By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 4, 2005
THE HAGUE, Nov. 3 The International Committee of the Red Cross, the European Union and human rights groups said Thursday they would press the U.S. and European governments for information about the reported existence of secret prisons in Eastern Europe, where the CIA has detained top al Qaeda captives.
Government officials across that region issued denials Thursday that their countries hosted the prisons, which some European officials contend would violate local human rights laws. But the revelation, reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday, captured headlines across the continent and led human-rights organizations to call for official investigations.
The Post reported that the CIA had been interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda prisoners at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe. The classified site is part of a global network of covert prisons the CIA established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with locations in eight countries, including Afghanistan, Thailand and several East European democracies.
In Brussels, a spokesman for the European Union, Friso Roscam Abbing, said that the E.U. would query its 25 member states to find out more about the prisons. Their existence, he said, could violate the European Convention on Human Rights and the international Convention Against Torture, treaties that all E.U. nations are bound to follow.
"We have to find out what is exactly happening," Roscam Abbing told reporters. "We have all heard about this."
Later Thursday, senior E.U. officials appeared to put a damper on any kind of official inquiry. Justice commissioner Franco Frattini said in a statement that the E.U. had no information on the Post report and it was therefore "not appropriate" for him to comment. Noting that the 25 E.U. countries are bound by human rights and anti-torture conventions, he said he would "encourage member states to look into this matter."
It is illegal for the U.S. government to hold prisoners in such isolation in secret prisons in the United States, which is why the CIA placed them overseas, according to several former and current intelligence officials and other U.S. officials. American legal experts and intelligence officials said that the CIA's internment practices would be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries.
The Post has not identified the East European countries involved in the secret program at the request of senior U.S. officials who argued that the disclosure could disrupt counterterrorism efforts. But the report has prompted a concerted effort by European news organizations and other groups to try to pinpoint the locations.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said it had obtained flight logs showing that a CIA-chartered aircraft had used airstrips in Poland and Romania in 2003, around the same time that the United States was transporting top al Qaeda prisoners from Afghanistan to other locations, including the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Romanian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying it "was not aware that such a detention center existed" at the air base identified by Human Rights Watch. Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu was more direct: "We do not have CIA bases in Romania," he said on state television.
In Poland, undergoing a change in government after recent elections, current and former officials denied that the country was involved in the prison system.
In Russia, a number of news organizations reported on the Post story on their Web sites. Some headlines compared the CIA prisons to the Soviet gulag, the infamous network of prison camps. "Secret network of jails -- heritage of Gulag?" read the headline on the news site www.regions.ru. The headline on www.utro.ru read: "The Washington Post: CIA has created a new GULAG." Russian officials denied there were CIA prisons in their country.
In Geneva, the Red Cross said Thursday it has repeated a request to the U.S. government to allow the humanitarian organization to visit terrorism suspects held in isolation at secret locations. The Red Cross is allowed to visit prisoners held by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay but has previously expressed concern that U.S. officials were keeping some detainees hidden from its monitors.
"We are concerned at the fate of an unknown number of people captured as part of the so-called global war on terror and held at undisclosed places of detention," Antonella Notari, chief ICRC spokeswoman, told the Reuters news service.
Europe's leading human-rights organization, the Council of Europe, said it would open an investigation into the East European prisons.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee and the U.N. special rapporteur on torture said they have already been pressing the U.S. government to disclose the existence of any secret detention centers and would renew their efforts in response to the reports of the CIA prisons.
Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow contributed to this report.