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Demands for U.S Waterboarding in Thailand to be Investigated

Human Rights Watch Demands U.S. Waterboarding in Thailand be Investigated

By Richard S. Ehrlich
July 21, 2011

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Yingluck Shinawatra expects to be confirmed as Thailand's first female prime minister next month, enabling Washington and Bangkok to resurrect their collaboration in America's war on terror which entwined the two democracies before the military toppled her brother's government five years ago.

Mrs. Yingluck (pronounced: "Ying-luck") is the public, smiling face representing her self-exiled, authoritarian brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin's previous controversial relationship with Washington provides important clues as to how Mrs. Yingluck's new government could shape its political, financial and military policies concerning the U.S.

As prime minister, Mrs. Yingluck is expected to orchestrate an "amnesty" to allow her brother to dodge a two-year prison sentence for corruption, return to Thailand a free man, and receive a refund for $1.2 billion in assets which the government seized from Mr. Thaksin after the 2006 coup.

Mrs. Yingluck's Pheu Thai (For Thais) party won a majority in a nationwide election on July 3.

Mr. Thaksin has described his sister as his "clone". The Pheu Thai party's main slogan is: "Thaksin Thinks. Pheu Thai Acts."

During the past five years since the coup, Bangkok and Washington enjoyed good relations.

But when Mr. Thaksin was prime minister, America's national security was a major focus in Thailand.

Mr. Thaksin's 2001-2006 administration coincided with the arrival of Americans who used cloaks, daggers and waterboarding in Thailand to expand the U.S. war on terrorism.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency secretly waterboarded a suspected al-Qaeda facilitator, Abu Zubaydah, in Thailand during 2002 while Mr. Thaksin was prime minister.

"The [CIA] agency believed tougher-than-usual tactics were necessary to squeeze information from him [Zubaydah], so Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen flew to a secret CIA prison in Thailand to oversee Zubaydah's interrogation," the Associated Press reported in December 2010, referring to two American psychologists who helped create the CIA's interrogation program.

"The pair waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times, according to previously released records and former intelligence officials," A.P. reported.

"The psychologists also waterboarded USS Cole bombing plotter Abd al-Nashiri twice in Thailand, according to former intelligence officials."

Mr. Thaksin and other Thai political and military officials consistently denied knowledge of the CIA's secret prison and waterboarding activity in Thailand.

The CIA's former head, Porter Gross, agreed with his top aide's 2005 decision to destroy videotapes in Thailand of harsh interrogation, according to internal CIA e-mails, A.P. reported in 2010.

In 2003, shortly after the waterboarding, then-U.S. President George W. Bush visited Bangkok, met Mr. Thaksin, and upgraded this Buddhist-majority country to be an important non-NATO ally.

Today, Mr. Bush faces demands by New York-based Human Rights Watch to be investigated for "torture" and other violations committed in Thailand and elsewhere.

On July 12, Human Rights Watch presented a 107-page report titled, "Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees."

That report "presents substantial information warranting criminal investigations of Bush and senior administration officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet, for ordering practices such as 'waterboarding,' the use of secret CIA prisons, and the transfer of detainees to countries where they were tortured," Human Rights Watch said.

The report's mention of "countries where they were tortured" could bring a fresh focus on U.S. activity in Thailand when Mr. Thaksin was prime minister.

It is unclear, however, if that would result in requests to Mrs. Yingluck for information or assistance for an investigation, or how she might respond amid efforts by her new administration to establish good relations with Washington.

"There are solid grounds to investigate Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet for authorizing torture and war crimes," said Human Rights Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth.

"The US has a legal obligation to investigate these crimes. If the U.S. doesn't act on them, other countries should," Mr. Roth said.

"Vice President Cheney was the driving force behind the establishment of illegal detention and interrogation policies, chairing key meetings at which specific CIA operations were discussed, including the waterboarding of one detainee, Abu Zubaydah, in 2002," Human Rights Watch reported, apparently referring to Thailand.

Mr. Bush and other U.S. officials cited in the report have denied all allegations of illegal activity.

