Secret Prisons

on 01 September 2011

Bagram from Bisher

Reprieve investigates extra-judicial proxy detention and military detention around the world and reunites 'disappeared' prisoners with their legal rights. This briefing covers details of prisons and rendition activities in Afghanistan (Bagram, Pol-e-Charki, The Dark Prison and the Salt Pit), Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Egypt and Syria (Lazogley State Security Intelligence Regional Headquarters, Tora Prison complex, Palestine Branch), on Prison ships and in Kenya and Ethiopia.



Originally used to process prisoners captured during Operation Enduring Freedom, Bagram has become backlogged with prisoners who are held for years without charge, trial or legal rights.

Hamidullah Khan, for example, was picked up while travelling from Karachi to his father's village in Waziristan to salvage the family's possesions during the ongoing military operation. He was just fourteen. He is currently being held at Bagram and his family are desperate for his return.

Unlike detainees at Guantánamo, prisoners at Bagram are still being held in a legal black-hole; they have no access to lawyers and thus are unable to challenge their detention, despite the fact that between 2002 and 2008 several prisoners who had undergone torture were released without having even been put on trial.

As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama unequivocally rejected the "false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus". Yet when his adminstration took office it chose to stand by Bush's legal arguments concerning Bagram detainees: as enemy combatants they had no constitutional rights.

Prisoners have been subjected to beatings, stress positions, sexual abuse and humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep, food and water deprivation, exposure to cold temperature, dousing with cold water and blaring of loud music.

Omar Deghayes said:

“The camp looked like the Nazi camps that I saw in films… Lying on the floor of the compound, all night I would hear the screams of others in the rooms above us as they were tortured and interrogated. My number would be called out, and I would have to go to the gate. They chained me and put a bag over my head, dragging me off for my own turn. They would force me to my knees for questioning, and threaten me with more torture."

Tariq Dergoul, a British National, was injured by the Northern Alliance and then sold to the US for $5,000. While detained at Bagram, he suffered frostbite for which he was denied medical care. He ultimately required the amputation of the affected limb.

Dilawar was a taxi driver, known to be innocent by his interrogators, who was murdered by his captors in December 2002. He was subjected to over 100 sadistic blows to his legs by various guards, strikes performed as "a kind of running joke". As a result, his legs became "pulpified", according to the autopsy report, and the blunt trauma killed him.

Reprieve's local partner Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) is fighting a ground-breaking case filed on behalf of seven Pakistanis imprisoned in Bagram Air Base, which challenges the Pakistan Government over their role in renditions. Awwal Khan, Hamidullah Khan, Abdul Haleem Saifullah, Fazal Karim, Amal Khan, Iftikhar Ahmad and Yunus Rahmatullah were abducted from Pakistan and taken to Bagram, where they have been kept without charge or trial since 2003. One prisoner is merely 16 years of age and was seized two years ago at the age of 14. Another was not permitted to speak to his family for six years, and is believed to be in a grievous physical and psychological condition.  

For the BBC's reporting on allegations of abuse and neglect at Bagram please click here.


Bagram prison originally consisted of crude pens fashioned from metal cages surrounded by coils of razor wire. Roughly twenty people shared a cage, sleeping on foam mats and using plastic buckets as toilets. Military personnel described it as "far more spartan" than Guantánamo.

Faced with serious overcrowding in 2004, the military began refurbishing the prison and installed flush toilets. As of 2005, the US Army claimed that Bagram had a maximum capacity of 595 prisoners. The basic infrastructure, however, remained the same. Hundreds of detainees were still held in wire-mesh pens and exercise, kitchen and bathroom space was minimal. 

In August 2008 the US government awarded a $50 million contract for a new prison. This is now completed, but in the wake of the redevelopment reports still circulate of an undisclosed part of the site (sometimes referred to as a "Temporary Screening Facility") where abusive practices continue.


A vast Afghan prison complex, Pol-e-Charki contains a new American-financed high-security wing called the Afghan National Defence Facility. This contains 56 former Bagram prisoners, and a handful transferred from Guantánamo Bay. Originally built in the 1970s to house common criminals, Pol-e-Charki was expanded by the Afghan authority to absorb the ever-soaring number of detained militants; over 350 suspected Taliban militants have been sent to there since it reopened.

The Dark Prison

Afghanistan’s notorious Prison of Darkness houses prisoners in total darkness, with heavy metal music blaring for weeks at a time. Prisoners are chained to walls and deprived of food and water. Statements from detainees to their lawyers have confirmed that this prison was being used on a regular basis to carry out some of the worst cases of abuse against them. Those who were held there commented that both US and Afghani guards and interrogators did not wear military attire strongly suggesting their connection to the CIA rather than the US military.

