Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib was captured and tortured in the years after September 11 in both Egypt and Guantanamo Bay.
For years, “war on terror” supporters defamed Habib and claimed he was lying about his allegations of mistreatment. However last year in just one case against the Australian Murdoch press, he won a small victory:
The courts have delivered another win to former Guantanamo Bay inmate Mamdouh Habib, declaring that he was defamed by News Ltd columnist Piers Akerman, paving the way for a hefty payout.
The New South Wales Court of Appeal overturned a 2008 judgment in favour of Mr Akerman’s publisher Nationwide News and yesterday ordered them to pay Mr Habib’s legal costs in the five-year-old battle.
It was the second win for Mr Habib in a month after the full court of the Federal Court upheld an appeal in his mammoth compensation case against the federal government for allegedly aiding and abetting his torture by foreign agents.
Another hearing will now be held to determine what damages he will receive for the 2005 article in The Daily Telegraph and other News Ltd newspapers, headlined ”Mr Habib, it’s time to tell the full story”.
Today, with the Egyptian uprisings in full swing, the man tapped by the US, Israel and the West to lead the country, Omar Suleiman, was one of Habib’s torturers and there is intense scrutiny of who this man truly is.
I interviewed Habib exclusively tonight in Sydney about Suleiman, his calls for the torturer-in-chief to be charged, his knowledge about all the figures complicit in his rendition and his support for the Egyptian protests. He stressed that Suleiman was a CIA/Mossad agent who was willing to do anything for a price:
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I reviewed Habib’s book, My Story, in 2008 for the Sydney Morning Herald and it tells a powerful story. The extracts below are all the references to Suleiman:
The guard quickly told me that the very big boss was coming to talk to me, and that I must be well behaved and co-operate. Everyone was nervous. I have since found out that the boss was Omar Suleiman, head of all Egyptian security. He was known for personally supervising the interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects and sending reports to the CIA. In the beginning, he was often present during my interrogations. He must have thought that he had a big fish when I was sent to him by the Americans and Australians.
I was sitting in a chair, hooded, with my hands handcuffed behind my back. He came up to me. His voice was deep and rough. He spoke to me in Egyptian and English. He said, “Listen, you don’t know who I am, but I am the one who has your life in his hands. Every single person in this building has his life in my hands. I just make the decision.”
I said, “I hope your decision is that you make me die straight away.”
“No, I don’t want you to die now. I want you to die slowly.” He went on, “I can’t stay with you; my time is too valuable to stay here. You only have me to save you. I’m your saviour. You have to tell me everything, if you want to be saved. What do you say?”
“I have nothing to tell you.”
“You think I can’t destroy you just like that?” He clapped his hands together.
“I don’t know”. I was feeling confused. Everything was unreal.
“If God came down and tried to take you by the hand, I would not let him. You are under my control. Let me show you something that will convince you.”
The guard then guided me out of the room and through an area where I could see, from below the blindfold, the trunks of palm trees. We then went through another door back inside, and descended some steps. We entered a room. They sat me down.
“Now you are going to tell me that you planned a terrorist attack”, Suleiman persisted.
“I haven’t planned any attacks.”
“I give you my word that you will be a rich man if you tell me you have been planning attacks. Don’t you trust me?” he asked.
“I don’t trust anyone”, I replied.
Immediately he slapped me hard across the face and knocked off the blindfold; I clearly saw his face.
“That’s it. That’s it. I don’t want to see this man again until he co-operates and tells me he’s been planning a terrorist attack! he yelled at the others in the room, then stormed out.
The guard came up to me, upset that I hadn’t co-operated.
I said to him, “You have to let me go soon; it’s nearly 48 hours.”
He looked at me, surprised, and asked, “How long do you think you’ve been here?”
“A day”, I replied.
“Man, you’ve been here for more than a week.”
They then took me to another room, where they tortured me relentlessly, stripping me naked and applying electric shocks everywhere on my body. The next thing I remember was seeing the general again. He came into the room with a man from Turkistan; he was a big man but was stooped over, because his hands were chained to the shackles of his feet, preventing him from standing upright.
“This guy is no use to us anymore. This is what is going to happen to you. We’ve had him for one hour, and this is what happens.”
Suddenly, a guy they called Hamish, which means snake, came at the poor man from behind and gave him a terrible karate kick that sent him crashing across the room. A guard went over to shake him, but he didn’t respond. Turning to the general, the guard said, “Basha, I think he’s dead.”
