Is Europe being used to hold CIA detainees?

Many European countries have started investigations into allegations that CIA aeroplanes, with terrorist detainees as passengers, have been landing at European airports.

The story began with disclosures by the Washington Post and by Human Rights Watch about secret CIA-run detention camps in many countries including Poland and Romania. The EU has asked Washington for a clarification and the Council of Europe has also begun its own investigation.

Strong evidence?
US-based Human Rights Watch mentions in its report two alleged ‘black sites’, as they are referred to in CIA documents: a Polish intelligence service training facility next to the small Szymany airport and the military air base Mihail Kogalniceanu in Romania, near the Black Sea. These might have been used to hide, interrogate and possibly torture al-Qaeda captives. How strong is the evidence? Vanessa Saenen of Human Rights Watch in Brussels:

“We don’t know for sure whether there were detention centres or whether there still are, but we are alarmed because we have information that the CIA flight came from Kabul, stopped in Poland and Romania and then went on to Guantanamo Bay. We also have information that in the exact same month – September 2003 – a number of Afghan detainees [were] moved out of Afghanistan to a destination that nobody knows. So, they are unaccounted for; nobody knows where they are at the moment.”

Human Rights Watch has no specific evidence on the existence of secret detention camps in Poland and Romania, so most of the allegations are based on the flight schedule of a Boeing 737 owned by the Path Corporation, said to be an umbrella organisation of the CIA. The plane landed at around midnight on 22 September 2003 at Szymany airport, stayed for an hour, took five passengers with American passports onboard and then took off for Romania.

There, it landed at the base near the Black Sea, which has been used by the Americans to transport troops and equipment to the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. That same day it took off again, made a stopover in Morocco and then headed for its final destination, Guantanamo Bay.

CIA dossiers do not mention any transport of terrorist captives to Guantanamo Bay around this date. However, the flight took place in the same month that several captives were moved from their secret prison in Afghanistan. Nobody knows where they went and they have not been accounted for since then.

Detention camps
This combination of facts has made Human Rights Watch believe that terrorist suspects might have been moved to secret facilities in Poland and Romania.

There are plenty reports from released prisoners that they have been moved to camps in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, as Ms Saenen explains:

“We have information based on interviews from people who have been in Guantanamo Bay that there are secret detention centres. Even the US government doesn’t bother to hide this, and we have information from released prisoners on Jordan, on Morocco, on Egypt and Libya, but not on Romania and Poland.”

Digging deeper
For Human Rights Watch, however, there was reason enough to demand a thorough enquiry. The European Commission did not show much interest, but the Council of Europe took the initiative. A preliminary investigation lead by Swiss MEP Dick Marty did not deliver any evidence, but the indications were nevertheless so serious that he now wants to dig deeper. According to Andrew Drzemczewski, a close aide of Mr Marty, they will ask for EU support:

“Mr Marty has appealed for active cooperation from Eurpean Union bodies as well as specialized institutions, such as the EU Satellite Centre and Eurocontrol [the European organisation for the safety of air navigation].”

The investigators may ask the EU Satellite Centre for pictures of the alleged sites. However, such a request has to be made by EU foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana and will need the consent of the member states. No request has been made yet, says the Satellite Centre in Spain. What, though, will these pictures prove if the secret camps have long been evacuated? After all, as the Washington Post has reported, that was what happened to a similar prison in Thailand when that was discovered.

Journalists in Romania and Poland have started their own research, but in Poland no light has been shed on the matter. Piotr Koscinski, a journalist at the leading Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, has at least one explanantion:

“We are somewhat cautious, because many allegations that Poland houses the CIA’s prisoners would be perhaps dangerous for our country. Some Islamist groups might be interested in attacking Poland because of that.”

The Poles fear retaliatory attacks by Muslim terrorists if the allegations turn out to be true, as the journalist explains. On the other hand, he can hardly imagine that such detention camps could have been kept secret in a country like Poland. In any event, the authorities have denied the reports. So in the end, for the real truth to come out, Europe may have to wait for new revelations from Washington.

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Is Europe being used to hold CIA detainees?
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