Case Allegedly Shows U.S. Practice of Secret Arrests

A Yemeni reportedly jailed by Egypt in 2002 apparently has been in covert American custody since, without legal recourse.

By Megan K. Stack

Los Angeles Times

March 30, 2005

SANA, Yemen — He was writing from prison, but at least he was alive. The smuggled letter from Abdel Salem Hila was the first his family had heard from him since he had vanished 19 months earlier.

It was, in a way, good news.

"I am writing this letter from a dark prison," the letter began. "I don't know why I am imprisoned…. I'm imprisoned in Afghanistan by the Americans."

Hila's family had seen him off in September 2002, when he'd left on a business trip to Egypt. Upon landing in Cairo, Hila checked into a downtown hotel, later placed a nervous telephone call to his family in Yemen — and disappeared.

When Hila turned up again, he was in solitary confinement at the U.S.-run Bagram air base in Afghanistan. The journey was so disorienting, he said, it took him four months to realize what country he was in. He was later moved to the American detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to his letters to family members.

Hila's case is apparently part of a broader pattern of secret "renditions," a process by which U.S. agents covertly force foreign suspects from one country to another outside the bounds of international law. The United States began to use renditions during the Reagan administration, and the practice is believed to have mushroomed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some of the cases that have come to light in recent months have included allegations that the CIA turned suspects over to countries where they were interrogated and brutally tortured. Critics say the cases paint a pattern of CIA agents outsourcing torture to foreign governments, including Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The Bush administration denies those charges.

Hila's case, which traces one man's circuitous route to Guantanamo, is different. His disappearance appears to be an example of a foreign government turning over a detainee to the Americans after a brief period of interrogation. Hila's letters indicate that he was arrested by the Egyptians, and that he had spent at most three months in their custody before being turned over to the Americans.

A Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday called Hila's case a "reverse rendition," charging that "Hila was essentially kidnapped off the streets of Cairo and then 'disappeared' in U.S. custody."

"One thing that we're trying to point out here is the way in which these reverse renditions occur entirely outside the rule of law," said John Sifton, a New York-based lawyer for Human Rights Watch. There has been no extradition process and no ability to challenge the detention, he said.

"What we're saying is if you're going to detain people, use existing legal principles and laws," Sifton said. "They will work."

Asked about Hila's case at a news briefing Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to comment. So did a spokesman for the military's Southern Command, which has authority over the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Human rights lawyers say Hila's case highlights a major obstacle facing them in their bid to represent detainees like the Yemeni: The Pentagon refuses to confirm or deny whom it has taken into custody and is holding at Guantanamo Bay. Military officials will provide details about a detainee, including his name, only after his lawyers sue in U.S. District Court in Washington, where such cases are heard.

News accounts and legal filings indicate that detainees have been seized in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Zambia, Pakistan, Thailand and elsewhere. But without a list of confirmed names, U.S. lawyers are unable to go to court. Most of the 540 detainees in Cuba — including dozens of other Yemenis — thus have no outside legal representation.

The United States had reason to suspect Hila. A colonel with Yemeni intelligence, he had spent the latter part of the 1990s working closely with some of the world's most zealous Islamist fighters, said family members and other sources.

In those days, Yemen had been flooded with thousands of Islamist veterans of the jihad, or holy war, against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The battles had died down by the early 1990s, and many fighters, unwelcome in their own countries and uncertain where to go, decided to continue their anti-communist struggle by enlisting in the fight against a secessionist Marxist movement in Yemen's south.

But once the civil war ended, the "Arab Afghans" became a political burden on Yemen. The government tapped Hila to help the former fighters move out of the country by securing or forging passports, arranging travel and overseeing their resettlement, often in Western Europe. His family believes that work angered the Egyptians and caught the attention of the Americans.

"Some of the people were wanted by the Egyptians, they got visas and scattered everywhere," Hila's brother Abdel Wahab said in an interview at Hila's home in Sana, the Yemeni capital. "Abdel Salem coordinated with the sheiks to bring them together. He was asked by the government to do this, because there was pressure on Yemen."

In the days after Sept. 11, Hila had grabbed the attention of terrorism investigators in Europe and the United States. Egyptian wiretaps had caught conversations between Hila and his Islamist associates in 2000 and early 2001 in which Hila had mentioned airplanes, airports and attacks that would make history, Italian intelligence officials told the Los Angeles Times in 2002.

Back then, an anonymous Yemeni official claimed that Hila did not work for the government and that he was being sought by Yemeni police eager to investigate the allegations. In fact, Hila was an intelligence agent and businessman who was working and living openly in Sana.