Laid Saidi described it as a "dark prison" filled with deafening Western music. Binyam Mohammad, an Ethiopian who grew up in Britain, told his lawyer of being "hung up" in a lightless cell for days at a time, as his legs swelled and his hands and wrists became numb.

The Dark Prison is believed to have ceased operation in 2004.

The Salt Pit

Housed in an old brick factory outside of Kabul's business district to the north of the city, the Salt Pit was considered by many to be the largest CIA prison in Afghanistan. At least one prisoner is known to have died under torture there: Gul Rahman, a young Afghan detainee who died of hypothermia while in US detention in 2002 and who was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Salt Pit is no longer believed to be in operation.

Diego Garcia

British Indian Ocean Territory Diego Garcia has been used for the illegal rendition and detention of prisoners, including Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni and Mustafa Setmarian Naser

Suspicions were first raised by an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair on December 28th 2002, in which Human Rights Watch suggested that US forces were holding and interrogating Al Qaeda suspects on Diego Garcia, violating international law and the legal obligations of the British government. In a subsequent series of questions and answers in Parliament between 2003 until 2008, the government consistently denied the allegations.

In October 2003 Time Magazine cited records from the interrogation of US prisoner Hambali, which had reportedly been conducted on the island. Respected international investigators at the Council of Europe and the United Nations expressed similar suspicions, and US officials went on to make seemingly careless public statements confirming the use of Diego Garcia for secret detentions.

In response, the British government consistently referred to US assurances to the contrary, suggesting limited British presence on, and responsibility for, the island.  In fact, the UK has a significant military and administrative presence on Diego Garcia, which has its own independent administration run by the East Africa Desk of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. The 1966 Anglo-American Agreement specifies that British authorities retain 'exclusive jurisdiction over members of the United States forces with respect to offences, including offences relating to security, punishable by law in force in the territory but not by the law of the United States’.

On 21st February 2008, then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband conceded by statement to Parliament and by letter to Clive Stafford Smith that two rendition flights carrying US prisoners had stopped on Diego Garcia, in January and September 2002, stating that "an error in the earlier US records search meant that these cases did not come to light".

Through a process of elimination, Reprieve has now identified one of the prisoners rendered through Diego Garcia as the Egyptian national Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni. His case shows how the US secret prison system grew out of existing practices with partner states such as Egypt, aided by cooperating states like Britain.

It is therefore inconceivable that the UK was not aware of how the existing US rendition programme accelerated and broadened following 9/11. Excluding renditions from Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay, at least 150-200 renditions occurred between 2001 and 2004, and in the lead-up to Madni's apprehension at least five high-profile rendition cases were reported in the press. More significantly, by law the UK must be informed of all movements of US ships and aircraft on or through Diego Garcia, and the US requires British permission to bring “unlawful combatants” onto the island.  

More than one independent source has suggested that logs of flights through Diego Garcia have been destroyed.  However, an examination of records available for four other rendition flights conducted by the same plane (N379P) reveals that it routinely operated under various “special status designators” allowing them to fly wherever they liked, whenever they liked, which would indicate knowledge - and authorisation - at the highest echelons of both the US and the British governments.

Crucially, flights can only be granted this special status when they are ‘specifically authorised by the relevant national authority’, indicating a significant degree of British complicity. Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing that provided flight-planning and logisitcal support in the trasnfer of prisoners, may also have filed false flight logs for N379P. Such falsification involved not only Jeppesen, but also a state party, in this case the UK.  The almost total absence of flight logs for suspicious flights through Diego Garcia suggests that similar falsification has occurred.

As Mr Madni’s case unfolds, many more questions are raised than answered about Britain’s role in US detentions, with claims to ignorance increasingly difficult to accept. It is time for the UK government to reveal precisely who else has been held on and rendered through Diego Garcia, what happened to them there, and where they are now.


Camp Lemonier, the United States' only military base in Africa, is used as a temporary holding facility for terror suspects, before they are unlawfully rendered to indefinite detention in Afghanistan and beyond.

Djibouti  is a tiny country at the tip of the Horn of Africa. As the most stable state in the troubled Gulf of Aden, it occupies a key strategic position in the region. This fact has not been lost on global powers, and Djibouti has successively hosted French, US, and now soon Chinese and Japanese military bases.

