In 2010, I met an American held in what was then Yemen’s most notorious secret prison: Political Security. This man had never been formally arrested. A gang of Yemenis in balaclavas shot him in broad daylight on the street near his home, threw him in a van, and sped away.
At the time, I was working as a lawyer and director at Reprieve, a human-rights NGO. My team specialized in abuses of the “war on terror”—from Guantánamo to “black sites,” secret U.S. prisons where suspects were held and tortured outside the rule of law. Though this was early in the Obama era, it was already clear that many dubious counter-terror policies of the Bush years never stopped. We started to investigate Yemen when we heard U.S. intelligence officials were running so-called “proxy detention” operations—pulling the strings while an abusive local paramilitary force would pick someone up, rough him up, and make him available to American interrogators.
This American’s family had asked me to find out what had happened to him, and offer him legal help. He had been trying to leave Yemen with his wife and children, seeking help from the U.S. embassy to go home safely. The request backfired. This was just weeks after al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s local branch, launched a failed terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. In the ensuing panic U.S. officials dramatically widened their dragnet in Yemen. Though Yemenis physically seized him, American intelligence allegedly directed his detention from the shadows.
Fighting back tears, he told me how he spent weeks chained to a hospital bed, blindfolded, expecting someone to finish him off at any moment. When two American interrogators showed up, he asked about his Constitutional right to a lawyer; they smirked, and said “there is no Constitution here, son.” Instead they interrogated him, tag-teaming with local intelligence: A Yemeni would dangle his house keys in his face while his U.S. counterparts promised he would be beaten and raped in a Yemeni jail, and that his wife and daughter would face the same fate. Later, he was shunted to another secret site, where guards kicked him repeatedly in his gunshot leg until he blacked out.