EU members implicated in US ‘torture flights’

Bekki Field questions the legality of the alleged CIA practise of ‘extraordinary rendition’ in Europe

Allegations have been mounting against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since it was revealed that there have been approximately 300 CIA-operated flights to Eastern Europe in the past three years. They have been labelled ‘torture flights’, secretly transferring terrorist suspects abroad in order to torture them. Many of the flights have stopped off in Western European countries, primarily Germany and the United Kingdom. These are the claims of New York based Human Rights Watch following their own investigation.

Evidence has been unearthed from records which shows that CIA aeroplanes were travelling from Afghanistan to secluded airbases in Poland and Romania; Szcytno-Szymany airport and Kogalniceanu military airfield respectively in 2003 and 2004. This has been denied by both countries, but the European Council is now investigating 31 suspect planes that landed in Europe in recent years from a list provided by Human Rights Watch. However, the human rights watchdog has limited powers. It is questionable how much pressure the chair of the investigation, Dick Marty, will be able to exert in order to obtain evidence.

Human Rights Watch’s assertions are certainly supported by speeches given by the Bush administration, which cite arrests of several terrorist suspects who are now being held in secret locations. Furthermore, the seeming defence of the use of torture techniques against terrorist suspects by the administration is somewhat perturbing. Although it is unknown what happens at the clandestine locations, many fear the worst. ‘It’s a secret. No one knows what happens in the rendition process or in the gulag of secret CIA hellholes’, says Michael Ratner, director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights.

On November 18th, ABC News quoted leading CIA officials who acknowledged that the CIA had approved six interrogation techniques in March 2002 for use against detainees being held in Afghanistan. These included sleep deprivation, exposure to cold and, most starkly, ‘waterboarding’. This is immersing or pouring water over a detainee’s face until he thinks he is going to die. It is a technique banned in international and US law, as are many of the other techniques the CIA has endorsed. Liberty, a UK human rights group, is demanding that the government stop the planes from landing in the UK. Liberty’s director, Shami Chakribati said, “What can we say to those who perpetrate atrocities in London and around the world if we allow ourselves to become complicit in the cheapening of human life?”

The CIA’s lack of cooperation and refusal to discuss the allegations is unsurprising if previous episodes are taken into account. In September 2004 it was revealed that the CIA may have held as many as 100 so-called ghost detainees in Iraq; their identities and locations hidden. The exact number of undisclosed prisoners remains unknown. The iniquitous Abu Graib prison was highlighted as holding between 12 and 36 unregistered prisoners since the start of the Iraq war. During the affair, which was described by Arizona’s Republican senator, John McCain, as ‘a bad movie,’ there was much anger at the lack of CIA cooperation during an investigation by Pentagon officials. The agency did not produce the requested documents and refused to disclose whether they hid prisoners from international monitors.

The CIA insisted they were conducting their own review into the agency’s detention and interrogation activities in Iraq, but has a history of denying Pentagon findings of gross misconduct. Earlier investigations exposed the deaths of at least three Iraqis under CIA custody
With regards to the CIA flights, which are being referred to as ‘extraordinary rendition,’ there have been demands from UK foreign secretary Jack Straw and other European officials for the US to respond to the torture allegations. Last week US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, denied that the US practiced torture and defended the practise of rendition as a legitimate tactic in the war on terror. Rice, however, refused to deny the alleged existence of secret prisons in Eastern Europe and argued that the US adhered to international law.

The 2004 accusations about Iraqi ‘ghost prisoners’ also shed light on CIA-government links. Top ground commanders in Iraq oversaw the prisons where the detainees were supposedly held and both Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, and Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, were also implicated. As a case-in-point, at the request of the then CIA Director George Tenet, Rumsfeld approved the off-the-books detention of a prisoner at one of the US-run prisons in Iraq, Camp Cropper: a clear violation of international law.

If CIA denial of recent claims is buttressed by the Bush administration, it could prove difficult to conduct a fair, thorough investigation into events, as the US government is notoriously uncooperative to outside intervention and will provide the CIA with robust protection.

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