The major foreign power currently operating in Djibouti is the US, and Camp Lemonier is the United States Navy “forward operating site” in the country. It is the primary regional base for the US’s Operation Enduring Freedom - Horn of Africa and Combined Joint Task Force -Horn of Africa.  Lemonier is the current “temporary” base of the US Military’s Africa Command.  The US’s use of Lemonier has been mired in controversy since at least 2004, when it began to use the base as a temporary holding facility for rendition of terror suspects from the region to indefinite detention in Afghanistan and beyond. Documented rendition cases involving the use of Djibouti include Mohammed Al-Assad, Mohammed Ali Issa, and Abdulmalik Mohammed

The use of the base for rendition operations is just one example of the US practice of exceptionalism when it comes to observing the law of Djibouti. According to Djiboutians, the US practises a “form of slave labour” on the base, where it brings in foreign workers and pays them so little that they are effectively bound to stay until they can afford to pay the US government back for their travel costs. The workers are given no rights, and when some workers attempted to bring the US government before an employment tribunal in a Djiboutian court, the US Military simply refused to attend the hearing. On other occasions, US Military Personnel have reportedly shot camel herders who stray too near to the base's perimeter fence, paying off the family and again refusing to attend court.

The US claims that its programme in Djibouti revolves around building partner capacity, and “winning hearts and minds”. But such obvious disregard for Djibouti’s own legal system reveals a cynicism at the heart of the US mission. In a region where the spectre of complete collapse of state structures is ever-present, destroying what is left of the rule of law is a dark strategy.

The real-politik at the heart of the US military presence is a concrete given for Djiboutians, especially lawyers. As the Attorney-General of Djibouti put it, in the context of possible US accountability for the use of Lemonier as a secret prison, “The limit of the law is fact. Here there is one fact – we are in East Africa.” 

Egypt and Syria

"If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt." - Robert Baer, former CIA case officer

Lazogley State Security Intelligence Regional Headquarters

Located in Cairo, directly under the Ministry of Interior, this state security branch was reportedly where Ahmed el Maati was held and tortured for several weeks in July 2002.

He was brought to Lazogley in the back of the van, hidden lying flat covered in blankets and a spare tyre, after being released into SSI hands from the Mukhabarat al-Aama.

Ahmed was kept in the hallway for his first two weeks where, along with many other prisoners, he was forced to spend his time in an upright in a sitting position, awake, with beatings applied to those who could not take the strain and leaned sideways. There were interrogation rooms off the hallway, and he could hear other people being tortured and screaming.

Tora prison complex

Located 14 miles south of Cairo, this complex includes Istikbal Tora prison, Mazra Tora prison and its annex Mulhaq Mazra, the Leman Tora pison and its hospital and Scorpion high security prison. After his 2003 abduction from Italy, Egyptian cleric Abu Omar was tortured at Tora for over a year. He was stripped and placed in a room ‘so cold it felt my bones would snap’ and then moved to a boiling hot cell. Electric shocks were applied to his whole body, which caused lifelong difficulties with walking.

Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zari report that they were regularly subjected to electric shocks and other torture while being held in secret detention Mulhaq Mazra. Only after they had been imprisoned for over two years were Swedish authorities finally allowed to visit Agiza and al-Zari in February 2004. Agiza’s mother was also able to see her son, albeit with Egyptian security supervision.

Agiza’s mother states that it was clear that her son had been tortured; he had been unable to even pick up his arms to hug her, and that he was very slow, very tired and very weak. Al-Zari’s lawyer said that he had been electrocuted with wires attached to the most sensitive parts of the body: “They fasten electrodes to the most sensitive parts of the body. That is, genitals, breast nipples, tongue, ear lobes, underarms.”

Mohammed Zarai, former director of the Cairo-based Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners, confirms that Agiza was repeatedly electrocuted, hung upside down, whipped with an electrical flex and hospitalised after being made to lick his cell floor clean.

Palestine Branch

Located in Damascus and run by Syrian Military Intelligence, this prison is known for its brutal interrogation methods. Among the worst was the ‘German chair’, said to have been learned from the Stasi, or East German secret service. A metal frame, with no backrest or seat, was used to stretch the prisoner’s spine to near breaking point.

Maher Arar was beaten on his back, buttock and feet with a two-inch thick electric cable, and heard the screams of other prisoners night and day. Ahmed Abou el Maati was forced to strip down to his shorts and lie blindfold with his hands cuffed to his legs behind his back. Ice water was then poured on him, while he was beaten with thick electric cables on his feet, legs, knees and back.

"So I’m lying on the floor, stomach down, legs up, hands behind my back, my cheek on the floor, and then all of a sudden, the closest thing that I could think of really, to describe it, was someone pouring lava on my soles. That felt like nothing I could describe. I flipped from the pain. I just flipped and grabbed my legs. Of course, during all that time it’s insults, calling me names, kicking me. So they got me back down, but now so that I don’t flip again, one guy stood over my head, one guy stood over my back, and the others were kicking me with their wooden soled shoes, and another guy was beating my soles with the cables he had…”

Prison ships

Prison ships have been used by the US to hold terror suspects illegally since the days of President Clinton. US government sources have confirmed that both the USS Bataan and the USS Peleliu have been used to hold prisoners.

