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Demanding Accountability in the Home of Torture Taxi Headquarters

Christina Cowger,
North Carolina Stop Torture Now
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January 20, 2012

North Carolina’s Governor Beverly Perdue agreed with us 100 percent, her Policy Director Al Delia told our delegation — “extraordinary rendition” and torture are wrong. However, the Governor would do nothing about rendition flights operated from just outside of Raleigh at Johnston County Airport in Smithfield. During the Bush administration, Aero Contractors, the CIA’s notorious “torture taxi” aviation service, had used its headquarters and hangars in Smithfield and Kinston, NC, to fly dozens of kidnapped men to secret detention and torture. Among those transported by Aero were Khaled el-Masri, Binyam Mohamed, and Abou el-Kassim Britel.

Shackled to the floor of Aero-operated planes, these men were secretly spirited to dark, foul jails in Afghanistan and Morocco. Cut off from contact with family or attorneys, they were tortured unspeakably with beatings and worse. Each was eventually released without explanation, apology, or restitution.

He was sorry, Delia said — as had his counterparts under Gov. Perdue’s predecessor, Gov. Mike Easley — but it was just not a priority for the governor.

That was at a meeting on July 2, 2009. Present were representatives of the North Carolina Council of Churches and North Carolina Stop Torture Now coalition, which has called since 2005 for an investigation of Aero Contractors’ rolethe U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program. Why didn’t those men who claimed to have been flown by Aero complain directly to North Carolina’s elected officials, Mr. Delia wanted to know.

Well, now they are. The wife of Mr. Britel has personally petitioned the Johnston County Commissioners, who for years have received polite monthly requests to do something about their airport’s torture connections. “Please know that extraordinary rendition causes severe trauma,” Khadija Anna Pighizzini wrote. In her letter, read aloud to the commissioners in October of 2011 by Johnston County resident Allyson Caison, Ms. Pighizzini went on, “I am told that my husband will heal; I hope desperately for this to be true, for him and for me, but the experience of other survivors demonstrates that the damage remains.

The evil that we experienced has scarred us deeply. We are tired, and incredulous that human beings can suffer so much while others remain totally indifferent.”

Yesterday, Gov. Perdue and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper received signed declarations from Mr. Britel and another “extraordinary rendition” survivor, Mohamed Bashmilah. The declarations attest to North Carolina’s role in the ordeals that haunt them to this day.

Accompanying their statements was a new report by Prof. Deborah Weissman and students at the Immigration & Human Rights Policy Clinic of the University of North Carolina School of Law. After studying the situation, their inescapable conclusion was clear: state and local government officials knew about the torture flights and looked the other way.

“Aero was intricately involved in the extraordinary rendition of individuals to overseas facilities and black sites,” the report states, “and as a North Carolina-based corporation, could not have carried out these functions without the support and resources of the state of North Carolina and its political subdivisions.”

North Carolinians see this as a local issue: our state, our counties have helped deliver human beings to torture. Our tax dollars are at work. We have a responsibility to clean up our own backyard. At the same time, we hope mightily that pulling on the thread that is Aero Contractors will help unravel the rest of what Swiss senator Dick Marty called “the global spider’s web” of U.S.-led secret detention and torture.

To our fellow Tarheels, we say this issue matters to us all. Many good men and women have served our nation patriotically, trying to keep us safe. Some have taken part in acts for which they now suffer in mind and body. We imagine the CIA torture flights may eat at the pilots and mechanics. Our obligation to shine a light and to hold accountable those who designed and supported this policy cuts across political lines, and unites us all. Making amends to Mr. Britel and Mr. Bashmilah could help North Carolina — and our nation — heal too.

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