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Pakistanis See FBI in Shadows

Asia: Counter-terrorism agents from the U.S. work alongside local security forces that have long been accused of human rights abuses.

August 25, 2002|PAUL WATSON and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KARACHI, Pakistan — On the front lines of a shadow war against terror in Pakistan, FBI agents are working undercover with local security forces who have a long history of human rights abuses.

The joint effort is cloaked in secrecy. The U.S. and Pakistani governments won't officially discuss exactly how many FBI agents are working in Pakistan, citing security concerns and the political fallout that President Pervez Musharraf could face.

Some Pakistani officials say privately that the number of FBI counter-terrorism specialists in Pakistan is in the low hundreds. An FBI official, speaking in Washington on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that "between several dozen and a hundred" FBI agents are in Pakistan at any one time, working closely with local and federal police and intelligence officials.

Some human rights experts contend that any FBI agents or other Americans involved in the initial arrests share criminal responsibility if the detainees are tortured or mistreated later.

Pakistan, according to the FBI official and other U.S. law enforcement authorities, has become one of the most important--and active--beachheads in the bureau's anti-terrorism effort. But it is also among the most sensitive given the country's strong undercurrent of Islamic extremism and anti-Americanism.

The FBI's precise activities are unclear. Officially, about a dozen agents are providing "technical assistance," including sharing information on terrorist groups and training Pakistani police to track down and apprehend Islamic militants. Other agents are working with Pakistani police in old-fashioned "search and arrest" dragnets.

There have been some high-profile successes in the cooperative effort, including the capture of a top Al Qaeda leader, Abu Zubeida, and some of his lieutenants in March at a fortified safe house in Faisalabad, and the identification of suspected "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla.

But there is mounting suspicion in Pakistan that U.S. investigators, believed to be from the FBI or CIA, are involved in the pursuit and arrest of people who have then disappeared, or quietly been deported, as Musharraf's government tries to control Islamic extremists.

In interviews, relatives of terrorist suspects have described groups consisting of two to four foreigners participating in Pakistani police raids, usually as silent observers who closely monitor searches.

FBI officials, as well as a senior Pakistani military officer involved in the anti-terrorism effort, confirmed that agents have gone on many such raids dressed in local garb so as to not attract attention. Those agents, said one FBI official, are acting in an advisory capacity only.

None of the detainees' relatives or lawyers suggested that U.S. officials were directly involved in harming anyone, but they said they do fear that Pakistani police are torturing the prisoners once they are out of sight.

The U.S. is a signatory to a 1984 treaty that bans participation or complicity in the torture of prisoners or other forms of mistreatment. The prohibition became U.S. law, said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"If they are actively participating in the arrest and incommunicado detention of a suspect, anyone involved in law enforcement knows those circumstances are an invitation to torture," Roth, a former federal prosecutor, said from New York.

"So they would have to demonstrate considerable naivete to think these people were going to be put up in a five-star hotel," he said.

Some U.S. constitutional scholars and legal experts said that even with the treaty, it would be nearly impossible to hold the United States liable for the actions of its partners in the war on terrorism, including the torture of a suspect.

To do so, a plaintiff would essentially have to prove that the torture was done at the direction of the United States, or with the direct participation of U.S. officials, said Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University.

"You can't just make the case that the U.S. failed to intervene," Turley said. "It would require a very high level of proof.... It is a very high threshold."

In Pakistan, arrests without warrants, disappearing prisoners and mysterious deaths in detention are chillingly common, human rights reports by the U.S. government and private groups have shown.

For years, the reports have shown a pattern of police abuses, including torture, the rape of female prisoners and illegal detentions to pressure the families of wanted suspects.

The FBI official said the bureau and Justice Department are acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of pairing up with local police in countries such as Pakistan, where the accepted standards of police behavior are lower than in the United States.

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