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June 8, 2006

Report Traces US/EU Covert Rendition Network

by Jim Lobe

A long-awaited report [.pdf] by the Council of Europe on European complicity in "extraordinary renditions" secretly carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) against suspected terrorists was hailed here Wednesday by human rights groups, even as the U.S. State Department tried to cast doubt on its findings.

"Amnesty International applauds today's Council of Europe report that makes clear that the United States has woven a renditions 'spider web' outside the rule of law that includes, 'disappearances,' arbitrary detentions, illegal transfers, and torture or other ill-treatment," said Larry Cox, director of Amnesty's U.S. chapter.

At the same time, however, State Department spokesman Sean McCormick denounced the report by Swiss Senator Dick Marty, which is based largely on the flight records of suspected CIA planes in and out of Europe and the testimony of some of the individuals who have been subject to rendition.

"We're certainly disappointed in the tone and the content of it," he told reporters.

"This would appear to be a rehash of the previous efforts by this group. I don't see any new solid facts in it. There seem to be a lot of allegations but no real facts behind it," he said.

McCormick, who did not explicitly deny the report's findings, also insisted that "extraordinary renditions" – the extra-judicial seizure and transfer by the CIA of terrorist suspects to detention in third countries – were "an internationally recognized legal practice" and that "intelligence cooperation between the United States and other countries around the world saves lives in the war on terror."

Most analysts believe that a major purpose of renditions is to deliver suspects to countries that are more tolerant of abusive interrogation techniques, including torture, than in the U.S. or countries where they are seized. According to U.S. officials, however, the CIA never turns over suspects to foreign intelligence agencies in the absence of assurances that they will not be tortured.

The 46-member Council of Europe is the continent's oldest political organization. Its investigation was spurred by the publication last November of a Washington Post article alleging that the CIA was not only using European airspace and airports to transport detainees, but was also running secret prisons – or "black sites" – in two Eastern European countries which it declined to identify.

Immediately after publication of the article, which won a coveted Pulitzer Prize and also prompted a criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified the two countries as Poland and Romania. The governments of both countries vehemently denied the existence of such prisons on their territory.

Amnesty subsequently published a report, "Below the Radar: Secret Flights to Torture and Disappearance," which provided new details about CIA rendition operations, including information about nearly 1,000 flights linked to the CIA through "front companies."

Most of these, according to the report, traveled through European air space – and in some cases landed at European airports – on their way to third countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, with close ties to U.S. intelligence agencies or to the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. has held hundreds of terrorist suspects since 2002.

In his report, Marty accused 14 European countries of complicity in the renditions, including those that were "responsible, at varying degrees … for violations of the rights of specific persons" – Bosnia, Britain, Germany, Italy, Macedonia, Turkey, and Sweden – and those "responsible for collusion – active or passive" – Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Spain.

All of these countries, according to the report, were part of a "spider's web" of sites around the world used to facilitate renditions which, in contrast to McCormick's insistence that the practice was legal, were "utterly alien" to international human rights law, including the European Convention on Human Rights.

He also reiterated HRW's charges that Poland and Romania, along with eight other non-European countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, appear to have provided the CIA with facilities for at least the temporary detention of rendition subjects.

He described airports in Timisoara, Romania, and Szymany, Poland, as "detainee transfer/drop-off" points. He also noted that suspects were picked up in Bosnia, Italy, Macedonia, and Sweden with the knowledge of each government.

That finding appeared to vindicate Washington's insistence that relevant governments were informed about U.S. rendition activities undertaken on their territory.

"It is now clear – although we are still far from establishing the whole truth – that authorities in several European countries actively participated with the CIA in these unlawful activities," according to the report. "Other countries ignored them knowingly, or did not want to know."

Marty also noted that, in carrying out his investigation, he found that most European governments "did not seem particularly eager to establish the alleged facts."

Marty himself stressed that his findings could not be proved with absolute certainty at this point because they were based largely on circumstantial evidence, including official flight logs provided by the European Union's air traffic agency, Eurocontrol, as well as corroborating testimony by current or former rendition subjects or their attorneys.

Since he could not compel testimony of knowledgeable government officials, he appealed for responsible national agencies, including parliaments, to do so. "Governments have a duty to carry out serious, transparent investigations" of these allegations, he said.

"These states could have established the truth long ago; they did not. They now have an obligation to do so," he added.

That point was echoed by Amnesty, which called on European states to "conduct independent and thorough investigations" into the renditions and "ensure accountability of their own and foreign intelligence services."

John Sifton, who has followed U.S. rendition policy and operations for HRW, echoed that appeal, noting in particular those countries, including Macedonia, Italy, Sweden, and Germany, whose complicity in renditions was clearest.

He also took issue with McCormick's assertions – echoed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the British Parliament Wednesday – that Marty had failed to uncover new information.

"He has managed to obtain official flight records that show the movement of several airplanes which have already been shown to have been used by the CIA for transporting suspects, and they corroborate the claims of some of the detainees who have been subject to renditions," Sifton told IPS.

"We are not trying to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal court. We're trying to show that there is solid evidence to back up the allegations, and Mr. Marty's report has provided new evidence," he said, noting, in particular, the flight records regarding "very suspicious flights" from Afghanistan to both Poland and Romania that support previous allegations of the existence of "black sites" on their territory.

"Despite requests from Mr. Marty and us, neither country has yet explained or rebutted any of the evidence that has been presented," he added.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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