"We have been told that Thailand hosted the first CIA 'black site,' and that Abu Zubaydah was held there after his capture in 2002," said the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly in a 2007 report on "Secret Detentions and Illegal Transfers of Detainees" to various countries.

"CIA sources indicated to us that Thailand
was used because of the ready availability of the network of local knowledge, and bilateral relationships, that dated back to the Vietnam War," said the report by the Council of Europe's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.

"One CIA source told us: 'In Thailand, it was a case of "you stick with what you know." However, since the allegations pertaining to Thailand were not the direct focus of our inquiry, we did not elaborate further on these references in our discussions.

"The specific location of the 'black site' in Thailand has been publicly alleged to be a facility in Udon Thani, near to the Udon Royal Thai Air Force Base in the northeast of the country," the Council of Europe said.

"This base does have long-standing connections to American defence and intelligence activities overseas. During the Vietnam War, it served as both a deployment base for the U.S. Air Force and the Asian headquarters of the CIA-linked aviation enterprise, Air America," it said.

During Mr. Bush's 2003 visit to Bangkok, he also praised Mr. Thaksin for helping the CIA capture an alleged top Indonesian Islamist fighter, whose nom de guerre is Hambali, two months earlier in central Thailand.

Mr. Hambali was part of "a plan to have terrorist operatives hijack an airplane, using shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door, and fly the plane into the tallest building on the west coast" Mr. Bush said in 2006 referring to the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, California.

Mr. Hambali, whose real name is Riduan Isomuddin, has been caged in Guantanamo Bay for more than seven years without trial.

Similarly, in 2002, a terrorist suspect from Yemen, Amin Al Bakri, was seized in Thailand and flown by the Americans to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Despite helping the U.S. track and seize terrorist suspects, Mr. Thaksin did not later receive Washington's assistance when he needed it the most.

During Mr. Thaksin's last months in power, he pleaded with President Bush for help, apparently fearing the September 2006 coup that soon toppled him.

"There has been a threat to democracy in Thailand since early this year," Prime Minister Thaksin wrote President Bush in a secretive 544-word letter dated June 23, 2006, which became public three weeks later.

"Key democratic institutions, such as elections, and the observance of constitutional limitations on government, have been repeatedly undermined by interests that depend on creating chaos and mounting street demonstrations in Bangkok, as a means to acquire political power that they cannot gain through winning elections.

"Having failed to provoke violence and disorder, my opponents are now attempting various extra-constitutional tactics to co-opt the will of the people," Mr. Thaksin's letter said.

President Bush sent a 138-word reply on July 3 which said: "Free and open political systems can be unpredictable."

In Thailand, Mr. Thaksin faced opposition because he did not pay taxes on 1.8 billion U.S. dollars in profit his family pocketed when they sold their Shin Corp. telecommunications empire in 2006 to the Singapore government's investment wing, Temasek Holdings.

Today he is a fugitive, based in Dubai, avoiding a two-year jail sentence for a separate deal in which his ex-wife purchased real estate in Bangkok at a deflated price while Mr. Thaksin was prime minister.

Traumatized by his fall from power, Mr. Thaksin protected himself from prosecution in Thailand with the help of Americans in Washington.

In 2007, he enjoyed the lobbying services of Washington-based Baker Botts for $80,000 according to a Lobbying Disclosure Act file signed by James A. Baker IV for his client, Mr. Thaksin, in the Secretary of the Senate's Office of Public Records in Washington.

They lobbied to "develop and implement a strategic approach to the various international legal and political issues that confront Dr. Thaksin due to the coup of September 19," the file said, referring to the 2006 putsch.

Their lobbying included the House of Representatives, Senate, National Security Council and U.S. State Department, the file said.

Barbour Griffith & Rogers, also based in Washington, lobbied for Mr. Thaksin in 2010 for "less than $5,000," according to a disclosure file signed by the firm's general counsel, Daniel R. Murphy.

They lobbied in the House of Representatives and Senate to "provide strategic counsel on U.S. government policy and assist with advancing the individual's desire to promote democracy in Southeast Asia," the file said.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is
http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

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