By ALAN FREEMAN in Globe and Mail.com
WASHINGTON – European officials have vowed to investigate reports that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency set up a network of “ghost prisons” in Poland, Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe to interrogate al-Qaeda suspects, far away from the peering eyes of human-rights activists, the press and the courts.
“We have to find out exactly what is happening,” said Friso Roscam Abbing, a spokesman for the European Union in Brussels, who said the 25 EU governments would be questioned about the reports. He pointed out that the existence of these prisons could violate EU human-rights rules and the International Convention Against Torture.
Officials in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and other former Soviet-bloc nations have all denied that their territory had been used to host the secret jails.
“There have been official statements from ex-ministers and they are all officially denying that any such operations took place on the territory of Poland,” a spokesman for the Polish embassy in Washington said, adding that Warsaw’s newly appointed defence and interior ministers also have denied the allegations.
“I repeat. We do not have CIA bases in Romania,” Romanian Prime Minister Popescu Tariceanu said. But in the Czech Republic, Interior Minister Frantisek Bublan is reported to have said that his government recently turned down a U.S. request to build a prison for al-Qaeda captives.
The governments were reacting to a report on Wednesday in The Washington Post that the CIA has been imprisoning and interrogating some of its top al-Qaeda suspects at the network of prisons, which were set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
The newspaper declined to publish the names of the Eastern European countries involved at the request of U.S. officials, who argued that the disclosure could disrupt efforts to combat terrorism. But Human Rights Watch corroborated the story and named Poland and Romania as sites for the clandestine prisons.
“They did it so they could abuse these people without anybody knowing,” said Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, who is concerned that the CIA is using unconventional interrogation methods at these facilities at a time when there is increasing oversight of the main prisons for terrorist suspects near Kabul, Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Mr. Garlasco said that researchers at Human Rights Watch had been tracking the movements of aircraft chartered by the CIA for “extraordinary renditions,” the practice of extraditing suspects across international boundaries without following normal court procedures.
A prime example of such a rendition was the arrest of Canadian Maher Arar in 2002 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, his transfer to Jordan and eventually to his birthplace of Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for a year.
Mr. Garlasco cited the movement of a Boeing 737 aircraft that departed from Washington on Sept. 20, 2003, and stopped at the Ruzyne airport outside Prague, Czech Republic, on Sept. 21 before flying on the same day to a U.S. base outside of Tashkent in Uzbekistan.
On Sept. 22, the same plane flew to Kabul, and then to Szymany airport near Szczytno in Poland, Mikhail Kogalniceanu airport in Constanta, Romania and Sal’ airport in Rabat, Morocco.
On Sept. 23, the plane flew from Morocco to its ultimate destination in Guantanamo Bay. “It’s the torture shuttle,” said Mr. Garlasco, who added quickly that he had no proof torture had taken place.
Mr. Garlasco believes the CIA was using a Soviet-era prison outside Szymany, in northern Poland, to hold and interrogate prisoners. But he added that the flight logs he has inspected only go through 2004, and it is possible some of the prisons may have been shut down. One such prison, located in Thailand, was closed in 2003, according to the Post.
Stephen Hadley, U.S. President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, told reporters on Wednesday that he would not discuss intelligence operations, but he added that even though the government would do “what is necessary” to defend the United States against terrorism, “we’re going to do that in a way that is consistent with our values.”
Despite the assurances, CIA interrogators are allowed to use what are known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” in these overseas locations, even though the methods are banned by U.S. military law. Among the techniques that can be used is “waterboarding,” where prisoners are strapped to boards and their heads held underwater until they believe they will drown.
Legislation recently approved by a large majority in the U.S. Senate would ban the use of cruel and degrading treatment of anyone in U.S. custody but Vice-President Dick Cheney has pleaded with the senators to allow the CIA to be exempted from the proposed law.
The United States is believed to have been using a network of covert prison camps called ‘black sites’ in foreign countries to detain suspected terrorists since 2001. Run by the CIA, and known as ‘extraordinary rendition’ captives are flown to countries where torture is suspected of being used in interrogation.
Main prisons: Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,
Black site locations: Poland, Czech Republic, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Thailand, Indian Ocean: Diego Garcia, U.S. ships USS Bataam, USS Peleliu
Transfer of suspects to foreign country: Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, Thailand