Docs: US relied on faulty assurance before shipping prisoners to countries with history of torture
Nick Juliano
Published: Wednesday November 19, 2008

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Hundreds of pages of documents released this week show the US government relied on dubious assurances before shipping detainees to countries with a history of torture.

The documents reveal for the first time the contents of a "diplomatic assurance" exchanged between the US and a foreign government. Such assurances are issued when the US is asked to extradite an individual charged with a crime to a country that has a history of torturing prisoners. The requesting country essentially promises that it will not torture the extradited individual.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which obtained the documents, says such promises are unreliable, and the US's reliance on them raises questions about the government's commitment to an international treaty against torture.

“The United States' practice of relying on deeply flawed diplomatic assurances makes a mockery of our obligations under the Convention Against Torture,” Judy Rabinovitz, Deputy Director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. “Now that President-elect Obama has pledged to end torture, it is a perfect time to put a stop to policies that permit the transfer of individuals facing torture in foreign countries. Our government should stop trusting such inherently unreliable assurances and immediately disclose all remaining records relating to this practice.”

The ACLU's cache of documents deal primarily with the extradition of Kulbir Singh Barapind to his native India. A Sikh separatist, Barapind protested his extradition, worrying that he would be tortured. In a three-page note (.pdf), the Government of India promised not to torture him.

Rabinovitz, in an interview with RAW STORY, said the assurances could not be trusted coming from countries that have a history of abusing prisoners. While Barapind evidently was not tortured upon his return to India, other prisoners who have been removed from the US to countries like Egypt and Syria have experienced torture, the ACLU says. The bottom line is that a simply memo exchanged between embassies cannot guarantee that human rights standards will be upheld.

"We think it's impossible to provide that level [of assurance] when you have a country with a history of torture," Rabinovitz said.

The State Department acknowledged that other Sikh separatists had suffered torture in India in the past, but in a lengthy memo justifying the rendition, the government relied on more than just the diplomatic assurance, including evidence that India's government had sought to rectify it's previous torture practices and the presence of human rights organizations in the countries. Nonetheless, a State Department official acknowledged that "torture generally remains a problem for Indian law enforcement."

The documents related to the Indian rendition are perhaps the most mild example of the US relying on such assurances before sending people back to their home countries.

The ACLU is currently fighting the government in court over the attempted dismissal of an Egyptian citizen who fears he will be tortured if he is deported. A lower court already ruled in favor of Sameh Khouzam, but the government has appealed the decision. The US hopes to rely on a similar diplomatic assurance from the Egyptian government that Khouzam will not be tortured, but it has not let Khouzam or the judge in the case review the document.

The government has never released the contents of a diplomatic assurance until this week. Rabinovitz said that lack of review prevented human rights advocates from learning just how little assurance the documents actually provide.

"Even just in these [new documents] we've learned more than we've seen before," she said. "They're very sparse. ... They don't say much."