Hila served as the Yemeni representative for Egypt's largest construction firm, Arab Contractors, and imported toothpaste from South Korea. He wed a young woman named Susan; they have three children, ages 8, 6 and 4.

A popular figure in Sana, Hila befriended, among other prominent figures, the Egyptian ambassador to Yemen. The two men dined together regularly, according to Hila's mother. The ambassador, Khaled Komi, has since retired from Egypt's Foreign Ministry. Reached in Cairo, he said he couldn't comment on intelligence matters.

On Sept. 19, 2002, Hila landed in Cairo and checked into the Semiramis InterContinental, a five-star hotel that rises on the banks of the Nile. It was a business trip; he had meetings scheduled with Arab Contractors.

Family members said Hila phoned home every day, using Yemeni and Egyptian cellphones.

Then, five days into his trip, he stopped calling. His family dialed his cellular numbers. There was no answer.

The next day, Hila called home.

He'd been invited to a meeting with "some people," he said. He sounded nervous and strange, his brother said.

"The atmosphere is cloudy and dark here," Abdel Wahab quoted Hila as saying.

"He said he felt there was something around him, but he couldn't speak or explain over the telephone," Abdel Wahab said.

It was the last the family heard from him. They dialed his telephones, but nobody answered. After three days of empty ringing, the lines went dead.

The Egyptian government has denied any role in Hila's disappearance or transfer to U.S. custody.

Two months after Hila vanished, Egypt's state-run news agency issued an anonymous statement from an "official source" claiming that Hila had boarded an American plane to Baku, Azerbaijan.

The agency said Hila had left Sept. 28, nine days after his arrival in Cairo and the same day his phones died. It didn't say whether the plane was military or private, only that Egypt had nothing to do with Hila's disappearance.

The statement emerged under pressure from the Yemeni government, which was incensed at the disappearance of the colonel.

The Yemeni Cabinet had issued a curt statement calling on Egypt to cooperate in the Hila case in the name of brotherly relations. The statement didn't directly accuse Egypt, but it hinted that Cairo was involved.

"Egypt was the bottleneck through which he disappeared," said Ahmad Sinidar, director of the Yemeni interior minister's office. "They didn't give us any clarifications, just stories about a private jet. The Egyptians are the ones who know how he disappeared, and how he ended up abroad."

Hila's mother said she received several phone calls from men who said they were held with Hila in Afghanistan. She was told that Hila had been tortured in Cairo before being forced to fly to Afghanistan.

All of 2003 dragged by without word from Hila. In his dim house in the dusty southern quarters of Sana, the family waited. His children grew anxious. His mother's blood pressure climbed.

In April 2004, the Yemeni Embassy in Pakistan received Hila's letter.

"The Americans cannot imprison me in America because they know I am not a criminal, and imprisoning me will be against their country's laws," he wrote. "They are violating these laws outside their own country, and still they claim to protect human rights."

It was a cry for help from one Muslim to another. Hila repeatedly called the ambassador "brother" and pleaded for help from God and the president of Yemen.

The letter also showed that he was aware of procedures for arrests and international extraditions. He hadn't been interrogated for a year, he told the ambassador.

"My only guilt is that Americans wanted information from me, but couldn't find any, so I was left in Afghan prisons," he wrote.

"If they accuse me of anything, then the minimum right of any accused is standing trial in court," he wrote. "I ask you to lobby the Americans and the Egyptians, who handed me over to the Americans, to bring me home."

A few months later, the family discovered that Hila had been taken to Guantanamo Bay. Once again, the news came in a handwritten letter that Hila gave to Red Cross officials, who are allowed to visit the prison. Dated July 2004, the note was brisk and optimistic.

"Rest assured, the problem will be solved soon," Hila wrote. "I, thank God, am not accused of anything, just some suspicions. I will return to you soon."

There have been two more letters since then, both penned from Guantanamo in October.

In the first, Hila began, "I was moved to the new prison, from Afghanistan to Cuba, Guantanamo…. "

The rest of the line was blacked out, apparently censored by U.S. prison officials.

Hila was beginning to show panic. He had heard that important court decisions were being made in the United States.

He urged his family to get him a lawyer and coordinate with "those concerned with my issue," according to one letter.

"If he's accused, if he's involved in any case, it should be announced and it should be open," said Hila's wife, Susan Abhar. "If there's no evidence, he should be set free."

At the end of October, Hila wrote another letter, beseeching his family to care for his aging mother and his wife and children.

"Take care of my children," he wrote. "I don't want them to be orphans while I'm still alive."

Times staff writers Bob Drogin in Washington, Sebastian Rotella in Brussels and Hossam Hamalawy in Cairo contributed to this report.