“Throw him away then. Let the dogs have him.”
They dragged the dead man out.
“What do you think of that?” asked the general, staring into my face.
“At least he can rest now”, I replied.
Then they brought another man in. This man, I think, was from Europe – his exclamations of pain didn’t sound like those of someone from the Middle East. He was in a terrible state. The guard came in with a machine and started to wire up the guy to it. They told the poor man that they were going to give him a full electric shock, measuring ten on the scale. Before they even turned the machine on, the man started to gasp and then slumped in the chair. I think he died of a heart attack.
The general said that there was one more person I had to see. “This person will make you see that we can keep you here for as long as we want, all of your life, if we choose.”
There was a window in the room, covered by a curtain. The general drew back a curtain, and I saw the top half of a very sick, thin man. He was sitting on a chair on the other side of the glass, facing me.
“You know this guy?” the general asked.
“No”, I replied.
“That’s strange – he’s your friend from Australia.”
I looked again, and was horrified to see that it was Mohammed Abbas, a man I had known in Australia who had worked for Telstra [Australian telecommunications company]. He had travelled to Egypt in 1999, and had never been seen again.
“He is going to be your neighbour for the rest of your life.”
It was then that I knew I was in Egypt, without a doubt. They then took Abbas away and closed the curtain.
After the first interrogation with Suleiman, I believed the Egyptians weren’t interested in where I had been; they only wanted me to confess to being a terrorist and having plotted terrorist attacks so they could sell the information to the United States and Australia. I decided then that I wouldn’t answer questions or explain anything; but, as a consequence, I was badly tortured in Egypt.
The Egyptians didn’t like Maha [Habib’s wife] at all. One day, I overheard Omar Suleiman saying to someone, “I would love to bring Maha here.” I have no idea when this was but the memory of these few words is very vivid in my mind. Fortunately, though, Suleiman could never have gotten hold of Maha, because she is Lebanese born and an Australian citizen. Suleiman, before my release from Egypt, often threatened that he would get me back if I ever said anything bad about Egypt.
After years of slamming Habib’s claims of torture, the Australian government has recently implicitly acknowledged the validity of his allegations:
Last December 17 in Sydney, officers representing the federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland signed a secret deal with former terror suspect Mamdouh Habib.
It featured an undisclosed compensation payout in return for Habib dropping his long-running civil suit claiming commonwealth complicity in his 2001 arrest, rendition, detention and torture in Pakistan, Egypt and Guantanamo Bay.
The secrecy clause preventing details of the deal being made public prolonged a decade-long cover-up of exactly what the Australian government and its officers knew about Habib’s CIA rendition to Egypt, where he was held in barbarous conditions and tortured for seven months, before being transferred to Cuba. Since Habib returned to Australia in January 2005, successive governments and the security agencies have denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, this ugly episode.
The commonwealth has used every legal device at its disposal to keep the sordid details under wraps, routinely frustrating media and legal efforts to get to the truth, in the name of national security.
In 2007 a judge in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal lashed out at ASIO’s repeated refusal to release information on Habib, asking: “Why should we take your word for it when again and again we find things that are said to be the subject of national security concerns turn out not to be? I mean it looks like an easy way out for ASIO: when in doubt, just say ‘national security’.”
The hush-hush settlement seemed set to stamp the Habib case closed for good. But with the ink on it hardly dry, startling claims have emerged about Australia’s connivance in the brutal maltreatment of one of its citizens.
The new testimony is in the form of witness statements obtained by Habib and tendered to commonwealth lawyers – but not until now made public – which apparently precipitated the December deal.
These accounts have not been tested in court but, if true, they provide damning evidence of Australia’s collusion, and expose as lies the repeated insistence that Australia had no knowledge of or involvement in Habib’s ordeal.
A decade after the event, it is now possible to piece together the sorry story of Australia’s treatment of Habib, based on court testimony, witness statements, government documents released from court files and under freedom of information, and insider accounts. It is a disturbing tale.
Habib was arrested in Pakistan days after the September 11 attacks on the US. He has always maintained he was there to look at relocating his family, while Australian investigators claim he had been in an al-Qa’ida training camp, which Habib still denies.
Either way, he was of keen interest to the authorities, particularly the CIA, because of his acquaintance with the militants who carried out the first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993.
