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Out of the Darkness

By: ACLU.org

The CIA used the music of an Irish boyband called Westlife to torture Suleiman Abdullah in Afghanistan.

His interrogators would intersperse a syrupy song called “My Love” with heavy metal, played on repeat at ear-splitting volume. They told Suleiman, a newly wed fisherman from Tanzania, that they were playing the love song especially for him. Suleiman had married his wife Magida only two weeks before the CIA and Kenyan agents abducted him in Somalia, where he had settled while fishing and trading around the Swahili Coast. He would never see Magida again.

The music pounded constantly as part of a scheme to assault prisoners’ senses. It stopped only when a CD skipped or needed changing. When that happened, prisoners would call to one another in a desperate attempt to find out who was being held alongside them. A putrid smell that reminded Suleiman of rotting seaweed permeated the prison. His cell was pitch black; he couldn’t see a thing. The U.S. government refers to the prison as “COBALT.” Suleiman calls it “The Darkness.”

For more than a month, Suleiman endured an incessant barrage of torture techniques designed to psychologically destroy him. His torturers repeatedly doused him with ice-cold water. They beat him and slammed him into walls. They hung him from a metal rod, his toes barely touching the floor. They chained him in other painful stress positions for days at a time. They starved him, deprived him of sleep, and stuffed him inside small boxes. With the torture came terrifying interrogation sessions in which he was grilled about what he was doing in Somalia and the names of people, all but one of whom he’d never heard of.

After four or five weeks of this relentless pain and suffering, Suleiman’s torturers assessed him as psychologically broken and incapable of resisting them. Suleiman could take no more. He decided to end his life by consuming painkillers he had stockpiled. But as he began to take the pills, guards stormed into his cell to stop him. He was then shackled, hooded, and driven a short distance to another CIA prison close by — a prison Suleiman came to know as the “Salt Pit.” Although Suleiman’s torture would continue for many years more, the very worst of it was over.

A year and two months later, the CIA handed Suleiman over to the U.S. military, which imprisoned him at Bagram, also in Afghanistan. Finally, in 2008, after more than five years in U.S. custody, with no charges ever leveled against him, he was sent home with a document confirming he posed no threat to the United States. His family had heard nothing of him since his disappearance, and they had presumed him dead.

But even once home in his native Zanzibar, Suleiman felt far from free. Constant flashbacks transported him back to his torture at the hands of his CIA captors. After years of near-starvation he was unable to eat normally. He suffered splitting headaches and pain throughout his body from the torture. Prolonged isolation left him unaccustomed to human interaction. Despite repeated attempts, he couldn’t find Magida. Unable to sleep due to the torment of his memories and the physical pain, he found limited solace playing with his family’s rabbits in the middle of the night.

“I was afraid of so many things,” he says in the halting English he acquired in prison. “Everyone thought I’m crazy.”

Suleiman, a reggae-loving fisherman who had once been known as “Travolta” for his prowess on the dance floor, had become a shell of himself.

Suleiman’s trauma is not just a consequence of his ordeal in American prisons. It was the CIA’s goal, through a program designed and executed by two psychologists the agency contracted to run its torture operations, to break his mind. Integral to the program was the idea that once a detainee had been psychologically destroyed through torture, he would become compliant and cooperate with interrogators’ demands. The theory behind the goal had never been scientifically tested because such trials would violate human experimentation bans established after Nazi experiments and atrocities during World War II. Yet that theory would drive an experiment in some of the worst systematic brutality ever inflicted on detainees in modern American history. Today, three of the many victims and survivors of that experiment are seeking justice through a lawsuit against the men who designed and implemented that program for the CIA.

Suleiman’s trauma is not just a consequence of his ordeal in American prisons. It was the CIA’s goal, through a program designed and executed by two psychologists the agency contracted to run its torture operations, to break his mind. Integral to the program was the idea that once a detainee had been psychologically destroyed through torture, he would become compliant and cooperate with interrogators’ demands. The theory behind the goal had never been scientifically tested because such trials would violate human experimentation bans established after Nazi experiments and atrocities during World War II. Yet that theory would drive an experiment in some of the worst systematic brutality ever inflicted on detainees in modern American history. Today, three of the many victims and survivors of that experiment are seeking justice through a lawsuit against the men who designed and implemented that program for the CIA.

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