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U.S.: CIA's Reported Secret Prisons Stir Debate

Accusations of prisoner abuse continue to follow the U.S. administration (AFP) Reports by the U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) and "The Washington Post" that terrorist suspects captured by the United States have been, and possibly still are being held by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in secret locations in Eastern Europe has stirred up debate on the practicality and legality of such detentions.

A member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Bob Barr, who was once a federal prosecutor, was quoted by CNN as saying that if it is true that U.S. agents are engaged in such activities, these activities "under U.S. law...would be clearly illegal."

The White House has declined to either confirm or deny the allegations, though national security adviser Stephen Hadley said on 2 November that President George W. Bush "has been very clear that we're going to do that in a way that is consistent with our values.... The United States will conduct its activities in compliance with law and international obligations." "The Washington Post" cited current and former intelligence officials as saying the arrangement of keeping prisoners outside the United States in secret locations is a central element in the battle against terrorism.

Following the reports of the secret prisons, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on 3 November demanded access to the prisoners. "We are concerned with 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," ICRC spokeswoman Antonella Notari told Reuters.

Many Countries Suspected

According to HRW, detainees were held in a number of secret locations throughout Eastern Europe. Its report included the names of towns and the identification numbers of aircraft used to transport the prisoners.

"The Times" of London on 3 November quoted HRW's Tom Malinowski as saying that one of the locations where detainees were taken is Szymany airport in Poland, an "obscure, rural airport which is very close to a Polish intelligence facility."

A second major Eastern European airport allegedly used by CIA planes carrying detainees, Malinowski said, is the Mihail-Kogalniceanu military air base in Romania.

Among the Eastern European countries mentioned in the HRW report are Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and the Czech Republic along with Afghanistan. The prisoners were allegedly brought to these countries by a Boeing 737 airplane whose flight plans were obtained by HRW.

The Czech Republic has denied taking part in this operation and a spokesman for the Polish military told Radio Polonia on 3 November: "No people suspected of terrorist activities were held in military bases on the territory of the Republic of Poland, either as a result of an agreement with the U.S. government or with any other institutions of the United States."

"There are no CIA bases in Romania," Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu told CNN.

The European Commission announced on 3 November that it would investigate the charges and if they are confirmed, would seek to punish member states who took part in the program.

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) neither denied nor confirmed the possibility that Ukraine might have been one of the sites where prisoners were jailed. The spokesperson told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that "Ukrainian prisons are the property of the Ukrainian state and are operated by the Justice Ministry."

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) also denied that any such prisoners are being held in Russia.

Who Are These Prisoners?

With every Eastern European state denying having been part of this secret operation, the credibility of the initial reports are coming under scrutiny along with the reason why the CIA would keep such prisoners in these countries in the first place.

Most reports have indicated that the majority of the prisoners were of insignificant intelligence value and those who might have had important information had already told it to interrogators and were now of lesser importance. If these reports are true, what then was the purpose of hiding them in underground dungeons in Eastern Europe and how long will they remain there?

Replying to a similar question, Dana Priest , the author of the article in "The "Washington Post" on the alleged secret prisons, said on the newspaper's website on 4 November: "I don't think the CIA or administration really thought out the question of 'how long' when they began this program. I'm not sure they have done so yet. There are plenty of intelligence people who believe these detainees will stay inside for their entire lives. There are others who believe these terrorist suspects will one day be put on trial. Some are held temporarily, but only those who turn out not to be 'high-value' terrorists. They are transferred to other countries -- like Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and other places. For how long is unclear...."

Why Hold Prisoners Overseas?

One possible reason why they were allegedly held in Eastern Europe could be that the suspects might have been subjected to torture in these secret jails and the U.S. government wanted to hide this from the public.

The recent reports coincide with criticism of the U.S. treatment of prisoners taken abroad, in particular the inmate abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghurayb Prison that has led to trials and convictions of U.S. military personnel.

Also, imprisonment in distant lands does not by any means guarantee that prisoners will be guarded as well as in the United States. The recent escape of four terrorist suspects, including Omar al-Faruq, a dangerous Iraqi who had been active in Al-Qaeda in Indonesia, from Bagram air base north of Kabul is one example (see "Afghanistan: Escape Of High-Level Al-Qaeda Member Causes Concern").

Had al-Faruq been kept in a maximum-security prison in the United States, his chances of escaping would have been far less. Indonesian officials are reportedly concerned that al-Faruq could make his way back to Indonesia and resume terrorist activities.