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Satellites may aid 'CIA prisons' probe
Gilbert Reilhac
November 25, 2005

BERLIN - The Council of Europe pledged Friday to unearth the truth behind allegations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), operated covert prisons in Europe and secretly transported terrorist suspects through European airports.

A report presented in Bucharest by the chairman of the council's Legal Affairs Committee, Swiss liberal Dick Marty, suggested that satellite images could be used to determine whether the CIA had constructed or dismantled prison facilities.

Marty said he had requested technical support from the European Union's satellite centre in Spain. He has also called on Eurocontrol, the European air traffic organisation, to provide details on the movements of 31 planes which the CIA are alleged to have used since 2002 to secretly transport terrorist suspects through U.S. airbases in Europe.

In a statement issued in Bucharest, the Council of Europe made clear that, while it would not go as far as imposing sanctions, it would get to the truth of the matter.

"Even in the name of the war against terror the inhumane and illegal arrest and secret transportation of prisoners in Europe cannot and will not be tolerated," the statement said.

Marty began his investigation at the start of November following a report in the Washington Post that the U.S. had established eight secret prisons in Poland, Romania and several other eastern European countries.

Polish and Romanian authorities, along with Czech, Georgian, Latvian and Armenian officials have denied the claims.

The countries named in the Washington Post report are all members of the Council of Europe, prompting its secretary-general Terry Davis to launch his own investigation.

Council members must uphold the European Human Rights Convention which forbids the secret transport and torture of prisoners.

U.S. human rights organization Human Rights Watch also claims that since 2002 the CIA has had secret internment facilities in Poland and Romania where al-Qaeda terrorist suspects have been interrogated.

According to reports by Human Rights Watch, Romania's Mihail Kogalniceanu air base on the Black Sea coast and Timisoara airport in the west of the country were allegedly used as stopover points in the secret transport by the CIA of Islamist prisoners.

The Council of Europe on Thursday demanded that Romanian authorities conduct an inquiry into the claims. Romania however has repeatedly rejected the allegations.

Nevertheless Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu told Council of Europe delegates meeting in Bucharest Friday that his country welcomed the council investigation, although he said he considered the issue a "minor matter".

The claims were unfounded and Romania had already issued an official denial, Ungureanu told local media.

He said the Romanian embassy in Washington had approached Human Rights Watch for proof of its allegations but had not yet received a reply. Meanwhile the list of countries reportedly linked to the controversy continued to grow.

Poland reiterated its denial Friday following a report in Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper, citing American secret service sources, confirming the presence of a clandestine U.S. prison in Poland.

Polish Defence Minister Radoslav Sikorski told foreign journalists in Warsaw Friday that "there is nothing to investigate - nothing happened."

The Handelsblatt report also claimed that the CIA was flying terrorist suspects through U.S. airbases in Germany without informing German authorities.

The report, quoting a source described as a "high-ranking" intelligence official, mentioned the Ramstein base, the largest U.S. military base in Europe, and the Rhein-Main airbase near Frankfurt.

"The CIA aircraft have made stopovers in various European countries, among others Germany," the source said. "Nothing has changed in this regard."

The newspaper said German authorities had assumed the practice had ceased.

The German government refused to comment, saying the European Union had delegated British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to clear up the matter.

The information could be relevant to a court case in Germany over the alleged abduction of Muslim cleric Imam Hassan Mustafa Osma Nasr in Rome in February 2003.

CIA agents were alleged to have flown the imam via Ramstein, where he was apparently switched to a different aircraft.

The Berliner Zeitung, a daily in the German capital, reported Friday that the Rhein-Main Airbase, had been used for a large number of secret CIA flights between 2002 and 2004.

The paper based its report largely on information from plane spotters, whose hobby involves identifying aircraft.

The newspaper said its research revealed 85 takeoffs and landings by CIA aircraft and that flight records showed many of the flights had originated in, or flown on to, Baghdad, Kabul, Amman and Pakistani destinations.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said Thursday that the U.S. had contested claims that the CIA had secretly transported prisoners through Spanish territory. He said Washington had assured Madrid that CIA planes landing in Spain were not carrying terrorist suspects.

Meanwhile the Portuguese daily Diario de Noticias said Friday that 34 suspicious flights, possibly operating on behalf of the CIA, made stopovers in Portugal between June 2002 and July 2004.

One of the flights was heading for Guantanamo, Cuba where the U.S. has a prison camp. The planes were officially on commercial flights and did not undergo controls during their stopovers in Portugal. The Portuguese government said it was not aware of any suspicious flights.

The media reports have also prompted Nordic countries to contact U.S. officials. The Swedish government has ordered a probe into possible CIA plane stopovers with a report on the findings due on December 8.

Norway said it does not regard the matter as a major issue but nevertheless has held talks with U.S. embassy officials while Denmark has said it will also investigate the case in line with the Council of Europe decision.

Finland is investigating a May 2003 stopover, while information from Iceland suggests that three planes linked to the CIA made four stopovers in Greenland during 2003 and 2004. STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Satellite images could help determine if the CIA ran secret prisons in Europe, according to a Swiss lawmaker who is drawing up a report on the issue for the Council of Europe human rights watchdog.

The Washington Post newspaper reported this month the CIA had been interrogating suspected al Qaeda captives at a secret facility in eastern Europe that was part of a covert global prison system with sites in eight countries.

The Council of Europe has opened an investigation into the allegations, which Washington has refused to confirm or deny. EU states agreed on Monday to write a joint letter to the United States seeking clarification about the allegations.

Dick Marty, who hopes to present his report to the council's parliamentary assembly in January, said he had contacted the EU Satellite Center, based in Torrejon de Ardoz in Spain.

"With the help of precise geographic coordinates which I have obtained, it would be possible to obtain high-definition satellite images taken between the beginning of 2002 and now," he said in a note published on Friday.

The EU Satellite Center confirmed it had been in contact with Marty but an official at the center told Reuters: "The center is not working on this task."

U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch has identified Romania and EU member Poland as countries that may have been used by the CIA in the alleged secret operation. Both countries have denied the charge.

Marty said the group had given him specific locations which might have been used as detention centers in those countries.


The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Alvaro Gil Robles, separately raised questions about a detention center used by the U.S. Army in Kosovo, although he said he could establish no clear link to the CIA prison reports.   

He told the French newspaper Le Monde he had been shocked by the detention center in Camp Bondsteel during a visit in 2002.

"The place looked like a reconstruction of Guantanamo on a small scale," he said. "(The prisoners) were mostly sitting, some locked up in isolation cells. Some of them were bearded. Some were reading the Koran."

Drawing a comparison with the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Le Monde said prisoners had had no access to lawyers.

"I cannot establish a link between (the reports on the CIA prisons) and Camp Bondsteel, because I have no concrete elements on this matter," Gil Robles said, but he added that he thought explanations were needed over the base in Kosovo.

Marty said he intended to ask Eurocontrol, the European civil and military organization responsible for the safety of air navigation, to follow up Human Rights Watch's allegations that prisoners illegally detained by American secret service might have passed through some European airports in transit. His note said 31 airplanes were in question.

"We want to establish the truth," he said.

The Council's 46 members include Poland and Romania.

Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz said on Thursday allegations that Polish airports had been used by CIA flights would be investigated. Romania says it will allow investigations at two military bases to show they were not used.

(additional reporting by Swaha Pattanaik)

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