EU members face sanctions over secret CIA prisons

The dispute over CIA detention centres threatened to open a fresh rift within Europe last night after the European Commission warned that any country found to be hosting the secret prisons could be penalised.

Meanwhile, the United States said that it needed more time to respond to allegations about the centres - the first time, at least in public, that Washington has not simply refused to comment on the issue.

Franco Frattini, the European commissioner for justice and home affairs, warned that any countries found to be allowing the CIA to operate the detention centres - part of a global secret gulag used to hold al-Qa'ida suspects and other "ghost detainees" - could have its voting rights suspended.

Three separate initiatives are under way to try to investigate the claims, which surfaced early this month and which initially appeared to implicate Poland and Romania. Since then, a number of countries have faced claims that CIA planes may have landed on their territory while transporting terrorist suspects. Evidence shows that the planes landed and refuelled in Scotland.

Speaking in Berlin, Mr Frattini reminded EU member states that breaches of human rights could be punishable by their voting rights being suspended. That sanction, under Article 7 of the EU's governing Nice Treaty, was created after the row over the far-right Freedom Party being included in Austria's coalition government in 2000.

More than three weeks after the claims surfaced, the truth behind them seems as elusive as ever. The European Commission's director general for justice and home affairs, Jonathan Faul, raised the issue with the White House and US State Department last week. Mr Frattini said: "They told him: 'Give us the appropriate time to evaluate the situation.' Right now, there is no response."

In addition, the UK presidency of the EU has written to the US to seek clarification, and the Council of Europe - the continent's human rights watchdog - has launched a formal inquiry, writing to all member countries.

Denials have come from several countries. Poland's Defence Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, said: "I am sure you have heard the firm denials of the government spokesman. There is nothing to investigate. It hasn't happened. In Sweden they had allegations and it turned out to be a wedding. Can we investigate every claim?" He added: "I have not had a letter from the Council of Europe. And I don't think intelligence matters are a responsibility of the Council of Europe anyway."

All EU member states and applicant countries are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, a charter that precludes the use of clandestine detention centres.

Mr Frattini said Romania's Interior Minister, Vasile Blaga, had also assured him that the allegations were untrue and that Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase, used by US forces to transport troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, was not used to hold or interrogate terror suspects.

The claims about Romania and Poland were made by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, a group which monitors human rights issues around the world. It said its claims were based partly on flight logs that showed planes previously identified as those used by the CIA to fly prisoners had landed at the airports at the same time as it was known high-level suspects were moved from Afghanistan.

One of the group's directors, Tom Malinowski, said the controversy was taking place because "disappearing people is not consistent with the most basic principles that democratic countries abide by".

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