SANA, Yemen — He was writing from prison, but at least he was alive. The smuggled letter from Abdel Salem Hila was the first his family had heard from him since he had vanished 19 months earlier.
It was, in a way, good news.
"I am writing this letter from a dark prison," the letter began. "I don't know why I am imprisoned.... I'm imprisoned in Afghanistan by the Americans."
Hila's family had seen him off in September 2002, when he'd left on a business trip to Egypt. Upon landing in Cairo, Hila checked into a downtown hotel, later placed a nervous telephone call to his family in Yemen -- and disappeared.
When Hila turned up again, he was in solitary confinement at the U.S.-run Bagram air base in Afghanistan. The journey was so disorienting, he said, it took him four months to realize what country he was in. He was later moved to the American detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to his letters to family members.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 31, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Yemeni's case -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about a Yemeni reportedly held by U.S. officials said that, according to Italian officials, Egyptian wiretaps had caught conversations between the man and Islamist associates in 2000 and 2001. In fact, the Italians said wiretaps by their own law enforcement agencies had recorded the conversations.
Hila's case is apparently part of a broader pattern of secret "renditions," a process by which U.S. agents covertly force foreign suspects from one country to another outside the bounds of international law. The United States began to use renditions during the Reagan administration, and the practice is believed to have mushroomed after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some of the cases that have come to light in recent months have included allegations that the CIA turned suspects over to countries where they were interrogated and brutally tortured. Critics say the cases paint a pattern of CIA agents outsourcing torture to foreign governments, including Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The Bush administration denies those charges.
Hila's case, which traces one man's circuitous route to Guantanamo, is different. His disappearance appears to be an example of a foreign government turning over a detainee to the Americans after a brief period of interrogation. Hila's letters indicate that he was arrested by the Egyptians, and that he had spent at most three months in their custody before being turned over to the Americans.
A Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday called Hila's case a "reverse rendition," charging that "Hila was essentially kidnapped off the streets of Cairo and then 'disappeared' in U.S. custody."
"One thing that we're trying to point out here is the way in which these reverse renditions occur entirely outside the rule of law," said John Sifton, a New York-based lawyer for Human Rights Watch. There has been no extradition process and no ability to challenge the detention, he said.
"What we're saying is if you're going to detain people, use existing legal principles and laws," Sifton said. "They will work."
Asked about Hila's case at a news briefing Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to comment. So did a spokesman for the military's Southern Command, which has authority over the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Human rights lawyers say Hila's case highlights a major obstacle facing them in their bid to represent detainees like the Yemeni: The Pentagon refuses to confirm or deny whom it has taken into custody and is holding at Guantanamo Bay. Military officials will provide details about a detainee, including his name, only after his lawyers sue in U.S. District Court in Washington, where such cases are heard.
News accounts and legal filings indicate that detainees have been seized in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Zambia, Pakistan, Thailand and elsewhere. But without a list of confirmed names, U.S. lawyers are unable to go to court. Most of the 540 detainees in Cuba -- including dozens of other Yemenis -- thus have no outside legal representation.
The United States had reason to suspect Hila. A colonel with Yemeni intelligence, he had spent the latter part of the 1990s working closely with some of the world's most zealous Islamist fighters, said family members and other sources.
In those days, Yemen had been flooded with thousands of Islamist veterans of the jihad, or holy war, against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The battles had died down by the early 1990s, and many fighters, unwelcome in their own countries and uncertain where to go, decided to continue their anti-communist struggle by enlisting in the fight against a secessionist Marxist movement in Yemen's south.
But once the civil war ended, the "Arab Afghans" became a political burden on Yemen. The government tapped Hila to help the former fighters move out of the country by securing or forging passports, arranging travel and overseeing their resettlement, often in Western Europe. His family believes that work angered the Egyptians and caught the attention of the Americans.
"Some of the people were wanted by the Egyptians, they got visas and scattered everywhere," Hila's brother Abdel Wahab said in an interview at Hila's home in Sana, the Yemeni capital. "Abdel Salem coordinated with the sheiks to bring them together. He was asked by the government to do this, because there was pressure on Yemen."