EU countries 'turned a blind eye to rendition'

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Britain, Germany and Italy were among 13 EU countries that turned a blind eye to the CIA's secret movement of terror suspects, MEPs said yesterday in a report that condemned European collusion in rendition flights.

MEPs said the US operated 1,245 covert flights, some of which took suspects to states where they could face torture. However, they voted to water down earlier drafts of the report which specifically criticised Geoff Hoon, Britain's Europe Minister and former Secretary of State for Defence.

Labour MEPs backed the final document after a passage condemning him for failing to co-operate with the investigation was removed from the text.

The report, which followed a year-long inquiry, said it was unlikely that European governments were unaware of rendition activities on their territory - something the British government, among others, has always denied.

The inquiry produced no significant new evidence and failed to establish whether or not the CIA operated secret detention centres in Europe. However, Britain's record was severely criticised in the final document which noted that CIA-operated aircraft made 170 stopovers at UK airports and expressed "serious concern about the purpose of those flights which came from or were bound for countries linked with extraordinary rendition".

MEPs also expressed "concern" about Foreign Office legal opinion, given by Michael Wood, suggesting that receiving or possessing information extracted under torture is not prohibited per se by UN Conventions.

Despite visits by the committees to several countries, allegations of secret CIA prisons in Europe remain unproven. MEPs concluded "it is not possible to acknowledge or deny that secret detention centres were based in Poland", one of the countries suspected of permitting the practice. They added: "No definitive evidence has been provided to contradict any of the allegations concerning the running of a secret detention facility on Romanian soil."

In some cases, the report said: "Temporary secret detention facilities in European countries may have been located at US military bases." It added that there may have been "a lack of control" over such bases by European host countries.

The document also noted that "secret detention facilities" can also include places where somebody is held incommunicado, such as a hotel room.

While Mr Hoon escaped criticism in the final version, the same cannot be said of other senior European politicians who were judged not to have co-operated fully.

MEPs complained about "omissions" in statements made by the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, concerning discussions on anti-terrorism with the US. Similar complaints were levelled against EU counter-cerrorism co-ordinator Gijs de Vries, who, MEPs concluded, was "unable to give satisfactory answers".

National governments were the main object of criticism, however. Liberal Democrat MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford, vice-chair of the investigating committee, said: "The onslaught from EU governments using 'their' MEPs to try to weaken the report is a tribute to its quality and force."

Claude Moraes, a Labour MEP on the committee, argued the report "set a human-rights standard". Giovanni Fava, the Italian socialist who drafted it, said: "This report doesn't allow anyone to look the other way. We must be vigilant that what has been happening in the past five years may never happen again."

However, centre-right MEP Jas Gawronski said the committee "found precious little evidence to back the long list of allegations... about wrongdoing by member states, which have been adopted as hard facts."