By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 17, 2005
BERLIN, Nov. 16 -- Several European governments have opened investigations into a fleet of CIA-operated airplanes that have crisscrossed the continent hundreds of times in recent years. The aim is to determine whether U.S. officials secretly used local airports and military bases to transfer terrorism suspects under conditions that violate local and international treaties.
This week, officials in Spain, Sweden, Norway and in the European Parliament said they had either opened formal inquiries or demanded answers from U.S. officials about CIA flights, in response to growing public opposition in Europe to U.S. anti-terrorism tactics.
In other countries, criminal probes have deepened into the alleged kidnapping of terrorism suspects by the CIA. In Italy, prosecutors last week filed a formal extradition request for 22 U.S. citizens alleged to be CIA operatives who are charged with kidnapping a radical Muslim cleric in Milan in 2003 and flying him to his native Egypt, where he said he was tortured.
A German prosecutor said Wednesday that he had opened a separate criminal investigation involving the same abduction to examine whether the CIA broke German laws by first bringing the cleric to Ramstein Air Base and forcibly detaining him there before putting him on a CIA-chartered plane to Egypt.
Another German prosecutor is conducting a third criminal probe into the disappearance of a German citizen who said he was taken into custody last year while on vacation in Macedonia and secretly imprisoned in Afghanistan by U.S. operatives who accused him of being a terrorist. The man has said he was released three months later, after his captors realized they had seized the wrong man.
In recent weeks, Ireland and Denmark have also protested the presence of CIA-operated aircraft in their countries, in response to concerns that the planes could have been transferring prisoners, either to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or to secret CIA-run prisons elsewhere in the world.
The Danish Foreign Ministry has asked the CIA to avoid Danish airspace altogether when transporting secretly held prisoners or flying for other "purposes that are incompatible with international conventions." The request came after Danish officials disclosed that a plane that had been chartered by the spy agency stopped for unknown reasons for 23 hours last March at Copenhagen airport.
The inquiries and investigations are coming partly in response to a flurry of European media reports retracing the flight plans of the airplanes, as well as a Nov. 2 Washington Post report that the CIA set up a secret prison system for terrorism suspects in eight countries, including several in Eastern Europe, since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States.
Since 2001, many European intelligence and law enforcement agencies have worked closely and quietly with the CIA to help track down members of al Qaeda and other terrorism suspects around the world. But in public, European governments are now increasingly distancing themselves from their transatlantic ally as allegations mount that the United States has employed and abetted torture and violated international law with the secret detentions.
In Spain, judicial authorities are investigating whether CIA airplanes that made more than a dozen stops on the island of Majorca and the Canary Islands in the past two years were transferring terrorism suspects. A previous inquiry by Majorcan investigators found no evidence of prisoners, but prosecutors recently decided to reopen the case.
"If it is confirmed that this is true, we would be facing very serious acts that would break the rules concerning the treatment of people in any democratic system," Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said Tuesday. "They would be very serious and intolerable acts."
European prosecutors and other officials said it was unlikely their probes would shed much light on CIA operations, much less convict U.S. operatives of criminal acts. But they said they had a duty to investigate serious allegations of wrongdoing.
Eberhard Bayer, a German prosecutor in the city of Zweibruecken, said he had opened a criminal investigation into whether CIA operatives were guilty of kidnapping, illegal restraint or coercion in the case of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, the cleric who was secretly brought to nearby Ramstein Air Base from Milan in February 2003 en route to Egypt.
Bayer said he had few leads to go on and did not know the identities of any of the Americans who allegedly had custody of Nasr while he was in Germany. He said he had queried U.S. military authorities at Ramstein.
"Now we must wait for a response, which we may not receive," he acknowledged in a telephone interview Wednesday. "If it is true that these are CIA people, I can hardly imagine that the CIA would allow its people to be extradited."
The CIA declined to comment for this report. CIA and other U.S. officials have said they carry out such operations only in countries that are political allies and whose intelligence officials grant permission.
Daniel Fried, the State Department's assistant secretary for European affairs, said Monday during a visit to Berlin that he had not heard many complaints from European officials about the CIA's anti-terrorism operations in Europe.
"It is true that these issues are debated in Europe; they are debated in the United States as well," Fried said in response to a question about the reported CIA secret jails and prisoner transfers. "The U.S. has acted and will act consistent with the law and with international norms."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.