Local documentary highlights state’s ties to torture

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The Johnston County Airport, where alleged CIA “torture taxis” took off and landed, is exposed in “Ghosts of Johnston County.”
The Johnston County Airport, where alleged CIA “torture taxis” took off and landed, is exposed in “Ghosts of Johnston County.”

by Kelly Fahey

A chain-link fence off of Highway 70 in Smithfield separates the public from the Johnston County Airport, home to the relatively mysterious Aero Contractors Limited.

Besides practically keeping the miniscule Johnston County Airport open, the company is said to provide air transportation for the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, which is the United States’ practice of abducting and transferring foreign nationals to other countries for detention and allegedly torture.

The battle between Aero Contractors and North Carolina Stop Torture Now is highlighted in “Ghosts of Johnston County,” a short documentary co-directed by Wake Forest University graduates Eric Juth and Michelle Ferris-Dobles.

North Carolina Stop Torture Now, a grassroots coalition based in Johnston County, accuses Aero Contractors of providing what are referred to as “torture taxis” for the CIA. These planes, which take off just hours from the Triad, transport often wrongfully accused detainees like Abou el-Kassim Britel to be imprisoned and tortured oversees, the film alleges.

Britel’s story is in focus in the film. In 2002, he was arrested while on a business trip in Pakistan and accused of being a “terrorist fighter.” After being beaten, tortured and deprived of sleep, Britel falsely confessed to being a terrorist. The CIA then transported Britel to Morocco on an Aero Contractors plane where he remained for the next nine years. His release came after international outcry from groups like North Carolina Stop Torture Now.

“Ghosts of Johnston County” offers unique insight into an all too common occurrence. It is well documented that airplanes owned by Aero Contractors that flew from the Johnston County Airport have transferred dozens of detainees through the extraordinary-rendition program. According to a report by the New York Times, German citizen Khalid El-Masri was transferred on an Aero Contractors from Serbia to Afghanistan for imprisonment and torture. El-Masri, Britel and many others like him suffer from the pitfalls of a time in which simply being a Muslim can lead to imprisonment and torture.

Juth accompanied Stop Torture Now member Allyson Caison on what she refers to as the “Torture Taxi Tour,” catching on film the juxtaposition between the quaint streets of Smithfield and the dark secrets that lay inside the headquarters of Aero Contractors. She points out someone walking on the sidewalk that has referred to her as an “evildoer,” “minion” and an “America hater.”

Although both airport director Ray Blackmon and representatives from Aero Contractors declined to be interviewed for the film, conservative blogger and Johnston County resident Troy LaPlante offered his support to the corporation. On his blog “LaPlante’s Rants,” he refers to Stop Torture Now as “wing nuts” and “moon bats” claiming “if [Aero Contactors] wasn’t in Johnston County, it would just be somewhere else.”

While it is hard to understand how someone could contest an organization attempting to stop torture, LaPlante’s position shows a troubling lack of empathy when it comes to Britel and other victims of extraordinary rendition.

“Ghosts of Johnston County” shows that although it is easy to think that these problems are thousands of miles away, the roots can grow in our backyard. The imagery of protestors being arrested for entering an open gate to speak to employees of a corporation are troubling. The film touches on how easy it is to have a feeling of moral superiority as Americans, which is thrown by the wayside after hearing Johnston County Commission Chair Allen Mims Jr. forgiving the provider of “torture taxis” because they have helped the airport grow.

These issues are poignantly brought into perspective by the sight of protestors dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees with orange jumpsuits and black hoods over their heads holding signs that read: “Who would Jesus torture?”