Kidnapped in Italy, Tortured in Egypt

By Steve Hendricks

In 2003 the police of Milan were closing in on a network of Islamic terrorists that recruited suicide bombers—until the radical imam at the heart of their investigation, Abu Omar, inexplicably disappeared. He was, it would turn out, snatched off the street by the CIA, roughed up, and eventually flown to Egypt, where he was savagely tortured. The full story is told in my new book, A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial,  published yesterday by W. W. Norton.

I started working on A Kidnapping in Milan four years ago because I was frustrated that there were no narratives that described the full horror of what our client states were doing to our captives in our offshore dungeons. By depicting that horror in all its depth (as I think I’ve done), I hope more people will understand why systematic torture is not just a crime but a crime against humanity. I hope more people will also begin to see why President Obama’s continuation of our torture-by-proxy program makes him a species of criminal that, if not up the high mark of his predecessor, is still appalling.

A Kidnapping in Milan, though, is not just a narrative of torture. In a sense, it’s a heroic story, for it also tells how a bold Italian magistrate, Armando Spataro, traced the CIA’s kidnappers through cell-phone records, hotel receipts, and other clues that they had sloppily strewn around Milan, then how he struggled to bring the kidnappers to trial—the first-ever such trial of CIA officers by an ally of the United States. One of the joys of working on this book was getting to spend a lot of time with one of the few heroes to have emerged in the “war on terror.”

The Chicago Tribune has called A Kidnapping in Milan “[a] real-life thriller … skillfully crafted, highly disturbing,” and Tom Parker, Policy Director for Amnesty International’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign has called it “an amazing good read—at once a page-turner, a wry look at CIA lunacy, and a stirring call for justice.”

As I travel around the country on my book tour,  I’ll also be spreading the word about Amnesty’s campaign. I hope to see some of you on my stops. For more information about the book, see  And of course, you can buy the book anywhere books are sold. If you buy on Amazon through this special URL, Amnesty International will receive a percent of the sale.

Steve Hendricks is a freelance writer living in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Helena, Montana. His first book, The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country, made several best-of-the-year lists in 2006.

Migrants in Mexico Still in Great Danger

Wounded and dazed, Luis Fredy Lala Pomavilla stumbled to a near by highway checkpoint in Tamaulipas, Mexico where he alerted the authorities. Luis led Marines to a ranch. What they found was horrific. They found a ranch filled with the bodies of 72 massacred Central and South American migrants.

You may have heard about this horror earlier this week, which may be the biggest massacre so far in Mexico’s bloody drug war.  Apparently, members of the Zeta criminal organization asked the migrants for money and those who could not pay were murdered. This is one of the usual extortionary schemes criminal gangs perpetrate against migrants as they pass throug Mexico to the United States.  Other human rights abuses that migrants face are kidnapping, rape, and forced prostitution, as the National Commission on Human Rights of Mexico reported 9,758 kidnapped migrants between September 2008 and February 2009.

The plight of migrants and their journey through Mexico is so treacherous that Amnesty International released a report documenting their abuses called: Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico.

We are gravely concerned about the massacre of these 72 migrants and the Mexican government must act now to ensure that the human rights of migrants are protected, especially from extorsion, kidnapping, sexual abuse, forced prostitution, and torture.

Atenco: Getting Closer…But We Still Need Justice!

After over four years of detention based on unjust convictions, twelve Mexican activists were ordered released last week following a ruling by Mexico’s Supreme Court that admitted that the activists had never been granted a fair trial.  They had been arrested for allegedly kidnapping police officers during protests in San Salvador Atenco in May 2006 during which police officers violently abused both men and women for their activism.  While it is wonderful that Mexico’s judiciary has freed these twelve activists, much more still needs to be done for justice to be served in the events surrounding the Atenco protests.

“This welcome move by the Supreme Court shows that state prosecutors and judges in Mexico State relied on the denial of due process as well as illegal and fabricated evidence to secure the conviction and imprisonment of the accused,” said Rupert Knox, Amnesty International’s Mexico researcher.

Simply releasing the activists is not enough: Mexican authorities need to take their actions a step further and end impunity in their country by prosecuting the officers responsible for committing crimes against protestors in May 2006 along with those who misused the justice system to secure convictions of the twelve protestors.

One of Amnesty International USA’s Special Focus cases is centered around the female victims of police abuse during the Atenco protests (see the Women of Atenco case page).  Federal authorities actually conducted an investigation that resulted in a list of 34 names of police officers who were suspected of being responsible for the sexual assault and torture of the women in the aftermath of the protests, but more than four years after the events, neither these officers, nor any of the senior officials who failed to stop or prevent the abuses, have been held accountable.

