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Alleged Obama-Era Rendition Victim Accuses US of Torture, Coercion

StoryAugust 13, 2009
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A Lebanese contractor named Raymond Azar says he’s the first known victim of rendition under President Obama. Azar alleges that he was coerced into confessing to bribing a contract officer after being seized and tortured by armed federal agents in Afghanistan. We speak with attorney and legal expert Scott Horton about Azar’s case. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll find out in a minute about the new Mozart manuscript that has been found, actually, the old Mozart manuscript.

I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue now with Scott Horton, to the story of a man who says he’s the first known victim of rendition under President Obama.

Raymond Azar is a Lebanese construction manager who works for Sima International, a contractor employed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Azar alleges he was coerced into confessing to bribing a contract officer after being seized and tortured by armed federal agents in Afghanistan. He says he was hooded, shackled, photographed naked, strip-searched, subjected to extreme cold temperatures and sleep deprivation, and forcibly transported from Bagram, Afghanistan to the United States. A US federal agent also reportedly threatened Azar with never seeing his family again.

Upon landing in the US, Azar was formally arrested and faces charges in a federal antitrust case.

The Department of Justice refuses to call this a rendition and says the charges of torture are, quote, “hyperbolic.”

For more on this story, we are joined by legal expert Scott Horton.

What do you know about this story? You wrote about it for the Huffington Post.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I followed it mostly from legal papers. I was cued to it by someone who was in the courtroom when the matter first came up before a judge in northern Virginia. And it’s been very well developed now with the sworn statements filed in federal court, and I’ve talked to lawyers and Justice Department figures involved with it. Of course, they’re very skittish about the use of the word “rendition.” It has negative connotations. But nevertheless, that’s clearly exactly what’s going on here.

And we are seeing some — clearly an implementation of a policy change, to some extent, because, remember, Barack Obama, while criticizing the Bush rendition program, never went as far as to say no more renditions. In fact, he said instead, you know, “I’m going to put an end to torture. I’m going to close the black sites. But there may be legitimate cases when we’ll have renditions.” In fact, I was on your program with Michael Ratner, and we had a bit of a debate about that.

And this shows, I think, how the program is being carried forward. And to a large extent, it’s a trip back to renditions the way they occurred in the Clinton era. This is what we call “rendition to justice.” Here’s someone who was the target of a federal criminal probe. They wanted him on charges. He was indicted, sealed indictment. He’s snatched overseas and brought back to face charges in the United States.

All that’s not terribly surprising, although the fact that it’s a contract fraud case is unusual. There’s never been —- renditions have not been used in a case like this before. They’ve been reserved for drug kingpins and terrorists.

But it’s very disturbing that we have these allegations of torture hovering over the case. And while the Department of Justice says the charges are hyperbolic, the list of charges that were brought, there’s only one single item, that is, the claim that he was threatened with never seeing his family again, that the Department of Justice has actually denied. The rest of the charges, they acknowledge, yes, that happened, and it was standard procedure.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain exactly what happened to him.

SCOTT HORTON: He was called to Afghanistan for a meeting with a client. This man was working on construction projects for the US government. He went there with a Lebanese American assistant. And he’s from Lebanon, near Beirut. And he recounts that after a couple of brief meetings in one of these offices in Kabul, eight heavily armed FBI agents came into the room and seized him. And he was shackled, had his clothing removed, had his eyeglasses taken from him. He was stripped. He was given a body cavity search. He was manacled. He was hooded. And he -—

AMY GOODMAN: So, which part of this is hyperbolic?

SCOTT HORTON: Hyperbolic is the characterization of this as torture. That’s the Justice Department —-

AMY GOODMAN: Hooded, stripped.

SCOTT HORTON: Had body cavity search. Then sleep deprivation occurred; he was not permitted to sleep for a day and a half. Hyperthermia, it was near freezing in his cell. He was given only a thin jumpsuit to wear.

So, these procedures, if they’re standard procedures, they’re procedures that we’ve seen employed before in connection with renditions. And in a criminal justice perspective, they’re really abusive. In fact, I think a lot of people I’ve shown this to, including career prosecutors, looked at it and looked at what happened and said this is an exercise of very questionable judgment by people in the Justice Department.

AMY GOODMAN: This is for an allegation of bribery?

SCOTT HORTON: A very small-scale contract fraud. The corrupt payments that are involved here amount to about $100,000. And this is a sting operation, in which the Justice Department tried to set up a contractor operating in the Middle East soliciting bribe payments. And they made them -— something which I think would not shock anyone. That’s essentially the way the construction industry in the Middle East works.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happens now?

SCOTT HORTON: He’s facing charges. He’s trying to get his confession struck. And I think it’s a reasonable prospect of that happening, based on his description of what was done to him. You know, whether the judge says this is torture or not — unlikely he’ll go there, but the judge may very well conclude that this was unacceptable coercion to use in connection with extraction of a confession. So I’d be surprised if that confession stands up.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, we only have thirty seconds, but you not only deal with civil liberties, with issues of rendition and torture, but you are a classical music buff, and you’re just reporting on the release of a — or the find, discovery of a Mozart manuscript.

SCOTT HORTON: A wonderful new find! It’s a piano concerto. We have only the piano part. It was performed for the first time weekend before last in Salzburg, Vienna. And it comes from Nannerl’s notebook, a notebook that was put together by Leopold Mozart for his daughter, that is Wolfgang Amadeus’s older sister. And this was long thought to have been Leopold Mozart’s work, but in the last couple of months, musicologists have confirmed that, nope, this is a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart original.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, the current version signed on August 17th — August 12th, 1949. Scott Horton, thanks for joining us. His piece on Raymond Azar is at the Huffington Post, New York attorney specializing in international law and human rights, also is a legal affairs contributor at Harper’s Magazine, where he writes the blog “No Comment.”

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