December 1, 2017

From 2001 to 2006, a North Carolina-based company used a public airport in Johnston County to transport dozens of terrorism suspects to Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA “black sites” across the globe, where they were tortured through waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other horrific methods.

The men endured “unimaginable suffering,” according to Deborah Weissman, a UNC Law professor whose students compiled narratives from 36 detainees who were brought through the airport in Smithfield, North Carolina on so-called “torture taxis.”

“Their captors … sliced off their clothes, put them into diapers, and hooded them,” Weissman explained. “They were restrained head to foot, immobilized. They were dragged or thrown onto aircraft. They were restrained and prohibited from moving – and if they did move, if they were to squirm because of pain, they were beaten. If they asked to change position, their mouths were taped shut. The plastic cuffs that were placed on their wrists were so tight that they left grooves in their wrists. […] Many had suppositories forcefully inserted into their anuses – painful, shocking and humiliating experiences of sexual assault.”

To date, neither North Carolina nor the company, Aero Contractors, has been held accountable for its role in the torture program, which was supported by state taxpayer dollars and other public resources. A group of North Carolinians and human rights experts are working to change that.

This week the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry of Torture (NCCIT), a nongovernmental group formed by concerned citizens, held two full days of hearings in Raleigh “to do the job their government refuses to do: investigate North Carolina’s involvement in the U.S. torture program, prevent it from happening again, and make North Carolina a leader against torture.”

A range of witnesses, including human rights lawyers, academics, politicians, religious leaders, Johnston County residents, and torture survivors and their family members, testified about the involvement of North Carolina-based planes and personnel in the program, as well as the lasting impact torture has on its victims. 

Mohamedou Slahi, who was kidnapped from his home in Mauritania and illegally detained at Guantanamo Bay prison for 14 years without being charged for a crime, testified remotely about his experience of being shackled on a plane and beaten during his extraordinary rendition. After years of physical abuse and humiliation at Guantanamo and years of legal advocacy by the ACLU and others, Slahi was finally released in 2016 and returned to his family in Mauritania. But the damage done by his rendition and torture still causes pain, night terrors, and medical complications.

“Every time I sleep, I feel like I’m back in the same cell,” he told the commission. “I have to take so many medications to go back to normal and it’s completely interfering with my life.”

Another witness was Khadija Anna Pighizzini, wife of Abou Elkassim Britel, an Italian citizen who was rendered by the CIA on aircraft operated by Aero Contractors and imprisoned in inhumane conditions for eight years until an Italian judge dismissed his charges after finding no evidence. Pighizzini said her husband was permanently damaged by the experience. He now rarely leaves the house and is plagued by anxiety and fear. “Day after day, I realize that condition, that way of living, won’t abandon us,” she told commissioners. “How are we going to live now? This is the question that both of us ask ourselves.”

The evidence that NCCIT has brought forward, and the questions they have provoked about the U.S.’s use of torture in the years after the September 11 attacks, are more pressing than ever as our current president, Donald Trump, frequently endorses the use of torture against terrorism suspects, even though the practice – in any context – is illegal, unjust, and counterproductive.

The United States has done nothing to hold the architects of these programs accountable, and North Carolina officials have never acknowledged, apologized for, or taken action to address the state’s role in these horrific violations of human rights.

In the face of this inaction, NCCIT’s commissioners and volunteers are taking it upon themselves to shine a light on these injustices and push for accountability.

Learn more and join the cause at

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