Lessons in tor­ture

Ren­di­tion lays bare the CIA’s approach to sus­pected ter­ror­ists, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - John Crewd­son

AY­OUNG wo­man goes to see Blood Di­a­mond be­cause she ad­mires Leonardo DiCaprio. Later, she and her fi­ance stop by a jew­ellery store to pick out their en­gage­ment rings. ‘‘ No blood di­a­monds,’’ she tells the man be­hind the counter.

Call it a cul­ture shift, a so­ci­etal change, a step closer to a per­fected civil­i­sa­tion, all for the price of a movie ticket.

For the past cou­ple of decades, much of the news­pa­per and mag­a­zine re­port­ing out of Africa has been stun­ning, de­liv­ered by jour­nal­ists who in many cases risked, and in some cases lost, their lives to get out the word about droughts, famines, coups, AIDS and geno­cide.

But most peo­ple in the West didn’t know much about Rwanda un­til they saw Ho­tel Rwanda . Most knew noth­ing about big pharma’s test­ing of drugs on African chil­dren be­fore The Con­stant Gar­dener . Un­til Syr­i­ana , few grasped the con­flu­ence be­tween oil and intelligence.

Even more than news me­dia, Hol­ly­wood has be­come the teacher. Its next ef­fort to teach Amer­i­cans about their world and their Gov­ern­ment takes the form of Ren­di­tion ( re­leased in Aus­tralia next year) from di­rec­tor Gavin Hood.

Since Septem­ber 11, 2001, some­thing called ren­di­tion has spo­rad­i­cally been in the news. It in­volves the CIA’s ab­duc­tion of a sus­pected ter­ror­ist some­where in the world and his forcible trans­porta­tion to a friendly Arab coun­try where he is thrown into prison.

Ren­di­tion brings the pro­ce­dure vividly to the screen, com­bin­ing as it does el­e­ments of three real- life cases: in­di­vid­u­als against whom there was no ev­i­dence were ren­dered into a liv­ing hell that lasted months or even years be­fore they were re­leased for lack of ev­i­dence.

Be­tween 1987 and 1998, the FBI car­ried out 15 ren­di­tions from a variety of coun­tries. Rather than the FBI ( a law- en­force­ment agency) bring­ing sus­pects to face crim­i­nal charges in the US, the CIA — an intelligence agency with no po­lice pow­ers — was now trans­port­ing crim­i­nal sus­pects from coun­try A to coun­try B. From there it wasn’t a huge step to the weeks af­ter 9/ 11, in which the CIA’s spe­cial ac­tiv­i­ties di­vi­sion be­gan de­liv­er­ing ter­ror­ist sus­pects not ac­cused of any crime to an of­ten bru­tal re­cep­tion in coun­tries E ( Egypt), M ( Morocco) or S ( Syria).

In Ren­di­tion , the fic­tional An­war El- Ibrahimi ( played by Omar Met­wally) is a model cit­i­zen: he’s a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer who lives with his preg­nant wife ( Reese Wither­spoon) and young son in a Chicago sub­urb. Ex­cept for his name, and the fact that his mother wears a hi­jab, he’s as Amer­i­can as any other cit­i­zen. He de­liv­ers pa­pers at in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences, such as the one he just fin­ished at­tend­ing in South Africa, and is a con­sul­tant to the US gov­ern­ment.

Meryl Streep, as a se­nior CIA of­fi­cial, is ( wrongly) con­vinced An­war has been in touch with a ter­ror­ist bomb- builder named Rashid. The CIA seems to have dis­cov­ered calls from Rashid to An­war’s mo­bile phone.

Chang­ing planes in Wash­ing­ton, DC, for the fi­nal leg of his flight home to Chicago, An­war is snatched at the air­port by men wear­ing black masks and taken away for ques­tion­ing. He in­sists he doesn’t know any Rashid or any­thing else about ter­ror­ist bombs. When they can’t find any ev­i­dence to the con­trary, the agents are about ready to let him go home. ‘‘ No­body’s in­ter­ested in this guy,’’ one tells Streep with a shrug.

Streep isn’t eas­ily per­suaded. ‘‘ I’m in­ter­ested,’’ she says. ‘‘ Put him on the plane.’’

A few hours later An­war is in a coun­try that could be Egypt, given that its Gov­ern­ment has ad­mit­ted to play­ing host to about 70 CIA ren­di­tions. What fol­lows isn’t pretty, but it is def­i­nitely ed­u­ca­tional.

Much has been writ­ten about an in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­nique called wa­ter­board­ing, which the CIA em­ployed against sev­eral of the al- Qa’ida higher- ups who swam into its net in the months af­ter Septem­ber 11. Wa­ter­board­ing is usu­ally de­scribed as giv­ing the vic­tim the im­pres­sion that they are drown­ing. Af­ter watch­ing An­war get the treat­ment, it’s clear that there’s noth­ing im­pres­sion­is­tic about it. Wa­ter­board­ing is drown­ing.

Any­one who won­ders pre­cisely what’s in­volved when ren­di­tion sus­pects are tor­tured with elec­tric­ity will won­der no more. Ren­di­tion also lends cre­dence to an­other ob­jec­tion, of­ten raised by for­mer intelligence and lawen­force­ment agents, that tor­ture is of no value be­cause some­one be­ing tor­tured will say any­thing to make the tor­ture stop. View­ers of Ren­di­tion who un­der­stand that An­war is in­no­cent are nev­er­the­less likely to be star­tled when, rather than face an­other ses­sion with 220 volts, he sud­denly be­gins con­fess­ing to acts he could not have com­mit­ted.

His tac­tic soon be­comes clear. He can­not ex­plain what hap­pened to the $ 40,000 he claims to have been promised by Rashid. The ter­ror­ist ‘‘ co- con­spir­a­tors’’ whose names he rat­tles off turn out to be the other play­ers on his for­mer soc­cer team.

An­war’s tor­menters won’t take yes for an an­swer. But a ju­nior CIA of­fi­cer, played by Jake Gyl­len­haal, de­vel­ops an in­creas­ing re­vul­sion to the CIA’s approach as well as a grow­ing con­vic­tion that An­war is in­no­cent.

Ear­lier, when Streep says, ‘‘ You’re new at this, aren’t you?’’, Gyl­len­haal replies: ‘‘ This is my first tor­ture.’’

‘‘ The United States does not tor­ture,’’ Streep snaps back.

Those words em­body the real- life con­sti­tu­tional dilemma that may be around the cor­ner. Yet to be ad­ju­di­cated are such ques­tions as whether US gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees work­ing abroad are bound by the Geneva Con­ven­tions or US anti- tor­ture treaties and statutes. In short, is the out­sourc­ing of tor­ture le­gal?

An­war’s fic­tional case most re­sem­bles that of Cana­dian cit­i­zen Ma­her Arar, who was chang­ing planes in New York in Septem­ber 2002 when he was seized and held for two weeks of ques­tion­ing.

The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, which had tipped the US about Arar’s ar­rival, ex­pected him to be put on a plane for Canada. In­stead, the CIA de­cided to fly him to Jor­dan, where he was driven across the Syr­ian border and spent 10 months be­ing tor­tured in a Da­m­as­cus prison.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment con­cluded there was never any ev­i­dence link­ing Arar to ter­ror­ism.

Chicago Tri­bune

Un­ex­plained dis­ap­pear­ance: Reese Wither­spoon as Isabella Fields, the wife of An­war El- Ibrahimi, in Ren­di­tion

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