CAIRO — The burly men who Mamdouh Habib says bundled him onto a small jet in Pakistan bound for a grisly torture cell in Egypt didn't give their names. But their nationality seemed clear.
"They ... spoke American English with no foreign accent," Habib's lawyer later told a U.S. court. Several of the men sported large tattoos, including one who bore "a tattoo of an American flag on or near his wrist."
Habib had already been interrogated in Pakistani jails by three other Americans -- two women and a man. Now, according to court papers, they watched silently as one of the tattooed men forced the handcuffed prisoner to the ground, placed a foot on his neck and posed for pictures. The tattooed "Americans ... sat at the front of the plane" as he was flown to Cairo in October 2001.
Habib, a 48-year-old Australian citizen who grew up in Egypt, was about to disappear for six months into an Egyptian prison. There, he says, his Egyptian captors shocked him with high-voltage wires, hung him from metal hooks on the wall, nearly drowned him and mercilessly beat and kicked him.
The former coffee shop owner soon confessed to a litany of terrorism-related crimes, including teaching martial arts to several of the Sept. 11 hijackers and planning a hijacking himself. Habib later insisted that his confessions were false and given under "duress and torture."
Habib's more than three years of incarceration came into sharp focus this week, when the Bush administration agreed not to charge him with any crime and to repatriate him to Australia. Once home, he will be free, Australian officials said Wednesday.
"When he returns to Australia, he will not be detained or charged," said Matt Francis, a spokesman for the Australian Embassy in Washington. "He is a person of security interest, but we do not have any laws under which he can be charged."
Habib's vivid account of his secret delivery by U.S. forces to an Egyptian prison and his torture before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in May 2002 is the most detailed to surface of a CIA-run operation that has played a growing role in the war on terrorism. The operation, the controversial "extraordinary renditions" program, is run by a secret unit in the CIA's counter-terrorism center.
Habib's U.S. lawyer, Joseph Margulies, said he planned to inform his client of his impending freedom when he visited him at Guantanamo on Saturday.
"If the U.S. government believes he's done something wrong, they wouldn't let him go," he said.
In a statement, the Defense Department said the Australian government had "made a number of security assurances ... that were important to the transfer decision."
The CIA declined to comment on the case.
News accounts, congressional testimony and independent investigations suggest the spy agency has covertly delivered at least 18 terrorism suspects since 1998 to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations where, according to State Department reports, torture has been widely used on prisoners.
The actual number of CIA-run renditions, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, is believed to be far higher. Officials say the CIA's role has varied widely, from providing electronic and other covert surveillance before raids to flying blindfolded terrorism suspects from one country to another on a Gulfstream jet the agency uses.
"It's a growth industry," said a recently retired CIA clandestine officer who worked on several "renditions" in the Arab world. "We rendered a lot of people to Egypt, Jordan and the Saudis in particular.... Ultimately, the agency just wants these people to disappear forever."
The first foreign renditions took place during the Reagan administration, officials said, as joint CIA-FBI teams in about 1987 began capturing alleged terrorists, drug traffickers and other high-profile suspects and bringing them to the United States for prosecution.
About 15 suspects, including two men eventually convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were brought to the United States between 1987 and 1998, according to testimony by then-FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. Because the suspects were going before U.S. courts, they were read the Miranda rights, given lawyers and otherwise afforded legal protection under the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts upheld the renditions.
But behind the scenes, the CIA also began delivering suspects to countries that provided few such rights -- a practice that became known as extraordinary renditions. The agency helped foreign governments seize suspected terrorists at least five times between 1994 and 1996, then-CIA Director John M. Deutch said in September 1996.
The agency transferred many of the suspects to Egypt, which is annually cited for torture of prisoners and other human rights abuses by the U.S. State Department.