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US secret detentions: from hotel room to squalid prison cell

When President George W. Bush confirmed in a speech last month that the CIA has been operating a programme of secret detentions on foreign territory, it was portrayed by the United States Government as part of its efforts to “bring terrorists to justice”.

Yet this programme, along with the controversial new Military Commissions Act now awaiting the President's signature into law, has been heavily criticised on human rights grounds by everyone from jurists to academics to Senators to bloggers. Secret detentions actually deny prisoners any access to justice, making them vulnerable to torture and disappearance. As a recently published report for the Council of Europe revealed, hundreds of suspects have become trapped in a “global spider’s web” of illegal abductions, detentions and transfers.

And yet, despite widely-publicised revelations in media such as the Washington Post and ABC News going back nearly a year, exact details of where and how terrorist suspects are held in practice have proven difficult to come by. Most of us are familiar with images of the US-run facility at Guantanamo Bay, but we don’t really know what goes on away from the public glare.

Now, in this piece of video footage newly uploaded to blip, you can walk through a place where a man suspected of involvement in terrorism was secretly detained:


For those of you protesting “but it’s a hotel room!”, you’re absolutely right – an apparently normal, comfortable suite in a high-end hotel in Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia. But it was in this room that a German citizen, Khaled El-Masri, who has never faced any criminal charges, was kept incommunicado for 23 days in January 2004. It was here that he was tightly guarded by intelligence agents – even on his visits to the bathroom – refused legal or consular help, interrogated continuously about Islamic extremism, and threatened with a gun to his head when he tried to leave.

From this hotel room, El-Masri was handed over to the CIA and flown to Afghanistan, where he would spend the next four months in a squalid prison cell.


When El-Masri’s story was first reported in the New York Times last year, questions sprung up around the nature and extent to which intelligence agencies from various countries were involved. One popular explanation is that he was picked up as a result of a CIA mistake, which the Macedonians and Germans were drawn into. In December 2005, El-Masri filed a US lawsuit against the former Director of the CIA, which is due to be argued on appeal by the ACLU next month. Meanwhile a German Parliament inquiry is looking into whether the German secret services played a role – in spite of a government claim that it didn’t even know of the case until after El-Masri was returned home.

While many of the larger European nations have been able to engage in a systematic cover-up of their role as US “partners in crime”, Macedonia’s involvement now appears to have been laid bare. Along with the Macedonian Government’s predictable public denials have come private admissions from former officials that they held El-Masri on behalf of the CIA. Macedonian journalist Aleksandr Bozinowski, writing in Vreme, has reflected concerns that the level of ‘control’ exercised by foreign intelligence agencies over national security issues sometimes “brings into question Macedonia's sovereignty”.

In any case, believe it or not, the discovery of this hotel room provided a major piece in the jigsaw of this US-led operation. Journalists investigating for German TV channel ZDF’s “Frontal 21″ news show took El-Masri’s hand-drawn memory of the room (shown at this ACLU link as the third of three detention sketches) along to Skopje and found a match. El-Masri then postively identified several aspects of the hotel from its website.

Anyone who wants to know more can read Khaled El-Masri’s detailed statement to the US courts online. His moving and compelling video testimony also features in the 2006 WITNESS documentary “Outlawed”, which is a must-see film in these troubled times. We’d be happy to hear your comments on that film or on any other aspects of this post right here on the new Human Rights Video Hub.

El-Masri went on to suffer a deeply traumatic ordeal of rendition, torture, forced-feeding and other outrages to his dignity – most of which took place in the more typical surroundings of a “small, filthy, concrete cell” in Afghanistan. But no less significant was his detention in this mundane, unremarkable hotel room in Macedonia; for it shows us that hidden, silent, secret human rights abuses are not only going on behind barbed wire.

5 comments

  • JJ Lowe

    The facts of the american war on terror are sobering enough, so its refreshing when specific cases are brought to you in a clear an unsensational fashion without the need for journalistic spin (whichever side of the conflict you see yourself on), these are the facts and this is the reality of the war on terror, everyone should read it.

  • Chris Smith

    This article gives a startling indication of where the human race finds itself today. The country with the most liberal constitution has proven itself to also be the country most willing to abuse the human rights of those that do not toe the line. It is deplorable that politicians around the world are willing to align themselves with this perversion of justice, although it clearly goes on far behind the scenes. Thankfully, there are people who are willing to sift through the evidence. Having gone to school with the author of this article, I am proud to see that he has forsaken more obvious and lucrative career paths to bring this sort of atrocity to the front of our consciousness. Good on you Gav!

  • […] 5, 2006 in Human Rights [Originally published here as part of WITNESS’s collaboration with Global Voices Online – this post was written by Gavin […]

  • […] 13, 2007 in Human Rights [Originally published here as part of WITNESS’s collaboration with Global Voices Online – this post was written by Gavin […]

  • […] published here as part of WITNESS’s collaboration with Global Voices Online – this post was written by Gavin […]

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