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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 22, 2011


Inside the CIA's secret Thai prison
By Richard S Ehrlich

BANGKOK - The United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) appears to have used Bangkok's former Don Muang International Airport as a secret prison to torture a suspected Muslim terrorist, the first time a specific location has ever been described within Thailand, according to statements by the Libyan who was allegedly held there.

It was impossible to immediately confirm Abdel Hakim Belhaj's allegations of being "hung", "injected" and refrigerated with "ice" at the airport, but if true it is the first description of any site in Thailand pinpointed by a prisoner held by the CIA.

Thai officials in this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country

 
have consistently denied knowledge of any CIA secret prison.

However, a secret CIA prison's existence - linked to waterboarding of suspects in Thailand two years earlier in 2002 - has been mentioned in US congressional testimony and was first broken by a Washington Post report. The facility is frequently cited in international media reports as one of the CIA's secret rendition sites.

Thailand is one of the US's major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, a distinction it earned in 2003 through its cooperation with Washington's global "war on terror".

London's Guardian newspaper reported on September 5 that Britain's MI6 intelligence agency helped the CIA in March 2004 arrest Belhaj, who is now a powerful commander in Tripoli with the anti-Muammar Gaddafi transitional government.

"Belhaj was detained by the CIA in Thailand in 2004 following an MI6 tip-off, allegedly tortured, then flown to Tripoli, where he says he suffered years of abuse in one of Muammar Gaddafi's prisons," the Guardian reported.

"MI6 had been able to tell the CIA of his whereabouts, after his associates informed British diplomats in Malaysia that he wished to claim asylum in the UK. Belhaj was then allowed to board a flight for London and abducted when the plane called at Bangkok," the Guardian report said.

In 2004, all international flights in and out of Bangkok - including Belhaj's supposed British Airways flight - used only Don Muang International Airport. In Malaysia, he had bought "a ticket to London via Bangkok", the paper said.

"I got on the plane," Belhaj said in an interview, believing the flight would stopover for refueling in Bangkok and that he would be welcomed in London and given political asylum.

"Belhaj was captured by CIA officers, in cooperation with Thai authorities, inside Bangkok airport ... He says he was tortured at a site in the airport grounds," the Guardian said.

"I was injected with something, hung from a wall by my arms and legs and put in a container surrounded by ice," he told the Guardian, describing his alleged treatment at Bangkok's international airport by two people he described as CIA agents.

"They did not let me sleep, and there was noise all the time. And then they sent me to my enemy," Belhaj said, referring to his secret rendition flight by the CIA from Thailand to then Gaddafi-led Libya.

"My wife was also beaten while we were in Thailand, when I was held by the CIA," Belhaj said in a similar interview with London's Daily Mail, published on September 7. "They hit me, they tied me up and took me to a secret prison in Bangkok airport. I was hanged on the wall there, and injected in my back until I fell into a coma," he claimed.

Emphasizing how the CIA allegedly tortured him in Bangkok, Belhaj said he was put "into custody of the CIA, who has a secret prison at the airport", according to an interview in early September with the French newspaper Le Monde. "There, I was interrogated for several days."

Asked by Le Monde if he was "tortured", he replied: "Yes, I was suspended from the ceiling, I was attached [to it], and I was plunged into ice water. After several days, they put me on an airplane for Libya," where he was imprisoned until his release in 2010.

Belhaj said he "founded, with a group of young people in the 1980s, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. We had no other choice but armed combat. The Gaddafi regime wanted to destroy us.

"I thus left my country for Saudi Arabia in 1988 and, from there, I went to Afghanistan," during the country's last days under the Soviet Union's 10-year occupation which ended in 1989, after which the Moscow-backed Najibullah regime was left to defend itself.

"When the Afghan mujahideen took Kabul in 1992, I left the country," he said, referring to the war-torn nation just before the Taliban took control.

Today, he is "under the authority of the [Libya's] Transitional National Council, its executive body, and its Ministry of Defense," he said. "There is nothing to fear, we are not al-Qaeda. I never was," he told Le Monde.

Belhaj, known by his nom de guerre, Abdullah al-Sadiq, was named in at least two of the tens of thousands of documents recently discovered in Gaddafi's External Security buildings in the Libyan capital after NATO-backed rebels seized control.

Referring to Belhaj, his then pregnant wife, and their upcoming flight in March 2004 from Malaysia to Thailand, the documents confirm he was to be seized by the US.

"We are planning to arrange to take control of the pair in Bangkok and place them on our aircraft for a flight to your country," the Americans told Gaddafi's government in March 2004, the Associated Press reported on September 3.

CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood declined to comment on specific allegations related to the documents.

"It can't come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency works with foreign governments to help protect our country from terrorism and other deadly threats," Youngblood said, according to AP. "That is exactly what we are expected to do."

When Belhaj was captured in Bangkok, Don Muang International Airport included a vast public passenger and commercial cargo area, Concorde-capable runways, and an attached Thai air force base.

The sprawling airport's facilities, warehouses, offices and other units, are next to a busy main highway on the northern edge of Bangkok. Until now, Don Muang had never been publicly named as a CIA torture site.

Many analysts suspected the US used facilities at U-Tapao air base two hours outside of Bangkok, where US planes frequently land to refuel on their route to Afghanistan. Belhaj made no mention of being driven in a vehicle after he arrived on the commercial flight at Bangkok's Don Muang airport.

It is unclear if any Thai officials knew that the CIA may have used the airport as an alleged torture site, or if the Americans may have kept their activities secret from the Thais.

Today, Thailand relies on its newer, bigger Suvarnabhumi International Airport which was opened in 2006 on the eastern outskirts of Bangkok. Don Muang airport has since been reduced to handling some domestic and charter flights, and is now being considered as a place to hold conventions or other events in its huge vacant buildings.

Testimony by US officials and other earlier investigations confirmed the CIA secretly waterboarded other suspects in Thailand in 2002, two years before Belhaj's ordeal in Bangkok.

At that time, the CIA secretly waterboarded suspected al-Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaydah and USS Cole bombing plotter Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in Thailand, but the exact locations of those interrogations have never been made public.

In 2005, the CIA's former head Porter Gross and his top aide reportedly agreed to destroy videotapes kept in Bangkok documenting the agency's harsh interrogation of terror suspects, according to internal CIA e-mails.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

(Copyright 2011 Richard Ehrlich)


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