As the place where the Wright brothers made their historic take-off, North Carolina likes to brag that it's "First in Flight." But the state's ongoing involvement in the CIA's torture taxi service puts it first in flight of a most cruel and unlawful sort.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThis week, a prosecutor's office in Munich issued arrest warrants for 13 people who allegedly were part of a CIA team that kidnapped a German citizen of Lebanese descent who they mistook for a terrorist in a practice known as "extraordinary rendition." In late 2003, Khaled El-Masri left his home in the southern German city of Ulm for a vacation in Macedonia. While trying to enter that country, he was detained by border officials because he had the same name as someone alleged to be involved in a Hamburg-based al-Qaeda cell.

In January 2004, the Macedonian authorities turned El-Masri over to members of what's known as a "black snatch team" -- undercover American agents who beat, stripped, and drugged him, according to his account of the ordeal published in the Los Angeles Times. Dressed in a diaper and locked in chains, he was flown first to Baghdad and then a covert CIA prison in Afghanistan, where he was held for five months before he was dropped off, penniless and terrified, on a deserted mountain path in Albania. When he finally made his way home, he discovered that his wife and children had returned to her family in Lebanon because they thought he had abandoned them.

With the help of the ACLU, El-Masri filed a civil suit against former CIA director George Tenet and the owners of the private jets that the CIA used to transport him. Last May, a federal judge dismissed that lawsuit over concerns that a public trial would "present a grave risk of injury to national security," according to a Reuters report. The ACLU is appealing that decision. (Click here for documents relating to the case.) In the meantime, German authorities also began pursuing justice, resulting in the criminal warrants issued this week.

The suspects are thought to have been crew members of a 737 Boeing Business Jet operated by Smithfield, N.C.-based Aero Contractors, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. The plane is believed to have been stationed in Kinston, N.C. at the Global TransPark, a state- and federal-funded facility created to promote economic development in the eastern part of the state.

The Global TransPark as well as the Aero's headquarters at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield have been the target of protests. In November 2005, 14 protestors were arrested outside Aero's offices and later convicted of trespassing. Writing in the Durham, N.C.-based Independent Weekly, one of the protestors -- Catholic peace activist Patrick O'Neill, who was arrested along with his teenage daughter Bernadette -- justified his actions on moral grounds:

If a house is on fire and its occupants are crying "Help us," it would not be a crime for a would-be rescuer to kick in the door to save those inside. In legalese, that's known as the defense of necessity: An insignificant infraction of the law is overlooked if the lawless act is done to prevent a greater evil.

Last month, 22 North Carolina legislators asked state Attorney General Roy Cooper to order the State Bureau of Investigation to probe Aero's involvement with torture. Cooper has not yet taken any action.

But concerned citizens of North Carolina have not given up their efforts to pressure elected leaders into taking action against their state's involvement in human rights abuses. They have launched an online petition asking Gov. Mike Easley, Cooper, the SBI director, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Johnston County commissioners, Global TransPark Authority members, and state lawmakers to withdraw the state's financial support for Aero's activities. That petition is online here.

(Image courtesy of Indymedia.us.)