Controversy grows in Europe over CIA jail network

A gathering storm of outrage will greet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visits Europe next week amid allegations that the CIA has been using airports and military bases across the Continent to secretly transport and detain terrorist suspects.

Six countries have launched judicial investigations, Europe's top human rights watchdog has begun a probe, and the European Union has formally asked Washington to clarify reports that the Central Intelligence Agency's network of clandestine jails extends to Europe.

"There is a profound shock among the public that some [European] governments seem to have been in collusion with the CIA in assisting them to have individuals disappear into black holes," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College.

The row threatens to undermine recent efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to repair US-European relations that had been badly strained by the US-led invasion of Iraq. "This is exactly the sort of thing we do not need," comments Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Center on the US, a think tank in Paris that promotes transatlantic ties. "It won't make relations easier."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeyer, who raised the issue of secret jails with Dr. Rice during a meeting Tuesday in Washington, said afterward that she had promised to "provide a prompt and detailed response" to the EU letter.

How far the row will weaken cooperation between US and European intelligence services, which have worked closely in recent years, "will depend on what kind of information emerges" from the investigations under way predicts Paul Wilkinson, head of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University in Scotland.

Allegations that the CIA had hidden and interrogated some of its most important Al Qaeda suspects in unidentified Eastern European countries were first reported in a Nov. 2 Washington Post article. The next day, Human Rights Watch said evidence suggested Poland and Romania had hosted the secret jails.

Both countries deny any involvement. Clandestine prisons would violate the European Convention on Human Rights, to which both are signatories. Poland is also an EU member, which prompted EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini to warn Monday that any member found guilty of breaching fundamental EU values could lose voting rights.

The controversy has broadened to include countries whose airspace or airports were allegedly used by CIA planes carrying secret prisoners. Human Rights Watch says it has identified 31 such planes.

Using information from Human Rights Watch, Dick Marty, investigating for the Council of Europe - Europe's human rights watchdog - has said CIA-linked planes appear to have stopped over at airports in Ireland, Cyprus, and Spain.

Mr. Marty is seeking data from the European air traffic control agency, to track suspicious plane movements over the past three years, and has asked the EU's satellite center for images that might indicate the construction of detention facilities at Polish and Romanian military bases.

Countries where police or judicial authorities have reported or begun investigating alleged CIA prisoner flights now include Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Iceland, Malta, and Germany.

"The question of flights, as such, is not something negative," Germany's new Defense Minister, Franz Josef Jung said Monday. "It is the question 'Was there torture?' that is justifiably causing concern, and it is that point that we are worried about."

It's not just officials who are concerned, however; public anger is spreading as well.

"Democracy is rather fragile in these Eastern European countries" accused of hosting the illegal jails, points out Mr. Parmentier. "It makes the Americans look exceptionally hypocritical to say that democracy should be spread everywhere and then encourage their allies to do things outside the rule of law."

The controversy has highlighted, once again, the difference between the US and European approaches to the threat of terrorism.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that "any government needs to act to defend its own people. Ask yourself the question: If you were able to detain a terrorist responsible for the deaths of thousands of people before that act took place, absolutely a government would make every effort ... to do that."

Launching his investigation last week, Marty said the Council of Europe had a "moral obligation" to probe the allegations. "I think all Europeans agree with Americans that we must fight terrorism," he told reporters. "We do not want to weaken the fight against terrorism ... but this fight has to be fought by legal means. Wrongdoing only gives ammunition to both the terrorists and their sympathizers."

Some former prisoners have claimed they were tortured in the secret facilities that constitute the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" network. They include Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese origin, who says he was kidnapped in Macedonia in 2003, flown by the CIA to Afghanistan, and interrogated there for five months before being released with no explanation. A German prosecutor is investigating the alleged kidnapping.

Italian prosecutors have also launched extradition proceedings against 13 alleged CIA operatives they believe were responsible for the kidnapping of Abu Omar, a radical Islamic cleric, from a Milan street in February 2003. Omar was later flown to Egypt where he has disappeared.

It's unclear whether the CIA was acting behind the Italian intelligence agencies' backs, or with their assistance. But the current row could endanger future European cooperation with the CIA. "It would create difficulties if there were found to be a major discrepancy between the norms the European countries are following and the norms the Americans are following," warns Prof. Wilkinson.

At the same time, adds Dr. Ranstorp, "European governments may be more reluctant, because of the fear of disclosure, to allow some of these flights to occur" in the future.

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