Hopefully, the release of the twelve activists is just the beginning of the government’s acceptance of responsibility for the case, and the beginning of the end for the impunity that has pervaded Mexico’s justice system.  Amnesty International will continue to pressure the federal government of Mexico to protect the human rights of its citizens, and this necessarily includes that Mexico ends impunity for police officers.

Indigenous Mother of Six Released from Prison in Mexico

Prisoner of conscience Jacinta Francisco Marcial, a mother of six who was falsely accused in 2006 of kidnapping six federal agents has been released after serving three years in prison in Mexico. Amnesty pressed for her release after concluding no evidence existed against her and she had been arrested, tried and convicted because she was poor and of indigenous heritage.

Her release raises serious questions about the reliability of the entire prosecution case and highlights clear failings in the investigation. Amnesty International is calling for a full review into her unfounded prosecution and for her to receive full compensation for unfair and wrongful imprisonment.

You can read the full press release here. Learn about Jacinta’s ordeal in her own words, in this interview conducted this past June 29th:

Ex-President Fujimori Convicted of Human Rights Violations

Today, in a landmark decision, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was convicted for torture, kidnapping and forced disappearances committed during the early 1990s.

This is a crucial victory in the struggle against impunity for human rights violations in Peru and a triumph for justice worldwide.

Javier Zúñiga, an Amnesty International delegate who observed the trial noted:

“Justice has been done in Peru. This is historic. Now it is vital that all of those responsible for human rights violations committed in Peru, including those perpetrated prior to the government of Alberto Fujimori, be brought before the courts.”

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori speaks during the hearing in Lima on April 1, 2009.

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori speaks during the hearing in Lima on April 1, 2009. (c) Getty Images

Peru’s Supreme Court ruled in the cases of Barrios Altos (in which 15 men, women and children were executed in 1991), La Cantuta (in which nine students and a university lecturer were kidnapped and later killed in 1992 by members of the Colina Group, a paramilitary force within the Peruvian Army) and the SIE basements (where two kidnap victims were held). The decision, which was unanimously adopted by the three presiding judges, concluded that Fujimori bore individual criminal responsibility in all three cases because he had effective military command over those who committed the crimes.

Amnesty International has been closely following the trial of Alberto Fujimori.  We have incontrovertible evidence documenting serious human rights violations and crimes against international law – such as torture, killings and enforced disappearance – were committed. Given their widespread and systematic nature, these constituted crimes against humanity.

The trial of Fujimori was highlighted in Amnesty’s short documentary, Justice without Borders.

Seven Years Later: Our Power, Our Responsibility

This week we mark the 7th anniversary of the day the U.S. government first began warehousing “enemy combatants,” terrorism suspects and hapless wrong-place-wrong-time detainees at Guantánamo.  Since then, hundreds of detainees have been locked up and stripped of their legal rights, at least five have died in custody, and scores have attempted suicide (not to mention the more than 500 documented incidents of detainees trying to harm themselves).  The U.S. government’s malfeasance has metastasized all over globe to include torture, kidnapping and extraordinary rendition, as well as the CIA practice of “ghost detentions”—the secret and illegal imprisonment of in overseas prisons.

The past eight years have certainly been one of the darkest periods in our recent history. We’ve seen our own government trample human rights, commit war crimes and author an era of illegal practices reminiscent of some of the most repressive regimes in recent memory (see Gen. Pinochet). For this, as Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights) argues in the current issue of Amnesty International magazine, those responsible should be investigated, and if the evidence warrants it, they should be prosecuted.

Some of us in the human rights community have expressed cautious hope that the inauguration of Barack Obama as our nation’s 44th president will mark the end of this disgraceful era, that it will be the other bookend to January 11, 2002. But for this to become reality, we have to remember that now is not the time to dial down.  We applaud Mr. Obama for pledging to close Guantánamo, an important first step.  But the closure will be meaningful only if it is accompanied by “an unqualified return to America’s established system of justice for detaining and prosecuting suspects,” as Amnesty International, the ACLU, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch have urged in a joint letter delivered to the presidential transition team last month.  We are categorically opposed to the creation of any other ad-hoc illegal detention system that would allow the executive branch to continue to suspend due process.  Any attempt to find a “third way” would amount to having a Guantánamo within our borders.

