Early on the morning of December 18, 1995, residents of Khatanga, a small West Bengal hamlet, finally summoned the courage to step out of their homes and examine the strange gifts that had dropped from the skies through the night. Boxes were scattered across the fields, witnesses told investigators, enveloped in giant pieces of cloth later identified as parachutes. Local residents had helped themselves to the arsenal, but police eventually located over 150 assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, anti-tank rockets and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
From Copenhagen-based Neils Holck (aka Kim Davy), a monk of the shadowy ultra-right Ananda Marg cult wanted in several countries for smuggling, we know why those weapons were dropped over Purulia that night. In a television interview in 2010, Mr. Holck said he organised the arms drop as “legal defence against decades of murder, torture, rape by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal.”
This month, Jorgen Sorensen, Denmark’s director of public prosecutions, announced his service would not appeal a court judgment denying Indian demands for Mr. Holck’s extradition — ensuring the cult member will never stand trial. Denmark’s Eastern High Court had earlier said Mr. Holck could not be sent to India because of its “widespread and systematic use of torture”. It flagged India’s “overcrowded prisons with insufficient food and medical treatment.”
Impressive as this defence of human rights sounds — and accurate as it might be — it isn’t quite the whole truth. Denmark’s record in the West’s war on jihadist terrorism suggests the same principles don’t apply when the terrorists in question aren’t white, and the victims aren’t brown.
N221SG, a Learjet 35 leased by the Central Intelligence Agency from the Delaware-based Path Corporation, landed in Copenhagen on March 7, 2005 — a decade since Mr. Holck stood at the back of the Antonov 26 cargo plane he had purchased from Latvia, pushing weapons-packed crates out of its cargo bay. Turkish media reported that the Learjet was carrying a CIA prisoner. Leading opposition groups in Denmark demanded to know why the country was allowing transit facilities for flights to prisoners held illegally and at threat of torture.
That question has never been answered by either Denmark or its European allies — partners, with the United States, in a war that has seen every principle of the international human rights regime they claim to uphold violated.
In June 1995, former U.S President Bill Clinton signed the directive that gave legal authority to his country’s now well-known international campaign of kidnapping directed at alleged terrorists. In case the U.S. did not “receive adequate cooperation from a state that harbours a terrorist whose extradition we are seeking,” he wrote, “we shall take appropriate measures to induce cooperation”. In addition, the “return of suspects by force may be effected without the cooperation of the host government”.
Denmark had something to do with the very first CIA operation that followed. In September 1995, Egyptian jihadist Talat Fuad Qasim was kidnapped from Croatia and quietly handed over to his homeland’s government — and, likely, executed. Long a key leader of the Gama’a Islamiyyah, and a veteran of the Afghan jihad, Qasim was alleged to have been involved in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He was convicted by an Egyptian court on terrorism charges in 1992 but granted asylum in Denmark.
In a 2007 exposé, the newspaper, Politiken, alleged that the Politiets Efterretningstjeneste, Denmark’s intelligence service, was kept informed of Qasim’s kidnapping. Denmark never protested either his kidnapping or execution.
In October 2003, a CIA flight carrying Yemeni jihadist Muhammad Bismillah from illegal custody in Jordan was allowed to transit Denmark. In 2007, the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, said Mr. Basmillah had said he was held by the U.S. for over a year-and-a-half “in solitary confinement, frequently shackled and in handcuffs”.
In October 2008, Denmark concluded an official investigation into the CIA flights — estimated at over 45 — and concluded that the country had no knowledge of their real purpose. Per Stig Moller, the country’s Foreign Minister, expressed disappointment with the U.S.’ refusal to help get to the truth.
Leaked diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, however, cast Danish policy in a less-than-benign light. Foreign Ministry official Thomas Winkler privately told the U.S. that the government’s protests were “for the record”.
In another February 7, 2008, diplomatic cable, James Cain, the U.S. ambassador in Copenhagen, recorded that “the issue may show up on the prime minister's agenda, [but] if only so he will be able to say that he raised it with the President.” He lauded the Danish government for “avoiding an independent inquiry”.
Denmark isn’t alone. Five years since a European Parliament investigation led by rapporteur Giovanni Fava released its final report in February 2007, Lithuania has admitted to hosting secret CIA prisons, linked by flight data to Finland and Denmark. Poland and Romania have also been alleged with playing a key role in the operations.
Few European states have emerged from investigations untarnished. In one 2001 case in Sweden, Egyptian nationals Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed El-Zari were handed over to the U.S. authorities at Bromma airport in Stockholm, who cut off their “clothing with scissors piece by piece, draped them in hoods and chained them hand and foot [… before being] transported to Cairo bound to a pair of mattresses”.
Italy alone, however, has initiated a criminal investigation, indicting 26 U.S. nationals including top CIA officials for their role in the 2003 kidnapping of alleged Egyptian jihadist Nasor Osama Mustafa Hasan. Mr Hasan — like Mr Qasim was a Gama’ah Islamiyyah-linked figure, granted asylum in the face of potential torture in his homeland; the Italian authorities were investigating his possible involvement in terrorist activities at the time of his kidnapping.
New Delhi’s pursuit of the case was less than dogged. India only notified the Danish authorities on June 25 — a week short of the deadline to appeal the High Court’s order — that it might be willing to designate a hotel room or guest house as a prison to house Mr. Holck comfortably. Earlier action, and sustained pressure, might have pushed Denmark’s public prosecutor to make a different decision. Indian authorities, government sources say, were torn about making the offer, finally choosing to do so on the outside chance it might lead to a prosecution.
Not the real question
India must act to improve its awful criminal justice system and prison conditions — conditions that outrage the rights of its own citizens on an everyday basis. Its record isn’t, however, the real question here.
First, European polemic on humane treatment of prisoners masks not-inconsiderable hypocrisy. Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the extradition of alleged jihadists Babar Ahmad, Syed Talha Ahsan, Adel Abdul Bary and Khaled al-Fawwaz to the U.S. The men now face the prospect of life sentences without parole in a so-called supermax prison. In 1996, a United Nations investigation on torture described conditions in these prisons as “inhuman and degrading”. The New York Bar association, in 2011, suggested the conditions in them constituted “torture under international law”.
Then, there is a clear and visible gap between Denmark’s judicially stated values and its less-than-virtuous conduct on renditions. The reason isn’t hard to find: Denmark faces threats from jihadists, not Bengali Hindu cults. “In spite of their small numbers”, scholar Michael Jensen wrote of the Denmark’s jihadists in 2006, “they have managed to wedge themselves between the Muslim communities and mainstream Danish society”. Existential threats, as India’s own sometimes sordid counter-terrorism record demonstrates, are a powerful incentive for ethical compromise.
No room exists for Indian sanctimony on these issues. Though most nation states are treaty bound to use rule of law regimes to fight terrorism, almost all have violated them in times of crisis. Terrorist crimes are often committed in states which have no evidence-building or criminal justice capabilities, meaning there is no realistic possibility of securing convictions. International human rights law rests on the assumption that nation states will behave in a norm-bound manner, respectful of their mutual interests and rights. Indians have learned after 26/11, not for the first time, that this core assumption is not just unenforceable, but illusory.
Yet, there is also this painful truth: Denmark’s decision has reiterated the oldest of all racist maxims that white men shouldn’t suffer brown men’s justice. High principle, it seems, can be constructed on less-than-edifying foundations.