CIA flights likened to the work of gangsters

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The Independent Online

The United States was accused of "gangster tactics" yesterday, and European governments were accused of turning a blind eye to the "outsourcing of torture", as a human rights watchdog concluded that the CIA conducted illegal anti-terror activities in Europe.

Dick Marty, a Swiss parliamentarian conducting a formal inquiry, said evidence pointed to a system of "relocation" of torture of terror suspects, and that reliable indications suggested secret interrogation centres may have existed in Europe.

The document highlighted cases under legal investigation in Europe involving an Egyptian cleric, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, who disappeared from Milan in 2003, and a Lebanese-born German, Khaled el-Masri, who was abducted in Macedonia last year and flown to Afghanistan where he was held for four months.

Mr Marty said he was "scandalised that a few kilometres from where I live people can be lifted by foreign governments. When someone goes on holiday in Macedonia they are lifted by foreign agents."

He added: "If a government has to resort to gangster tactics - I say 'no'."

Speaking to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights watchdog, Mr Marty revealed he had received flight logs, archived by the Brussels-based air safety organisation Eurocontrol, that could show the route of CIA-sponsored flights.

However, Mr Marty's interim report yesterday uncovered little unpublished evidence and prompted immediate criticism from British parliamentarians.

The row over CIA activities has raised transatlantic tensions, leaving European governments apparently embarrassed. Mr Marty's interim findings argued there was "a great deal of coherent, convergent evidence pointing to the existence of a system of 'relocation' or 'outsourcing' of torture'. It is highly unlikely that European governments, or at least their intelligence services, were unaware," he added.

The report suggested that more than 100 terror suspects may have been transferred to countries where they faced torture or ill-treatment in recent years. "Acts of torture or severe violation of detainees' dignity through the administration of inhuman or degrading treatment are carried outside national territory and beyond the authority of national intelligence services," the report said.

With more information coming to light over suspected CIA flights across EU airspace, Mr Marty also accused some European governments of showing more interest in conducting leak inquiries than in pursuing the truth.

The allegations that sparked the investigation surfaced in the US press last November with claims of the existence of secret CIA prisons thought to be in Poland and Romania.

Mr Marty conceded there is "no formal, irrefutable evidence" they were set up. But he said there were "many indications from various sources that must be considered reliable, justifying the continuation of the investigative work".

Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who appeared at yesterday's session, said he had "direct experience that the governments of the UK and the US are willing to accept intelligence obtained by foreign intelligence agencies under torture". He said he was satisfied people had been held in "pre-existing American bases as part of rendition".

But he argued: "I have not yet seen anything that convinces me that the there has been a kind of purposefully constructed detention centre in either Poland or Romania."

Though Mr Marty has, so far, failed to uncover any significant new evidence, he has raised the profile of the rendition issue, raising pressure on national government to answer questions.

The secretary general of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, has invoked article 52 of the European Convention to ask all his 46 member nations to reply to a series of questions on the claims by 21 February.

Moreover, the European Parliament has launched its own investigation and Franco Frattini, European commissioner for justice and home affairs, called on EU member states to co-operate with the investigation.

Critics accuse Mr Marty of grandstanding. Denis MacShane, former Europe minister, said: "The report has more holes than a Swiss cheese. I have read it carefully and there is nothing new, no proof, no witness statement, no document that justifies the claims made."