Australian officials visited Habib, along with FBI and CIA agents, three times while he was detained in Islamabad in late October 2001.
A few days later he was handed over to the Americans, handcuffed, shackled, hooded, with his mouth and eyes taped and a bag over his head, and flown to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, before being transferred to Egypt.
For the next seven months there he was subjected to relentless interrogation, beatings, electric shocks, water torture, sexual assault, cigarette burns and more.
For years, the Australian authorities denied any knowledge of Habib’s detention in Egypt.
It was only in 2008 that the Australian Federal Police revealed that his pending transfer had been raised by US officials in Pakistan before the event, and then discussed in Canberra among officers from the AFP, ASIO, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the attorney-general’s and prime minister’s departments, who “agreed that the Australian government could not agree to the transfer of Mr Habib to Egypt”, evidence to the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee in May 2008 shows.
“Plausible deniability” was thus achieved, while Habib’s transfer went ahead anyway. US terrorism investigators have said it is inconceivable the rendition would have proceeded without Australia knowing, and intelligence insiders say those involved in Habib’s case were in no doubt as to where he was being sent. Habib has always maintained Australian officials were present during his transfer to, and detention in, Cairo.
For their part, the government and security agencies have steadfastly denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, his time in Egypt, even insisting they were never sure he was there at all.
Both ASIO and the DFAT have stated they had no contact with Habib in Egypt. But the untested witness statements obtained for Habib’s civil suit, and now reported exclusively in The Weekend Australian, tell a different story.
One statement, by a former Egyptian military intelligence officer who worked at the Cairo prison where terror suspects were held, says Australian officials were present when Habib arrived and throughout his detention.
“During Habib’s presence some of the Australian officials attended many times . . . The same official who attended the first time used to come with them,” the statement says. “Habib was tortured a lot and all the time, as the foreign intelligence wanted quick and fast information.”
The officer, whose name does not appear in the translation of his statement seen by The Weekend Australian, said he was prepared
to testify in court, if he was given protection.
Another statement was obtained from a fellow detainee of Habib’s in Egypt and later Guantanamo Bay, Pakistani-Saudi national Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni. Madni was captured by the CIA in Jakarta in January 2002 and rendered to Egypt and later Guantanamo Bay, accused of being a member of al-Qa’ida. He was finally released in August 2009 and reunited with his family in Lahore, Pakistan.
Madni describes spending three months in a 6 by 8 foot (1.8m by 2.4m) underground cell, and being tortured by similar methods to those described by Habib.
He recounts, “I could hear Mamdouh Habib screaming in pain during his interrogation”, and recalls being told by prison staff that the Australian was very sick and possibly dying.
Madni also claims Australian officials were there.
“Egyptian, Australian, Israeli (Mossad) and US intelligence agencies were involved in my interrogations . . . The Egyptian interrogator told me that the Australian intelligence organisation wanted to ask me questions about Mamdouh Habib . . . An officer . . . asked me questions like ‘How did you know or where did you meet Mamdouh Habib?”‘
These disturbing allegations will presumably be central to a fresh inquiry ordered this week by the Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence, the watchdog that oversees our intelligence and security agencies.
Julia Gillard requested the inquiry, apparently after the settlement was reached, and after Habib wrote to the Prime Minister telling her he had witnesses who could confirm the presence of Australian officials in Egypt.
The Prime Minister’s office confirms Gillard has asked the Inspector-General to inquire into “the actions of relevant Australian agencies” in relation to Habib’s arrest and detention overseas. A spokesperson tells Focus: “A number of serious allegations have been made in relation to this matter and it is appropriate for the Prime Minister to request that they be properly examined. The IGIS Act requires inquiries to be conducted in private.” But the spokesperson did not say if the results will be released.
Furthermore, Canberra has now launched an investigation into Habib’s allegations that Australian officials were present during his interrogations in Egypt in Cairo in 2001 when Suleiman was abusing Habib.
Habib is a key witness able to reliably confirm the real role Suleiman plays in today’s Egypt. Barack Obama and his Western allies should strongly condemn the abuses in Mubarak’s Egypt and demand accountability for the crimes committed in his name.
As Habib told me tonight, it is impossible for Suleiman, with his bloody record, to lead Egypt into a better future. With the latest reports indicating that Suleiman and Mubarak are ramping up torture against protesters (here and here), Habib’s voice and experience should be heard loud and clear.
This post originally appeared on Antony Loewenstein’s blog here.