will finally be served.

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