Friends, Neighbors and the Fight Against Torture

February 16, 2012

Many Amnesty International members have long experience with the challenge of opposing state-sponsored torture in other countries.  But when human rights activists in North Carolina found that a trail of torture led to their own backdoor, they learned that talking to neighbors about human rights abuses is just as difficult as challenging a foreign government.

The Washington Post last week featured a story, “Hangar 3’s Mystery” about the work of North Carolina Stop Torture Now to document the activities of a small, nominally private air charter company, Aero Contractors,  whose headquarters are at an airfield in Smithfield, North Carolina.

Smithfield is best-known, nationally, for being the birthplace of the glamorous Ava Gardner.  The community is only a 40-minute drive from a triangle of prospering cities clustered around world-class universities to the west. It’s a North Carolina town that during a Sunday drive through downtown still displays many of the same iconic small town images as that fictional NC community called Mayberry.  The moonshine is said to be excellent.

But for Ahmed Agiza, an Egyptian citizen who fled persecution by the Mubarak regime, Hangar 3 at the south ramp of the Johnston County airport is where a flight crew boarded a plane that would carry him from Sweden to a torture chamber in Egypt.  During the flight Agiza and a fellow Egyptian Mohammed el-Zari were hooded, handcuffed, shackled and dressed in boiler suits. Once in Egypt, they endured sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation beatings, electric shock, rape and death threats.

Abou el-Kassim Britel had a similar experience on an Aero flight that orginated in Johnston County.  Britel, an Italian resident of Moroccan descent, was flown from Pakistan to Morocco in 2002 and suffered years of torture before being released in April 2011.  His wife recently wrote the Johnston County Commissioners who finance and supervise the Smithfield airport about the lasting effects of the torture on her husband. She wrote:

“The evil that we experienced has scarred us deeply. We are tired, and incredulous that human beings can suffer so much while others remain totally indifferent.”

The founders of NC Stop Torture Now originally convened as members of in-district lobbying efforts organized by Amnesty International, and the coalition continues to rely on members of local and student Amnesty International at every step of its efforts to keep the issue alive at the town, county and state level in the face of what the Post article describes as the “dogged political opposition.”

Members of the coalition expected – and found – closed doors at every level of government.  On some occasions, protesters at the airport confronted screaming antagonists convinced – against all evidence to the contrary – that torture keeps them safe.

What wasn’t expected was the challenge of talking to friends and neighbors about the torture next door.

In the Post article, NC Stop Torture Now member Allyson Caison recalled talking to her local church members. “The usual response was: ‘Those people are terrorists,’ ” she recalled. “Even if a few innocent people got caught up in it, it was okay if it kept our country safe.”

A less determined group of activists would have given up, but instead they’ve found new approaches to local residents and built networks with others in Ireland and elsewhere where the flight paths of Aero rendition flights were known to cross, even winning the grudging respect of local commissioners who now greet the members at the monthly meetings.  Officials at all levels in the state know the issue is not going away.

Watching these local activists, the lesson I take away is similar to one I learned as Egypt country specialist watching the Jan. 25 uprising in Tahrir Square: In human rights work, there’s value in an active and persistent patience.  In Egypt, 30 years of isolated and uncoordinated human rights resistance all came together unexpectedly and rather rapidly.  In a matter of weeks, the Egyptian people accomplished more than any political, economic or diplomatic pressure ever could have.

That can happen here, but it’s going to take a lot of discussion with our neighbors.  They need to know that what happened in Johnston County also occurred out of Miami, New Jersey and other locales throughout the country. The long trail of torture in the name of national security all comes back to someone’s backyard.

Take Action: Because of the actions of US officials, Maher Ahar (whose torture flight did not originate in North Carolina) suffered torture in Syria – the same government that we are now criticizing for killing more than 5,000 of its own citizens.  An apology is due him.  Call upon President Obama and Congress to give Maher the apology he deserves.