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Secret Detention

Defining Secret Detention


Whereas most detainees in the ‘War on Terror’ have been formally registered by the US authorities, and granted access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (and through them to their families), many have been held in secret. Secret detentions occur when detainees are held incommunicado (i.e., when they are not permitted any contact with the outside world, including their families, lawyers, or the ICRC), and when the detaining authorities refuse to acknowledge either the fact of the detention, or the fate and whereabouts of the detainee.

Those held in secret by the US include detainees which the US Government denies it holds, or about which it refuses to discuss. They also include those which the US Government admits to holding, where it then refuses to disclose their exact whereabouts and their current status of well-being. All of these detainees have been fully cut off from the outside world (held incommunicado), with no third party granted access to monitor the detention or speak to the detainee.

It is important to note that the detention site itself does not have to be secret for the detention to be secret. Whether the detention is secret or not is determined by its incommunicado character and by the fact that the state authorities do not disclose the place of detention or details about the fate of the detainee. This means that officially recognised detention facilities, and even secret wings within officially recognised detention facilities, can be used for secret detentions. Many also take place in facilities which are themselves unacknowledged by the authorities (i.e., are themselves secret).


Secret detention in US Department of Defense (DoD) facilities


There is evidence that detainees have been held in secret in several official, DoD-run detention sites in the theatres of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. These have either occurred in separate facilities within the compounds, or within the main structures themselves. Some detainees in these facilities have been moved around during ICRC visits, in order to keep them off the list. It is often unclear which agency has been primarily responsible for such detainees, although it is likely to be the CIA, in conjunction with specific DoD units.

Similarly, there is evidence that secret detentions have occurred within US military facilities outside of these conflict zones, including most notably at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Other suspected US military facilities include those in Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Germany. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that US Navy vessels have been used to hold detainees in secret. Again, it is not always clear in these cases whether the CIA or the DoD has been the primary detaining authority.

CIA 'Black Sites'


Scores of detainees, including those designated as ‘high-value detainees’ (HVDs), have been held in isolated facilities built and run by the CIA. These prisons, often referred to as ‘black sites’, were constructed after September 2001 under newly-granted authority from President Bush. Although the existence of the CIA detention programme was publically acknowledged by President Bush in September 2006, the US Government has refused to discuss the locations of these sites. Evidence exists to suggest that black sites were operational in Afghanistan, Thailand, Romania, Poland and Lithuania.

Proxy Detention


Proxy detention facilities, run by foreign security forces, have also been used by the US for secret detention. Most detainees held at these sites have been rendered by the CIA, either from a CIA-run black site, from a US military facility, or from their point of capture and initial detention. During proxy detention, most experience sustained interrogation under torture, led by the host security forces but often with input from CIA and other Western intelligence and security agencies. After this period of detention, detainees are either returned to the CIA (where they are generally transferred to official detention at Guantanamo Bay), or return to their home country for release or for trial and/or continued detention. Proxy detentions have generally taken place in the Middle East and North Africa; namely, in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Morocco. Uzbekistan has also been mentioned as a possible location of proxy detentions.

Secret detentions have often occurred at the location of capture, in either formal or secret sites run by local security forces. These detentions are either conducted in conjunction with the CIA or other Western agencies, or lead to a transfer to CIA control within a relatively short time period. Countries where initial secret detention has occurred include The Gambia, Malawi, Zambia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco, Mauritania, Dubai, Yemen, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Macedonia.

Lastly, secret detentions in the context of the ‘war on terror’ have occurred in several countries where the entire process of capture, detention, interrogation (and occasionally rendition) takes place outside of the direct control of US or other Western agencies, but where there is evidence of complicity by these states. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia.


Indefinite (non-secret) military detention


Most of the detainees held by US forces in the ‘war on terror’ have not been detained in secret, but have instead been subjected to indefinite military detention in DOD facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. While there is evidence of separate, secret detentions taking place at each of these locations, most detainees have been given Internment Security Numbers (ISNs) by the US military, and have thereby been officially registered as detainees under control of the US. In particular, the ICRC has had unrestrained access to those held by the US military in these facilities, and has been able to facilitate the exchange of messages between detainees and their families.

The ICRC has been visiting detainees at Guantánamo Bay since the opening of the prison in January 2002. As of the end of 2011, the ICRC had made 83 visits to detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and delivered over 54,000 messages between detainees and their families. Since 2008, most detainees have also been able to speak to their families via telephone and video-calling, although these are heavily censored.

Likewise, the ICRC has been visiting the detention facility in the US Air Force base at Bagram, Afghanistan, since January 2002. This facility was initially called the Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF), but has been renamed as the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP). As of the end of 2011, more than 3,000 detainees are held at DFIP. This figure represents a significant increase in recent years, as the US Supreme Court has exercised increasing authority over Guantánamo Bay, leading to the halting of transfers from Afghanistan. The ICRC has made 160 visits to DFIP, and facilitated the exchange of over 110,000 messages between the detainees and their families. Since 2008, many detainees have also had access to video-calling facilities, and even face-to-face visits.

In the months and years after the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, many thousands of people were taken into detention by US and allied military forces. The ICRC had access to these detainees from the beginning, and have conducted around 180 visits to a number of DOD-run sites in the country. These included Abu Ghraib (near Baghdad), Camp Bucca (near Basra) and Camp Cropper (near Baghdad International Airport), and at the height of the insurgency in 2006, the ICRC monitored nearly 30,000 detainees at these locations, and facilitated the exchange of over 400,000 messages with families. Since January 2009 the US has been transferring the remaining detainees under its authority to Iraqi control, and the final US detainee in the country was transferred in December 2011.

While most detainees at these DOD-run facilities have not been held in secret, the indefinite nature of many detentions, along with restrictions on access to independent lawyers, and on the ability to review the evidence under which they are held, has ensured that they have remained highly controversial. Likewise, there have been numerous confirmed instances of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment inflicted upon those held. These have been reported by many journalists, activists and human rights NGOs, as well as by US Government investigations. Many of these investigations have demonstrated the systematic mistreatment of the detainees held at US military facilities, either sanctioned officially through Pentagon guidance or improvised within a broad culture of mistreatment and torture.




Rendition Research Team - © University of Kent
University of Westminster University of Kent E.S.R.C