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U.S.: Rice Defends Terror Practices As Europe Faces Tough Questions

Condoleezza Rice and Angela Merkel on 6 December (epa) U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Europe today for talks that are expected to address the reported use of European airports for the transit of terrorist suspects, and whether the United States has been operating secret prisons for terrorist suspects on European soil. Rice yesterday gave a spirited defense of U.S. antiterrorism activities, but she did not directly address those issues. Could such activities have occurred without the knowledge of European governments and intelligence agencies?

Prague, 6 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Condoleezza Rice's trip to Europe appears likely to raise as many questions as it answers concerning the dispute surrounding the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) alleged movement of terror suspects in and out of Europe.

"The Washington Post" ran a story recently in which it said the CIA has been operating secret detention camps in Eastern Europe and Asia. The issue has escalated, with European Union officials demanding to know what has been happening in EU member and candidate states.

The allegations are that the CIA has been transporting these suspects to secret destinations, some in countries that are known to use torture as a method of interrogation. Any complicity in that would violate EU human rights commitments.

Rice raised the stakes for Europeans in a lengthy speech she gave just before leaving for Europe yesterday. She strongly defended the Bush administration's policies on handling terror suspects, saying they have helped to prevent terror attacks everywhere, and in no circumstances involved torture. She repeated that assertion today in Berlin.

"The United States does not condone torture," Rice said. "It is against U.S. law to be involved in torture or conspiracy to commit torture. And it is also against U.S. international obligations. And the president has made it very clear that U.S. personnel will operate within U.S. law and within our international obligations."

"Flying detainees to countries where they may face torture or other ill-treatment is a direct and outright breach of international law -- with or without so-called 'diplomatic assurances,"' Amnesty International spokesman

But in her remarks yesterday, she also touched on the practice of rendition. Rendition, as Rice uses the word, means an agreement between two countries to send an individual without legal formalities to a designated destination, possibly a third country.

"There have long been many other cases where, for some reason, the local government cannot detain or prosecute a suspect and traditional extradition is not a good option," Rice said. "In those cases, the local government can make the sovereign choice to cooperation in a rendition. Such renditions are permissible under international law and are consistent with the responsibilities of those governments to protect their citizens."

The question is, have European governments been aware of U.S. actions? In her speech yesterday, Rice suggested that they were. If that's true, human rights activists say these countries would be breaching EU norms.

"Flying detainees to countries where they may face torture or other ill-treatment is a direct and outright breach of international law -- with or without so-called 'diplomatic assurances,"' Amnesty International spokesman James Dyson said. "Condoleezza Rice said that the U.S. government seeks such assurances on treatment from receiving nations. We believe they are completely meaningless, [because] countries known for systematic torture regularly deny such practices."

The German government, for one, is under a lot of pressure to admit what it knows. Rice has been visiting Germany today, and German federal parliamentarians are demanding that the government disclose any details of U.S. handling of prisoners in Germany.

At a press conference today in Berlin, Rice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel steered away from the general topic of rendition. But they did refer directly to the case of one individual, Lebanese-born German citizen Khaled Masri, who disappeared in Macedonia two years ago. He reappeared in Germany five months later, claiming to have been abducted by U.S. agents and sent to a detention center in Afghanistan.

Merkel told journalists that the United States has admitted to a "mistake" in the Masri affair. "We actually talked about that one particular case, and the U.S. administration has admitted that this man was taken erroneously," she said. "And as such, the U.S. administration is not denying that a mistake has taken place. I am also pleased to note that the U.S. secretary of state has said that if such a mistake occurs, it must be rectified."

Now, Masri is suing the CIA.

EU member Ireland, a neutral country, is also the subject of speculation. Amnesty International says it has documented some 50 landings of CIA aircraft at Shannon Airport in the past four years.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern last week implied the government knew nothing of this. He urged anyone with evidence of such flights to come forward, and said he would investigate immediately. Rice had previously assured Ahern that Shannon was not being used for prisoner transit.

However, in response, Amnesty International was able to publish the types, registration numbers, and arrival details of what it said were CIA aircraft. Amnesty said the list of departures did not match the list of arrivals, indicating the planes were flying to destinations that they did not want to disclose.

It said the flight log of one of these planes showed visits to Afghanistan, Morocco, Dubai, Jordan, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Azerbaijan, and the Czech Republic.

Amnesty spokesman Dyson said the Europeans must do more to establish what is happening. "We are calling on European countries to investigate promptly and thoroughly the allegations," he said. "It is quite clearly not enough to say we have no evidence that this occurs. They need to get out there and investigate these flights that are coming into their sovereign territory, and they have responsibility under international law for this."

European Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini has warned that any EU member state found to have cooperated with practices contrary to European human rights laws may be suspended from voting in the bloc.

Romania and Poland are seen as the most likely sites for any secret CIA camps in Europe, should such sites actually exist. The leaders of both countries have repeatedly denied playing host to such camps.

"There is no evidence concerning either prisons or flights belonging to the CIA in Romania," Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu said in Brussels yesterday. "We are very open concerning any kind of investigation concerning these allegations. But for the moment, there is no evidence of this even in the international media. There are simply only allegations."

Rice is due to visit Romania later today as part of her European tour.

A report carried by ABC-TV suggests that any evidence of secret camps may now be hard to find. The network quoted CIA sources as saying the detention centers in Eastern Europe were closed in November and their inmates transported to North Africa.