Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Torture goes all-American

How close is the film Rendition to the reality of CIA activities? Very, says this civil rights lawyer

A Hollywood production that confronts a difficult political issue is rare. Gavin Hood (whose film Tsotsi won the Best Foreign-Language Oscar in 2005) has delivered such a movie in Rendition.

The term “rendition” means taking a suspect prisoner and transferring him to another country, often to face harsh interrogation methods, without legal process. There was really no need for a new word because the old one – kidnapping – described the operation accurately, but “rendition” has joined other euphemisms in the Bush War on Terror such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” (or torture).

The film Rendition is a courageous public innoculation against this creeping criminality. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (played by Omar Metwally) is an Egyptian citizen who has lived in the US all his adult life, and his American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) is pregnant with their second child. Anwar has been to South Africa for a conference, and is flying home to be at the birth. Isabella waits at Dulles airport in Chicago, but Anwar does not arrive.

Meanwhile, there has been an al-Qaeda explosion in a North African town. Missing its target – Abasi Fawal (Igor Naor), the head of the country’s security service – the bomb spatters the blood of a CIA field agent over the shirt of his young colleague, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal). Rashid Silime, the head of a Hezbollah splinter cell, claims responsibility, and there are calls for retribution.

Intercepts have linked calls from Silime’s phone to Anwar’s. But nobody, from the Europeans to the Israelis, has Anwar on their list of potential terrorists. Enter Meryl Streep, playing Corinne Whitman, the CIA’s head of counter-terrorism. She has long since resolved that sometimes one person may need to be inconvenienced if she is to save lives and allow millions to sleep safely in their beds. Anwar does not make it as far as the immigration hall at Dulles.

For the most part, the film is very well researched. Perhaps this is because Robert Baer, a whistleblowing former CIA agent, was technical adviser. The CIA plane that flies Anwar to his torture rendezvous has the call number 379 – the same as the Gulf Stream 5 “Rendition Express” that in real life took my client, the British resident Binyam Mohamed, to a torture chamber in Morocco in July, 2002.

One of my unlikely hobbies is correlating the methods of the CIA with the Spanish Inquisition, and there are some illustrations of this in the film. Like the CIA, the Spanish stripped their victims naked to humiliate them, beat them and left them dangling by the wrists (the Inquisition called that one the Strappado). However, modern technology has supplemented the torturer’s handbook, and Anwar also endures electric shock abuse.

If any critic suggests that the film overstates the horror of rendition, then consider what happened to Binyam Mohamed. During the 18 months he spent in Morocco the torture escalated from beating to a razor blade to the penis – all performed for the Americans, as in the film, by North African proxies. He was then shipped to the Dark Prison in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, for five more months of abuse.

As for the rendering itself, the fictional Anwar is bundled up for the trip in the same way as Binyam – stripped of his own clothes, shackled and hooded. The real victims of rendition generally have a nappy too, so that the kidnappers do not have to bother with lavatories.

Sadly, the high-handedness with which Whitman ignores basic due process is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s Washington. According to Baer, Streep’s character is based loosely on a real CIA operative (Ms X) who precipitated a similar nightmare for a German citizen, Khalid Masri, who was rendered to Afghanistan in 2002. He was on holiday in Macedonia when Ms X received information that seemed to link him to terrorism. She authorised his rendition.

Many months later the same plane that picked up Binyam from Morocco flew on to dump Masri in Albania. Without money or an apology he was left to make his own way home. Even though the CIA had figured out he was probably innocent, they had not known what to do about it. He is scarred forever by his experience, and was recently admitted to a German mental hospital.

In addition, while Baer knows Ms X’s name, she has kept her job at the CIA, and it would be illegal for him to disclose her identity.

Of course, there is poetic licence in the film. Anwar enjoys a six-figure salary, 700 times more than the average Yemeni victim of rendition. And Isabella is better placed to find him than her counterpart in an Arab village. She heads to Capitol Hill to meet an old flame, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), a senior aide to a senator. Yet even with Smith’s assistance, Isabella never tracks down Anwar.

Even here the film is not so far from reality. Binyam Mohamed’s American sister, Zohra, spoke to an FBI agent, who told her that Binyam had been freed, when in truth he was being tortured in Morocco. She searched for her brother from Britain to Pakistan, with no success. Three years later she heard he was in Guantánamo Bay.

Ultimately, what does the CIA get from relying on torture? Eventually, Anwar lists 11 men as his “accomplices in terror”. Freeman finds that the names match those of the 1990 Egyptian football team, which convinces him that Anwar is innocent.

Unfortunately, in real life, it would probably have earned Anwar another beating. When Binyam was tortured, the janitor from London who did not speak Arabic described how he dined on April 3, 2002, with four of Osama bin Laden’s associates, and advised them on their campaign of terror. Two of the four were in US custody at that time, but when the “mistake” was noticed the interrogators tortured him some more, to reshape his story.

Would thatRendition was a work of history. Sadly, the rendition aircraft are still flying; the prisoners are taken to ever darker prisons – whether in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco or ships off the coast of Somalia – farther from the media and the rule of law.

Sheep politics

So here comes Rendition, another “devastating indictment” of the Evil Empire. We know all about America’s Religious Right, but there is a Religious Left, too, and its message is preached in multiplexes rather than mega-churches. It’s a paradox of Hollywood that the nonconformists in the “creative community” are sheep when it comes to politics.

In the Seventies, films attacking the excesses of the CIA and big business were fresh. But lazy thinking set in a long time ago. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the sheep are prepared to laud a film-maker as transparently dishonest as Michael Moore. Hell, he’s antiBush, and that’s all that matters. Even one of the more intelligent films of the past couple of years, Good Night, and Good Luck, could not resist sugar-coating the Cold War, insinuating that Soviet spy-rings were a product of Joe McCarthy’s imagination. Will things ever change? Not as long as American politics is locked in its Left v Right trench warfare.


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