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Thailand's black site: Who is accountable? - Kavi Chongkittavorn


Suddenly Thailand, a name synonymous with coups and democratic struggles, has been mentioned repeatedly by US lawmakers and TV personalities over the last few weeks.

Unfortunately, the shout-outs were not for the faint of heart. Thailand found itself at the centre of a confirmation hearing for Gina Haspel as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has dominated US media and talk shows for weeks.

While the Thai public has paid scant attention to this issue, over here in Washington lawmakers have been demanding to know whether Ms Haspel, if confirmed, would endorse the horrendous technique of waterboarding for detained terrorists, as the agency did previously in Thailand (where Ms Haspel ran a clandestine CIA detention facility).

According to reports by The New York Times and the Washington Post, during her testimony Ms Haspel proved adroit at evading questions over this approach. She simply said she would not consent to the practice of waterboarding if she were given that option today.

The sessions did not go well, as she has not admitted that torture is wrong but merely said that US laws ban torture and she would not go down that route if installed as the new CIA chief.

Ms Haspel was also good at resisting senators' efforts to get her to commit to the morality or otherwise of using "enhanced" interrogation techniques on terrorist suspects, including waterboarding.

She said repeatedly that the techniques had been authorised by the US government's highest legal authorities including then-president George W Bush.

A 6,000-page report by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), released publicly in December 2014, concluded that the CIA's interrogation techniques were not a viable means of gaining intelligence and that its justification for using them "rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness".

But what was of more interest for Thais was the disclosure of the so-called "Detention Site Green", which was at the centre of the confirmation hearing, as it was the place where Abu Zubaydah, a 31-year-old Saudi-born Palestinian, was interrogated and tortured.

A follow-up report by the BBC's Bangkok bureau on May 4 quoted a senior former Thai national security official as confirming that the detention centre in question was located on the Royal Thai Air Force base in Udon Thani.

The official cited by the BBC pointed out that the cell was not large -- just a CIA safe house on the base. At the time, there were many rumours of secret detentions both in Europe and Asia. No reports were able to pinpoint exactly where they were. Various Thai governments denied the report as groundless.

The SSCI report said the reason the CIA chose Thailand was that US military custody would not be possible without informing the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Furthermore, the big detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba was not suitable because the CIA believed secrecy would be difficult to maintain at the base and either the FBI or the US military could try to take charge of the interrogation.

On March 29, 2002, then-president Bush approved the transfer of Zubaydah to the black site in Udon Thani, according to the SSCI report. The Thai government gave permission on the same day that the request was received, demonstrating how efficiently Thai-US secret cooperation was conducted.

The BBC reported that the choice of Udon Thani was based on four reasons -- the two countries were treaty allies; close Thai-US cooperation in military and intelligence went back to the Cold War; Thailand had allowed the US to use several airbases to attack communist positions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War; and Udon Thani had served as one of the main US bases and was heavily used by the CIA.

The SSCI report also detailed how Zubaydah was treated during detention. For instance, it said from Aug 4, 2002 for at least 20 days, he was subjected to harsher treatment by CIA agents. He was confined for more than 200 hours in a narrow, coffin-like box, and spent nearly 30 hours in a smaller box only 50 centimetres wide.

At least eight Thai officials knew of the secret site, added the SSCI report, without naming them. With such a high level of secrecy, besides former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the supreme military commander and the three armed forces must also have been informed of these activities.

The agency assumed that many more people probably also knew of its existence. The detention centre was shut down in December 2002.

In retrospect, the existence of the black site shows just how close US-Thai ties were from 2001-2006, especially between Thaksin and Mr Bush. Despite Thailand's reluctance to join the US-led global war on terrorism after September 11, 2001 their security cooperation later become more extensive.

After the closure of these facilities in Udon Thani, Thai-US relations have gone from strength to strength. Thailand was awarded non-Nato ally status and both countries started to negotiate a free-trade agreement in October 2003. However, after 18 months, talks were suspended.

But the question remains: Who should be held accountable for the "black site"?