Reprieve investigations suggest that a further 15 ships have been used to hold prisoners beyond the rule of law since 2001. Prisoners are interrogated aboard the vessels and then rendered to other, often undisclosed, locations.

A former prisoner told Reprieve: "One of my fellow prisoners in Guantánamo was at sea on an American ship … before coming to Guantánamo ... he was in the cage next to me. He told me that there were about 50 other prisoners on the ship. They were all closed off in the bottom of the ship. The prisoner commented to me that it was like something you see on TV. The people held on the ship were beaten even more severely than in Guantánamo."

USS Bataan

USS Bataan is one of the US government’s most infamous 'floating prisons'. At least nine prisoners are confirmed to have been held aboard the ship, including Ibn Al-Sheikh Al-Libi, who recently died in mysterious circumstances in Libyan custody.

Al Libi’s case reflects the greatest catastrophe of the US rendition programme. In January 2002 he was flown to the USS Bataan, which was then cruising the northern Arabian Sea, and his interrogation began. From there he was rendered to Egypt where he was forced under torture to confess that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in league on WMD – statements publicly repeated by George Bush and Colin Powell to justify going to war in Iraq. Many thousands of lives later we all know this to have been false, and Al Libi’s journey through the secret prison system ended when he was sent to Libya to disappear. He duly died in Libyan custody in May 2009.

Other prisoners held aboard the USS Bataan include John Walker Lindh and David Hicks.

The USS Bataan was last seen moored in the Spanish holiday resort of Palma de Mallorca.

USS Peleliu

The USS Peleliu held around eight detainees before they were transferred to the USS Bataan.

On 14th December 2001 John Walker Lindh was transferred to the USS Peleliu where he claims at least an additional four detainees were brought on board.


Kenya has long been a close US ally in the global "War on Terror" - since 2002 it has colluded with the US and neighbouring states in the rendition, torture and detention of hundreds of individuals like Guantánamo Bay prisoner Abdulmalik Mohammed.  

Kenya's use of extraordianry rendition dates from at least 1976, and accelerated in the years following 9/11, when Kenya became the leading regional ally of the US in its global rendition programme. For example, Hassan Agade and Christopher Magondu were arrested in Kenya in August and, on the eve of a habeas hearing challenging their detention in a Kenyan court, were flown with no due process to Uganda, where they have been charged with 97 offences related to last month's bombings in Kampala.

Kenyan government personnel have been directly involved in the rendition of hundreds of individuals of over twenty nationalities, including women and children. Destinations for the victims have included US prisons in Afghanistan, Djibouti, and proxy detention in Ethiopia.  The Kenyan government is facing a glut of civil suits for its involvement in the practice, and has been condemned by the UN Committee Against Torture and rights groups worldwide.

While the rendition of two men to face charges in Uganda may seem like an improvement when compared to the worst excesses of the past decade, it is not. The Kenyan authorities' blatant disregard for legal process betrays an increasingly concrete two-tier legal system in the region. Those accused of general "terrorist" offences may be given little or no process from the get-go. They are routinely transferred with no process across international borders, and held in lengthy detention making them vulnerable to abuse.

It has been well publicised that western powers including the US and the UK have been lending their expertise to regional states in the recent Uganda bombings investigations. These same states have significant traction on the issue of preserving international standards in national security operations, because of their vast in-pouring of resources to fund "counter-terror" capacity in the region.

In truth, ignoring process to forcibly transfer Kenyan nationals to a country with as disastrous a human rights record as Uganda, is effectively a transfer to torture. The continued practice of rendition in these regional counter-terror operations, with the tacit approval of more powerful states, suggests that the worst execesses of the Bush administration may not have not stopped, but rather have just been exported to Africa.


Ethiopia is no stranger to torture and secret imprisonment. Emperor Haile Selassie famously built an extensive network of secret underground prisons, and the state regularly tops the world torture charts.

As a leading regional power, and the only African state to have resisted colonisation, Ethiopia is a tricky customer when it comes to collusion with Western states in the global "War on Terror". The US and the UK clearly take advantage of Ethiopia's laissez-faire attitude to human rights by interrogating prisoners and receiving "intelligence" from prisoners held in conditions that would be illegal closer to home.At the same time, Ethiopia always benefits from such "joint ventures", for example in its seizing of Canadian refugee Bashir Makhtal and numerous Ogaden and Oromo separatists in the midst of the 2007 border operation renditions.Other examples of Ethiopian collusion with the US in national security-related abuses include the capture, rendition and detention on a US Naval ship of Mohammed Ali Isse, and the targeted killing of Kenyan Swale Nabhan.

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