EU was aware of rendition, says Powell

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The Independent Online

European governments, including Britain's, were under growing pressure last night to reveal the extent of their involvement in controversial US "extraordinary renditions".

Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, said that statements of ignorance by European leaders such Jack Straw about the transport, detention and torture of suspects were not believable.

"There's a little bit of the movie Casablanca in this, where, you know, the inspector says, 'I'm shocked, shocked that this kind of thing [gambling] takes place'," he said in the interview with Sir David Frost.

Speaking on the BBC's World TV channel yesterday, Mr Powell criticised the US's European allies for feigning ignorance of rendition, and dismissed suggestions that governments were surprised that their airports may have been involved in rendition.

"Most of our European friends cannot be shocked that this kind of thing takes place. The fact is that we have, over the years, had procedures in place that would deal with people who are responsible for terrorist activities, or suspected terrorist activities, and so the thing that is called rendition is not something that is new or unknown to my European friends."

Mr Powell's comments have placed more pressure on European governments to reveal just how much they really know. When fresh details emerged last month that British airports may have been used as refuelling stops by planes involved in renditions, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, wrote to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, asking for clarification.

Last weekend, Poland joined a long list of European countries to announce an investigation into whether terrorist suspects have been transported or held within their borders.

Separate investigations by both reporters and human rights organisations have suggested that the CIA ran secret prisons, known as "black sites", in Poland and Romania. Both countries have denied the accusation, but critics say it is unlikely that host governments would be wholly ignorant of foreign detention centres.

Although rendition has largely been seen as an American "war on terror" initiative, European countries have also used it to return suspects. In 1994, French intelligence captured the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal in Sudan and rendered him to France to face trial for a string of attacks in the 1970s.

A parliamentary investigation in Sweden recently revealed that Swedish police were involved in the rendition of two Egyptian asylum-seekers 10 months after the 11 September attacks. Ahmad Agiza and Muhammad al-Zahry were allegedly flown by the CIA to Egypt after Swedish authorities had difficulty finding a plane to transport them.

Both say they were tortured in Egyptian custody. Mr Zahry has since been released, but is banned from leaving the country or talking to reporters. Mr Agiza remains in prison.

Some have argued that participation in "extraordinary rendition" could make European governments complicit in torture. In May this year, the UN's committee against torture ruled that Sweden had broken international treaties in its involvement with the rendition of Mr Agiza and Mr Zahry.

Allegations from a Guantanamo detainee who grew up in Britain suggest that European governments could be actively working with the US in their interrogations. Ethiopian-born Binyam Muhammad, rendered between Morocco, Pakistan and Afghanistan before arriving in Cuba, has said through his lawyer that questions asked during his interrogation could only have come from British sources.

Colin Powell accepted that allegations over rendition can damage a country's global image. "The United States is going through a period right now where public opinion world-wide is against us."I think that's a function of some of the policies we have followed in recent years with respect to Iraq and in not solving the Middle East's problem, and perhaps the way in which we have communicated our views to the rest of the world. We have created an impression that we are unilateralist, we don't care what the rest of the world thinks. I don't think that's a fair impression." Pressure on the United Sates, likewise, to reveal more about where and how it holds terror suspects increased following further suggestions today that that the US operated a secret "dark prison" in Kabul as recently as last year.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch released fresh allegations from a number of Guantanamo detainees who claim to have been held in complete darkness while being bombarded with loud music in a prison five minutes from the main airport. Binyam Muhammad is one of the inmates who claims to have spent time there.

Speaking through his lawyer, he told Human Rights Watch: "The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night ... Plenty lost their minds".

The allegations are consistent with a video of four detainees who escaped from Bagram last July obtained by the Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya, who say they were held in a "dark prison" in Kabul.

"The US government must shed some light on Kabul's 'dark prison,'" said John Sifton, terrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. "No one, no matter their alleged crime, should be held in secret prisons or subjected to torture."

* US Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Iraq for the first time since the 2003 invasion yesterday. Mr Cheney, a chief architect of the war, met Iraqi politicians in an eight-hour visit.