There doesn’t seem to be anything too remarkable about Lotfi al-Arabi El Gherissi. He really could be anyone, middle aged, slight of build and bald, there is little to distinguish him from countless middle aged men throughout Tunisia. However, as he speaks and the gruesome reality of the torture he and fellow Tunisian, Ridha Najjar endured as part of the CIA’s War on Terror becomes clear, it becomes apparent that there is very little that was, or will be ordinary about Lotfi al-Arabi El Gherissi ever again.
Both El Gherissi and Najjar say they are broken men. Their bodies and minds shattered by the treatment meted out to them by the CIA. After over a decade in prison, without trial or official charge, neither has received any formal acknowledgement or redress from the United States for their treatment. The torture methods the two men say they experienced during their captivity go beyond those admitted to by the US’ intelligence services in 2014 and raise profound questions over the US’ War on Terror and exactly what we can expect from the world’s last superpower.
Lotfi Arabi Gherissi and Ridha Najjar were originally taken captive in Pakistan in 2002, before being transferred to the secret CIA prison called Cobalt in Afghanistan. According to the account given to Human Rights Watch by Gherissi, he spent over 13 months in what he called “the black prison.” Najjar, who was thought to be a bodyguard for Oussama Bin Laden, spent nearly two years at the same prison, where both detainees endured various forms of torture that lasted for over a month for Gherissi and three for Najjar.
Afterwards the two men were transferred to US’ military custody at Bagram airbase, Afghanistan, where they were unable to communicate with the outside world due to US’ restrictions on communication. During their time there, they reported being mistreated by the guards and often deprived of food, or punished by being put in isolation. The two Tunisians were ultimately repatriated on June 15, 2015, where Tunisian authorities held them for several days before releasing them.
Though free, Gherissi and Najjar both say they are unable to work due to the effects of the torture they experienced during their time as US’ prisoners. Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch, neither has received compensation for either the torture or the time they spent imprisoned by the US without trial.
Gherissi described his experience to Human Rights Watch: “They took off my clothes and put me in cold water, and then they took me to be hung. They hung me up from my hands, and I was standing on the tips of my toes for 24 hours.” Various forms of water boarding were also used, among other techniques such as depriving him from using the toilet, fastening diapers with thick tape around his waist, beating him with steel batons, sleep deprivation and threatening him with being placed in an electric chair. Najjar’s experience was similar to that of Gherissi. He lost his senses and had no means of knowing how much time had passed. Objects were also inserted into his anus as part of his interrogation.
According to the detainees’ accounts, the Cobalt facility had what they identified as medical professionals. Their role was to check on the detainees and give them pills or injections that would reduce the swelling around their wounds . The medics would then give the “green light” for the torturers to resume their activities. Such methods are said to have lasting effects, a factor possibly accounting for the present inability of both Gherissi and Najjar to find work.
The torture methods described by Gherissi and Najjar are similar to those already admitted to by the CIA. However, the Senate Intelligence Committee Summary omitted the length and extensiveness of the techniques deployed against the two Tunisians. Referring to the treatment of Najjar in their December 2014 report, the CIA inspector general was reported as saying, “the detention and interrogation of Ridha al-Najjar became the model for handling other CIA detainees at Detention Site Cobalt.”
Laura Pitter, Senior National Security Counsel at the US Program told Tunisia Live that, contrary to the “Senate Summary” stating two 22-hour periods consecutively for Najjar and two 48-hour sessions for Gherissi, in reality both spent virtually three and one months imprisoned. The extensive beatings, which resulted in broken bones for Najjar, were not documented in the Summary. Moreover, other torture techniques deployed against the two men have not been reported before. “This is the first time men held by the CIA have reported being threatened electrocution by electric chair. No other detainees have ever reported this before.” said Pitter.
Tunisia Live co-founder, Zied Mhirsi, who is currently Senior Program Officer at Physicians for Human Rights, said that the short-time effects of torture on the human body differ depending on the method used. However, bruising, swelling, genito-urinary system injuries and open wounds, which would take time to heal and risk infection were common. In the longer term, Mhirsi suggested such methods as were reported by Gherissi and Najjar could lead to the incorrect healing of fractures, resulting in back pain, sexual dysfunction and skeletal deformities. When asked about the effects of suspension on the body, he said it was a common form of torture that could produce extreme pain, but left little to no evidence of injury. Similarly, near asphyxiation by suffocation usually left no mark with recovery time generally limited. However, various complications, such as petechiae of the skin, congestion of the face or infections in the mouth were not unknown. “Forcible immersion of the head in water, often contaminated with urine, faeces, vomit or other impurities, may result in near drowning or drowning. Aspiration of the water into the lungs may lead to pneumonia.” Mhirsi said.“But the psychological effects of torture are the most serious ones on the long term,” Mhirsi said, citing PTSD, insomnia, severe memory loss and cognitive inabilities.
The various techniques reportedly used on prisoners by the CIA fall under the definition of torture by US standards, and contravenes the Convention against Torture of which the US is a signatory and requires compensation and redress to its victims, something that neither Gherissi or Najjar has received.
According to Pitter, the US’ international reputation and credibility has experienced lasting damage after its failure to address either its own record on torture, or honor the conventions of which it is a signatory, “If the US doesn’t respect its obligations when it comes to its own very serious human rights violations, it undermines its credibility when urging other governments to respect theirs.”
Tunisia Live asked the CIA for comment. However, at the time of writing, no reply has been received.
Prior to working as a journalist, Inel worked as a computer programmer. Inel is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. He writes mainly about freedoms, liberties, and minorities' rights in post revolution Tunisia. He currently blogs about films in French and writes metal reviews.