MPs recall Straw as air traffic controllers confirm 200 CIA flights

From The Guardian (23.02.2006)

MPs will today chastise ministers over their stance on the US practice of “extraordinary rendition” amid the first official admission that 200 suspect CIA flights had used British airspace.

In a report highly critical of the government’s attitude towards human rights abuses, the Commons foreign affairs committee accuses ministers of failing in their duty to find out whether Britain has been complicit in the US policy of secretly transferring detainees to places where they risked being tortured.

Members of the committee say they have not been told the full story despite months of trying. They are to summon the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to give evidence again on an issue which has serious political and legal implications. The move was agreed after Mr Straw suggested he would be questioned in private only by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, Paul Keetch, a Liberal Democrat member of the Commons foreign affairs group, said yesterday.

National Air Traffic Services (Nats) confirmed yesterday that two aircraft believed to have been chartered by the CIA made “around 200 journeys” through British airspace within the past five years.

The flights of the two planes, one a Gulfstream, the other a Boeing 737, were identified by the Guardian last September. Britain and the US have not denied reports that the planes were chartered by the CIA. Flight plans do not record the purpose of the flights, a Nats spokesman said yesterday. “They might have been CIA flights taking officials rather than people in orange boiler suits,” he added.

The disclosure came as the Council of Europe in effect named and shamed five countries which failed to explain what steps they were taking to protect people from being detained and mistreated through rendition.

The council, which oversees the implementation of the European convention on human rights, said that Belgium, Bosnia, Georgia, Italy and San Marino had missed the deadline of midnight on Tuesday for submissions which were expected to explain how they were meeting their obligations under international law.

The Ministry of Defence, Department for Transport, the Home Office and the Foreign Office have all said in answers to parliamentary questions – notably from the Lib Dems and the Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie – that they are unaware of any rendition flights since 1998, that they do not keep records, or that records they did have had been destroyed.

Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, yesterday wrote to the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, saying he would complain to the parliamentary ombudsman unless the MoD gave details of flights which landed at RAF airfields. Mr Ingram has said they could be provided only at “disproportionate cost”.

The Guardian has seen evidence that the MoD has details of the flights, including their origin and destination.

Mr Clegg also said that the disclosure by Britain’s air traffic control service “flies in the face of the answer we received from the government that only two or three cases of rendition ever took place”.

Mr Straw said yesterday: “We know of no occasion where there has been a rendition through UK territory, or indeed over UK territory, nor do we have any reason to believe that such flights have taken place without our knowledge.”

Terry Davis, the Council of Europe’s secretary general, said that all five countries he named had “failed to comply with their legal obligation” under the human rights convention. These, he added, “include positive obligations, meaning that governments are required to take action to prevent violations from taking place”.