By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A human rights organization says it has collected evidence of two previously unreported cases in which U.S. agents used waterboarding or a similar harsh interrogation technique on Libyan militants held by American forces in Afghanistan.
In a report released on Thursday, Human Rights Watch also says it acquired new evidence of the extent to which the United States and some of its allies, including Great Britain, allegedly detained exiled opponents of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and forcibly transferred them back to Libya.
Human Rights Watch said that it assembled its report by interviewing victims and witnesses familiar with alleged abuses and by combing through once-secret archives that became public during the Libyan revolution that led to Gaddafi's ouster and eventual death.
Documents found in the archives following the collapse of Gaddafi's regime included classified correspondence between top Libyan officials and officials from the CIA and Britain's spy agencies MI5 and MI6.
They illustrate how, between late 2003 when Gaddafi agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction programs, and the 2011 Libyan revolution, Gaddafi and Western intelligence agencies quietly cooperated in battling Islamic militants.
"Not only did the U.S. deliver Gaddafi his enemies on a silver platter, but it seems the CIA tortured many of them first," Laura Pitter, a counterterrorism expert at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, said in a written statement.
"The scope of Bush administration abuse appears far broader than previously acknowledged and underscores the importance of opening up a full-scale inquiry into what happened," she said.
Waterboarding is a form of simulated drowning that President Barack Obama and human rights activists have condemned as torture.
But U.S. and British officials defended their governments' actions.
"It can't come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency works with foreign governments to help protect our country from terrorism and other deadly threats. That is exactly what we are expected to do," said Jennifer Youngblood, a CIA spokeswoman.
"The context here is worth revisiting. For example, by 2004, the U.S. government had convinced Gaddafi to renounce Libya's WMD programs and to help stop those terrorists who were actively targeting Americans," Youngblood said.
A spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office said: "The government has been clear that it stands firmly against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. We do not condone it, nor do we ask others to do it on our behalf.
"In addition, we have published the Consolidated Guidance which provides clear directions for intelligence officers and service personnel dealing with foreign liaison services regarding detainees held overseas," the spokesman said.
Some of the other nations that Human Rights Watch alleged to be U.S. collaborators in these operations are the Netherlands, Pakistan, China, Malaysia, Morocco and Sudan.
DETAINEE SAYS HE WAS WATERBOARDED
The most dramatic, and potentially controversial, of the report's 14 case studies relate to alleged waterboarding.
Human Rights Watch said that testimony from former detainee Mohammed Shoroeiya about how he allegedly was waterboarded repeatedly by U.S. interrogators was "detailed and credible." Shoroeiya claimed he had been waterboarded while in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, and that a doctor was present during the interrogation sessions, the group said.
It said that a second former Libyan detainee, Khalid al-Sharif, described how he was subjected to a "similar type of treatment," though this did not involve being strapped to a board.
Human Rights Watch said both detainees claimed that they were hooded and had ice water poured over their noses and mouths until they felt like they were suffocating - the sensation associated with waterboarding.
The accounts by the Libyan detainees, one-time members of a militant faction called the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group, contradict claims by former President George W. Bush, former CIA director Michael Hayden and other U.S. officials that waterboarding was only used on three militants in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks - none of them Libyan.
U.S. officials expressed skepticism about the waterboarding allegations. And there are apparent differences in how the Libyans describe their treatment and the waterboarding procedures used in three cases that U.S. authorities have confirmed - those of alleged al Qaeda militants Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
In those cases, official investigations reported, the interrogation subjects were doused repeatedly, but in short bursts, with bottled water.
"The agency has been on the record that there are three substantiated cases in which detainees were subjected to the waterboarding technique," the CIA's Youngblood said.
"Although we cannot comment on these specific allegations, the Department of Justice has exhaustively reviewed the treatment of more than 100 detainees in the post-9/11 period - including allegations involving unauthorized interrogation techniques — and it declined prosecution in every case," she added.
PIVOTAL 2003 ADDRESS
One case discussed at length by Human Rights Watch is that of a Libyan militant known as Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who ran a training camp for militants in Afghanistan.
Information gleaned from al-Libi under interrogation about alleged contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda helped drive the Bush administration's campaign to build public support for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell highlighted the allegations in his pivotal February 2003 address to the U.N. Security Council.
However, al-Libi subsequently recanted his allegations about Iraq and al Qaeda.
Human Rights Watch said it was told by al-Libi's relatives that even though he led a militant training camp, he was opposed to al Qaeda's philosophy and activities and was focused on ousting Gaddafi.
Nonetheless, he was captured by Pakistan, turned over to U.S. authorities, sent for a time for allegedly abusive imprisonment in Egypt, turned back over to U.S. forces and subsequently sent to Libya.
Human Rights Watch says that in 2009, it arranged a brief visit with al-Libi in a Libyan prison. But the group said al-Libi refused to speak to it. Two weeks later, Human Rights Watch says, Libya reported that he committed suicide.
Human Rights Watch demanded that Obama direct the U.S. Attorney General to open a criminal investigation into U.S. interrogation and detention practices.
Only last week, however, Attorney General Eric Holder announced he was closing the last elements of what had become a wide-ranging investigation into these issues, without bringing any criminal charges.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Philip Barbara)