Since I became executive director of AIUSA three and a half years ago, I’ve often wondered if the inexorable and secretive nature of the Bush administration’s transgressions somehow robbed ordinary citizens of the belief that we can, as individuals with important common goals, make an impact.  If so, then this is the moment to reclaim our power—and shoulder our responsibility.  There is so much work to be done: holding the outgoing administration accountable for the war crimes it has committed, directing international attention and resources to address bloody conflicts overseas, addressing the continuing crisis of violence against women.  It is also a ripe moment for us to apply the human rights framework to urgent problems we face here at home, such as poverty and migrant detentions.

“Change you can believe in” is a phrase that has been trumpeted ad infinitum. But really, it is up to us. We have to make the change we believe in. And yes, we can.

They Can’t Get Away With It…

So it ain’t breaking news that the Bush administration concocted a legal flip-flam to justify the kidnapping, capture, detention and torture of hundreds of people from around the world, under the guise of national security. But to witness how and exactly what they did in meticulous detail – legal memos, public statements (ie, lies) by administration officials, accurate re-enactments of torture, and testimony from a few extraordinarily strong men who survived death-defying treatment – was beyond maddening.

This happened last night as my husband pulled me away from Facebook to watch Torturing Democracy, an excellent new documentary produced by National Security Archive and Washington Media Associates airing now on PBS. My blood was boiling by the end.

Perhaps most compelling were the half-dozen or more former military officers who denounced the detainee treatment policy. These guys weren’t paper-pushing, desk-weenies. One is a former Navy aviator and one is the former head of the Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program. They stated emphatically how this undercut America’s core values and how this will harm American servicemen and women “for decades.”

Here’s a transcript from Malcolm Nance, Chief of Training, US Navy SERE, (1997-2001):

“It will hurt us for decades to come. Decades. Our people will all be subjected to these tactics, because we have authorized them for the world now. How it got to Guantanamo is a crime and somebody needs to figure out who did it, how they did it, who authorized them to do it, and shut it down because our servicemen will suffer for years.”

Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, Senior Prosecutor, Office of Military Commissions, (2003-06):

“If we stoop and we compromise on our ideals as a nation, then these guys have accomplished much more than driving airplanes into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon.”

As for me, I’m not religious, but I love how Col. Couch simply framed this issue:

“God means what he says. And we were created in his image, and we owe each other a certain level of dignity — a certain level of respect. And that’s just a line we can’t cross.”

As a human being, I was heartbroken and astonished that anyone could survive torture of this sickness and duration. As the daughter of a 32-year decorated Viet Nam veteran (U.S. Marine), I can only imagine that my dad is turning in his grave at Quantico National Cemetery. As an Amnesty International staff member, I am both fired up and proud that my organization is unwaveringly committed to fighting this unspeakable crap wherever it occurs, no matter who does it and no matter how far ahead of public opinion we may be.

Skip late-night Friends re-runs, this is must-see TV — if you care what your government does in your name.

Most Americans are ready to move beyond the nightmare of the last eight years. Yep, I’m all for massive change. But for some things in life the perps really ought to pay. And the U.S. war-on-terror detainees’ policy is one of them.

Sign Amnesty International’s petition for accountability. They just can’t get away with this.

Watch the trailer to Torturing Democracy

Do Desperate Times Really Call For Desperate Measures?

Recently, lawmakers in Mexico have proposed reinstating the death penalty to deal with rising kidnapping and murder rates.  According to the LA Times, lawmakers will hear arguments regarding this amendment to the constitution next week.  Talk of executing criminals in Mexico has become more frequent by some politicians as the number of unsolved kidnappings, many resulting in murder, soars.  One such lawmaker said, “In Coahuila the death penalty is not the issue, it’s how we should kill (the criminals); by firing squad, slashing their throats, hanging or something lighter, like lethal injection.”

But let’s step back for a minute.  The reality of the situation in parts of Mexico is that the vast majority of these crimes, many the consequence of a violent drug war, go unsolved and some believe that corrupt police are benefitting by bribing drug cartels in exchange for insider information.  And protecting innocent victims becomes impossible when victims’ families refuse to report the crime to a police force they feel can’t be trusted.

Because the current administration under President Calderon is unlikely to pass any amendment to legalize state-sanctioned executions, the lawmakers pushing for such a measure need to address the real problems in the region.  Before they jump to threatening “throat slashing”, legislators need to target the causes of the organized crime wave and the police force, charged with protecting its citizens, needs to regain credibility.  How can the citizens of Mexico trust authorities to carry out justice on death row when they can’t trust them to carry out justice on their streets?