European governments probably knew that the CIA was flying prisoners across their territory for interrogation and torture in other countries, a report claimed today.
Allegations that special American flights transported terrorist suspects to Europe to be questioned were first raised in the Washington Post last November.
Now an interim report from the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe confirms the "rendition" of more than 100 prisoners "affecting Europe".
But it concludes there is no firm evidence so far of the existence in any European country of secret CIA detention centres said to have been set up after the terrorist attacks on America on September 11 2001.
The Council of Europe is the guardian of the Human Rights Convention to which 43 countries, including all 25 EU member states, are signatories.
It appointed Swiss MP Dick Marty to head the its inquiry and, in his " interim assessment" published today, he declared: "It is highly unlikely that European governments, or at least their intelligence services, were unaware of the 'rendition' of more than a hundred persons affecting Europe."
He said there was "a great deal of coherent, convergent evidence pointing to the existence of a system of 'relocation' or 'outsourcing' of torture", adding: "It has been proved - and in fact never denied - that individuals have been abducted, deprived of their liberty and transported ... in Europe, to be handed over to countries in which they have suffered ... torture."
But there was not "at this stage", any "formal, irrefutable evidence of the existence of secret CIA detention centres in Romania, Poland or any other country".
The civil liberties group Human Rights Watch suggested CIA jails exist in Romania and Poland, although Romania's Interior Minister Vasil Blaga has flatly denied their presence in his country.
After the original claims last November, the UK Foreign Office raised the issue in Washington on behalf of the EU.
Spain, Sweden and Iceland have also been studying reports that CIA planes stopped in their territory while transporting terror suspects.
And last week the European Parliament announced its own inquiry into the claims to see if their had been any human rights breaches.
Only yesterday Mr Marty received detailed information from Eurocontrol, Europe's air traffic agency, as well as satellite images from the EU's Satellite Centre, including sites located on Romanian territory.
"We will not be able to pronounce on the importance and the scope of this information until later," he said.
Meanwhile today's report cites the specific case of Egyptian political refugee Abu Omar, abducted in central Milan in June 2003. His was undoubtedly the best-known and best-documented case of "extraordinary rendition", said Mr Marty.
Via military airbases in Italy and Germany, he was flown to Egypt where he was tortured before being released and re-arrested. "The Italian judicial investigation established, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the operation was carried out by the CIA (which has not issued any denials)," said Mr Marty's report.
The presumed leader of the abduction worked as the American consul in Milan and was in Egypt for two weeks immediately after Omar was handed over to the Egyptian authorities.
It may be safely inferred, said the report, that the American took part, "in one way or another", in Omar's interrogation.
Mr Marty said Omar was in any case under surveillance by Milan police for suspected Islamic militancy.
The police were "probably" on the verge of uncovering an activist network operating in northern Italy. But Abu Omar's abduction sabotaged the Italian surveillance operation "and thereby dealt a blow to anti-terrorist action".
The report asks: "Is it conceivable or possible that an operation of that kind, with deployment of resources on that scale in a friendly country that was an ally (being a member of the coalition in Iraq), was carried out without the national authorities - or at least Italian opposite numbers - being informed?"
The report says "rendition" of prisoners must be carried out in accordance with legal procedure: "It cannot be overemphasised that nothing and no one can justify waiving the principles of the rule of law and respect for human rights and that torture, in addition to being an unreliable way of obtaining information, is in any case absolutely prohibited."
It adds: "Frank, open dialogue between the institutions on both sides of the Atlantic is necessary, indeed absolutely vital, if we wish to implement the most effective means of combating the new threats facing us. This can only be achieved if one side answers the questions and the other is genuinely prepared to ask them."
On the UK's position, the report says the campaigning group Liberty " threatened the government with legal action for facilitating and colluding in use of torture if there was not an immediate enquiry into the very large number of flights and overflights by CIA-chartered planes and the possible use of certain UK airports".
The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in reply to a parliamentary question in December last year that a thorough search of the relevant logs had not found any CIA request to use British airports in connection with transport of suspects.
"According to an internal memorandum dated December 2005, attributed to the private office of the foreign affairs minister and published by the New Statesman on 19 January 2006, the British Government intends to take the following approach to the problem: extraordinary renditions are usually illegal, but complete confidence should be placed in the assurances provided by Ms Condoleezza Rise during her trip to Europe.
"The British press made a point of accusing the Government of duplicity. It remains to be seen whether the memorandum does indeed reflect the Government's official attitude. On 20 January I (Dick Marty) also received, from Mr Angus Robertson MP, a detailed report of numerous suspect movements of aircraft transiting through Scotland."
The Labour MEP Claude Moraes, a member of the European Parliament inquiry which opens on Thursday, said: "This report by Mr Marty establishes that there is a case for European governments to answer.
"It may not be conclusive so far, but there clearly is an issue to resolve on rendition flights, although on the question of secret prisons in Europe and torture there is far more work to be done."
Mr Moraes said the report gave strong momentum to the European's Parliament's own inquiry.
"Some people have said that our inquiry is too late behind the Council of Europe, but in fact it is very timely: the Council of Europe is a highly-respected institution, but the European Parliament report will have political clout because the people sitting on it have been directly elected.
"The fact that the Council of Europe says there is a case to answer only reinforces the fact that we must have our own inquiry. If the Council of Europe had found nothing, then the need for our own might have been called into question."Reuse content