Ex-CIA torture survivors describe makeshift electric chair as tactic

Interviews with two former detainees, held for over a decade by the CIA and repeatedly tortured at a secret site, told Human Rights Watch that the agency threatened them with a makeshift electric chair.

The two detainees Rudha al-Najjar, 51, and Lotfi al-Arabi El-Gherissi, 52, described a metal device that had wires with clips that would attach to the fingers, and a helmet connected to wires, according to an interview of the two men conducted by Human Rights Watch.

“I saw an electric box, the chair. They said, ‘We will torture you with electricity here,’” El-Gherissi said.

El-Gherissi said he was forced into the chair and connected to the machine, but was never actually electrocuted.

Both men are Tunisian citizens and were released and repatriated to their home country last year. Neither was ever charged with a crime, and the US government did not compensate them either for their torture, or for the 13 years of detention without charge.

The abuses of the two men took place at the Salt Pit – a converted brick factor north of Kabul, Afghanistan, referred to in the Senate’s Torture Report as “Detention Site COBALT.”

Both men were arrested in Pakistan, six months apart. Al-Najjar was alleged to have been a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, which he denied, and they never presented any evidence to support such a claim. El Gherissi said his interrogators accused him of being a member of Al-Qaeda or of having connections to terrorism, which he denied.

Al-Najjar described being transferred to the “dark prison” as the “worst experience of this life.” Al Najjar’s interrogators demanded information which he could not provide. They doubled him over, chained his writs to his legs. They put a bag over his head, and inserted something into his rectum, he recalled.

According to The Intercept documents examined by the Senate investigators noted that anal exams at the Salt Pit were often conducted with “excessive force.”

The Salt Pit was where Afghan detainee Gul Rahman was tortured to death.

Al-Najjar told Human Rights Watch that his interrogators would hang him from the ceiling for 24-hour periods, his wrists strapped to a metal bar over his head and his toes barely able to touch the ground. He described being beaten on his legs and back with a baton or punched in the kidneys.

El-Gherissi told HRW he suffered many of the same abuses as al-Najjar.

In a video interview released by Human Rights Watch, El-Gherissi said: “The damage is on my back. I can’t sleep on it. And my eyes, I can’t see very well. And my feet… I can’t walk for a long distance. Sometimes I wonder what I should do?”

Al-Njjar said his hips, ankle and back were broken during CIA detention. He also said he has a hernia, an ulcer, a swollen liver, kidney problems and damage to his ear.

The makeshift electric chair is a missing detail from the 499-page redacted executive summary of the US Senate Report on Torture, which described a panoply of cruel torture techniques – from waterboarding and heat deprivation to sodomy and routinely hanging detainees suspended from a bar for almost a day. The full Senate Report, over 6,000 pages, is still classified.

“These two men were some of the earlier detainees in the CIA program – until now we’ve not heard directly from anyone detained at ‘Cobalt’ during that time,” stated Human Rights Watch. “And what their accounts show is that our understanding of the torture methods described in the Senate Summary is very limited, and that there were more brutal methods being used that the public didn’t even know about – and perhaps still further forms of torture that have yet to be announced.”

“Cobalt” was just one of the CIA’s black sites in Afghanistan. All the torture sites in the Senate Summary were referred to by color rather than their actual names and their locations not revealed, but HRW and other groups have been able to identify some sites.

El-Gherissi was shown a coffin and told he’d be put in it. They also said in addition to waterboarding or water dousing on a board, they were dunked in barrels.

Al-Najjar told Human Rights Watch he was strapped to a board with his entire body inserted, face down, into a large tube of ice-cold water.

Al-Najjar said they did this until “I couldn’t handle it anymore and was on the verge of completely falling apart.”

Al-Najjar said while he was in CIA custody, a doctor, whom he described as an American, would come and check on him, and occasionally give him injections to reduce the swelling from the beatings.

“But once the swelling went down, this doctor would give the green light for the torture to begin all over again,” he said in the HRW interview.

El-Gherissi said his torture finally stopped when a doctor told his interrogators, “If he stays for another week, he will die.”

He said he was moved into total isolation for two months, which “is when I totally lost it.”

The US has not compensated any of the 119 detainees held in CIA custody and tortured.

The full Senate torture report has not been declassified.

READ MORE: Ten most shocking facts in the Senate Torture report