Warships in the Indian Ocean; Bagram airbase, Afghanistan; al-Tamara interrogation center, Morocco and, of course Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. All form part of America’s secret prison network.

The United States government, in conjunction with key allies, is running an ‘invisible’ network of prisons and detention centres into which thousands of suspects have disappeared without trace since the ‘war on terror’ began.

In the past three years, thousands of alleged militants have been transferred around the world by American, Arab and Far Eastern security services, often in secret operations that by-pass extradition laws. The astonishing traffic has seen many, including British citizens, sent from the West to countries where they can be tortured to extract information. Anything learnt is passed on to the US and, in some cases, reaches British intelligence.

The disclosure of the shadowy system will increase pressure on the Bush administration over its ‘cavalier’ approach to human rights and will embarrass Tony Blair, a staunch ally of President George Bush.

The practice of ‘renditions’ – when suspects are handed directly into the custody of another state without due process – has sparked particular anger. At least 70 such transfers have occurred, according to CIA sources. Many involve men who have been freed by the courts and are thus legally innocent. Renditions are often used when American interrogators believe that harsh treatment – banned in their own country – would produce results.

The Observer has obtained details of two incidents in which men have been detained by the US despite being found innocent by courts in their own country. In one, a British businessman called Wahab al-Rami, an Iraqi living in the UK and a Palestinian seeking asylum were arrested by US and local officers in Gambia in November 2002 as they stepped off a flight from London.

Their seizure, which followed a tip-off from the UK security services – came just days after they had been arrested by British police on suspicion of terrorism and then freed by a British court.

Two were transported from Gambia to Guantanamo Bay – where they remain today – without any legal process. In the other incident, two Turks, a Saudi, a Kenyan and a Sudanese man were arrested in Malawi in June 2003 on suspicion of funding terrorist networks. Though freed by local courts, the men were handed over to the CIA and held for several months. Campaigners say these incidents are ‘the tip of an iceberg’.

Few escape the ghost network of detention facilities, which range from massive prison camps such as that at Guantanamo Bay to naval vessels in the Indian Ocean, so accounts of life inside the new gulag are rare.

One of the most harrowing stories concerns a Syrian-born Canadian, Maher Arar, who was arrested by US authorities in late 2002 during a stopover in New York, on suspicion of terrorist activities.

After several days of questioning, the 34-year-old IT specialist was flown to Jordan, where the CIA passed him on to local security officials. He was repeatedly assaulted in Jordan before being driven to Syria, where he was kept in solitary confinement in a 6ft by 3ft cell for several months and repeatedly beaten with cables. All charges were dropped on his release. Arar said last week that he was ‘trying to rebuild [his] life’. ‘I never did anything to make me a suspect. I could not believe they would send me back to Syria, but they did,’ he said. ‘They sent me back to be tortured.’

The ghost prison network stretches around the globe. The biggest American-run facilities are at the Bagram airbase, north of Kabul in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, where around 400 men are held, and in Iraq, where tens of thousands of detainees are held. Saddam Hussein and dozens of top Baath party officials are held in a prison at Baghdad airport.

However, Washington is relying heavily on allies. In Morocco, scores of detainees once held by the Americans are believed to be held at the al-Tamara interrogation centre sited in a forest five miles outside the capital, Rabat. Many of the detainees were originally captured by the Pakistani authorities, who passed them on to the Americans.

One is Abdallah Tabarak, a militant who is alleged to have been Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and was seized in late 2001 by the Pakistanis. Tabarak was handed over to US agents, sent to Bagram and then to Guantanamo, before being flown to Morocco. Last November, Amnesty International criticised the ‘sharp rise’ in torture during 2003 in Moroccan prisons.

In Syria, detainees sent by Washington are held at ‘the Palestine wing’ of the main intelligence headquarters and a series of jails in Damascus and other cities. Egypt has also received a steady flow of militants from American installations. Many other militants have been sent to Egypt by other countries through transfers assisted by the Americans, often using planes run by the CIA.

In Cairo, prisoners are kept in the interrogation centre in the general intelligence directorate in Lazoughli and in Mulhaq al-Mazra prison, according to Montasser al-Zayat, an Islamist lawyer in Cairo and former spokesman for outlawed militant groups.

Terrorists have also been sent to facilities in Baku, Azerbaijan, and to unidentified locations in Thailand. Scores more are thought to be at a US airbase in the Gulf state of Qatar, and a large number are believed to have been sent to Saudi Arabia, where CIA agents are allowed to sit in on some of the interrogations. Elsewhere, security officials merely provide the Americans with summaries.

The fate of high-value prisoners – such as those directly connected to the 11 September attacks or other al-Qaeda strikes, or senior aides of bin Laden – is unknown. Abu Zubaydah, the Palestinian-born al-Qaeda logistics expert, was arrested after a shoot-out in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad in March 2002 by a joint team of American and Pakistani special forces.

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