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US tries to assure allies that extraordinary renditions are over
Financial Times
By Guy Dinmore in Washington
December 27, 2006

The US is telling its overseas allies that it has stopped "extraordinary renditions" and needs their help to empty Guantánamo's prison cells. But human rights groups dispute this assertion and a question mark hangs over 200 "war on terror" detainees who could be held indefinitely without trial.

European diplomats say Washington is reacting to pressure from parliamentary investigations, lawsuits from former prisoners, and calls by friendly governments, including the UK, to close Guantánamo, the prison camp at a US naval base in Cuba.

However, the administration's response is seen as confused and inadequate. Analysts attribute this to internal divisions over how far to roll back controversial counter-terrorism practices - including torture, secret prisons, detention without trial, and renditions - as the price for rekindling transatlantic relations.

Washington was particularly stung by a report last month by a committee of the European parliament that condemned the alleged complicity of governments in the CIA's illegal detention and transportation of prisoners.

It concluded that there were at least 1,245 overflights or stopovers by CIA aircraft in Europe, and that some probably involved prisoner transfers. Several highly publicised cases were documented.

Delegations from Europe visiting Washington since then have been assured that "extraordinary renditions" ended, or mostly ended, in 2003. US officials note that the lawsuits brought against the US by former detainees relate to events in 2003 or earlier, when even Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, has admitted that "mistakes" happened.

The European committee defined "extraordinary rendition" as an "extra-judicial practice whereby an individual suspected of involvement in terrorism is illegally abducted, arrested and/or transferred into the custody of US officials and/or transported to another country for interrogation which, in the majority of cases, involves incommunicado detention and torture".

Visiting Europeans have been told that the US reserves the right to carry out renditions, but - as Ms Rice declared in a major statement a year ago - it would respect the sovereignty of other countries and would not send detainees to countries where the US believed they might be tortured.

John Sifton, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, strongly disputes the assertion that extraordinary renditions stopped in 2003. He said there had been people arrested in 2006 who were still unaccounted for, and others transported by the US from Pakistan, outside all judicial process, to the Middle East.

Human rights groups believe there are large numbers of prisoners in US custody who are unaccounted for and were not included in the 14 transferred to Guantánamo when President George W. Bush acknowledged for the first time in September the existence of secret CIA detention facilities, which he then ordered to be closed.

The US had also crafted a concept of "constructive custody" or "proxy detention", Mr Sifton said. This involved allies, such as Pakistan, Jordan and Morocco, holding detainees at the request of the US and allowing the US free access to them.

Andrew Tyrie, a British opposition MP who recently visited Washington, said the Bush administration was engaged in a fierce debate over the impact of more controversial US practices in the wake of the September 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda. "It is vital we send a message to moderate Muslims that these practices are no longer in our armoury against terrorism," he said, adding the US was also keen to revive the strong transatlantic bonds that existed before the invasion of Iraq.

Mr Bush says he wants to close Guantánamo, which will be five years old next month. But it is far from clear how or when this will happen.

Low-risk prisoners are being sent to other countries, following complex negotiations over conditions of their release or continued detention. According to the Pentagon, about 380 prisoners have left the prison since 2002. About 395 remain, of whom some 85 are now eligible for transfer or release.

The Military Commissions Act, signed by Mr Bush in October, was intended to speed the process of putting on trial Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and other prominent militants before special tribunals. Experts believe, however, that constitutional challenges will set this back a very long time.

Believing that only some 50 detainees would be tried, allies are concerned that 200 other prisoners, designated as high-risk, would be detained indefinitely without trial and barred from challenging their detention in the federal courts. Complicating the process is Washington's fear that releasing more detainees will lead to a flood of legal cases against the US.

Diplomats say Ms Rice has been influential in advocating change to detention policies she sees as damaging relations with allies, while Dick Cheney, vice-president, and David Addington, his chief of staff, are seen as obstacles. The removal of Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary this month may have undermined the hardliners, however.

"We have no desire to be the world's jailer and do not hold detainees for any longer than necessary," said Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.

But he also said there was a "significant amount of evidence" to justify holding "unlawful enemy combatants" and prevent their return to the battlefield.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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