EU promises inquiry into CIA's 'gulag'

The claims provoked an angry reaction from European politicians and, if true, could delay Romania's accession tothe EU.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had asked the United States about the allegations and requested access to the prisons, if they exist. The commission and the Council of Europe said they would try to establish if the claims were true.

Human Rights Watch says the CIA used a secret detention centre to interrogate suspects outside the reach of US law and away from official oversight. Using the flight logs of a Boeing 757 jet, the New York-based group said the plane flew from Kabul to Szymany airport, north of Warsaw and close to a training base for Polish intelligence, then to a military airbase near the Romanian military port of Constanta. The allegations surfaced in the Washington Post which did not name the nations involved, identifying them only as former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe.

Both countries have tried to dispel the reports, though their denials did not appear totally categorical. The Romanian Premier, Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, said: "I repeat: We do not have CIA bases in Romania." An aide to the Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said authorities there had "no information" of such facilities on its territory.

Poland, as an EU member state, is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, and by the EU's governing treaty, whose Article Six demands respect for basic rights. In theory, a risk of persistent breach of these rights could lead to Poland being stripped of its voting rights in the EU, though that seems a remote possibility.

But Romania faces a more pressing problem because its bid to join the EU is at a delicate stage. Last week the commission warned that its accession might be delayed by a year from the planned date of 2007 because of problems that include failure to root out corruption. All countries wishing to join the EU must abide by the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which enshrine basic human rights. The new allegations could prove highly damaging to its prospects of joining. Friso Roscam Abbing, a spokes-man for the commission, said: "The Copenhagen criteria are clear. I don't think secret prisons would be compatible with this."

Claude Moraes, a Labour MEP who is on the European Parliament's justice and home affairs committee, called for action by the EU's foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, and the UK presidency of the EU. He said: "If there is hard evidence that this has happened, it does give solid ground for demanding a delay [for Romania]. It is the straw that breaks the camel's back."

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