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Extraordinary rendition

This legal term has gained much attention in the press in the past couple of years because of reports that the CIA has been capturing terrorism suspects in one country and delivering them with no court hearing or extradition process to a second, in which torture is practised, in order to get confessions or useful intelligence. The term dates to the end of the 1980s at the latest, but is in the news at the moment because of accusations that the CIA is being actively aided by the British government, and because of a court case last month in New York in which a Canadian citizen challenged his removal to Syria in this way.

The core of the term is rendition, an old but little-known legal principle. It comes from an obsolete French term that derives from rendre, to give back or render. Most people know rendition as a posh word for the performance of an actor or musician, but in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth — about 1600 — it referred to the surrender of a garrison (the occupants rendered, or gave themselves up, to the victors).

In US law rendition refers to the transfer of individuals from a foreign jurisdiction to the USA to answer criminal charges; the defendant is said to have been rendered up to justice. However, the formal process is extradiction. When the transfer is done by extra-judicial methods, the process is strictly called informal rendition, though this can be casually shortened to rendition.

A problem for the security forces is that once brought to the USA the person is subject to US law and the rules of due process, which of course excludes torture. Hence extraordinary rendition, a euphemism for taking them to a country where these rules do not apply.

One week ago a judge in Milan signed warrants for the arrest of 13 of the agents, which has thrown covert CIA activities outside the US under the spotlight and drawn attention to the increasingly common practice of so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’, by which the US seizes terror suspects and removes them to countries known for their use of torture.

the Independent, 1 Jul. 2005

Extraordinary rendition is antithetical to everything Americans are supposed to believe in. It violates American law. It violates international law. And it is a profound violation of our own most fundamental moral imperative — that there are limits to the way we treat other human beings, even in a time of war and great fear.

the New York Times, 18 Feb. 2005

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Oct. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 1 October 2005.