C.I.A. Flights

Outsourcing Justice?

E.U. Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana talks during a joint press conference with former human rights commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles (not pictured) on the C.I.A.'s alleged illegal activities in Europe at the Council of Europe in May. (Photo: John Thys / AFP-Getty Images)

Khaled El Masri claims to have been seeing a lot of Europe lately. And it hasn't been through going on holiday. El Masri, a German citizen, says he was seized by the C.I.A. in Macedonia. He claims he was beaten, drugged and flown to a C.I.A. prison in Afghanistan. The C.I.A. then released him close to where he says he was abducted in what they acknowledge was a case of mistaken identity.

El Masri is not alone. In 2005, the Washington Post first reported that the C.I.A. had "black sites" in Eastern Europe — secret interrogation centers where subjects have allegedly been tortured. Since then there have been a series of reports that European airports have been used for "extraordinary renditions." In an extraordinary rendition, terror suspects are sent for interrogation in third countries, where they have no legal protection or rights under American law. In response, a European Parliamentary committee has been set up to probe these allegations. The results could have an impact on the European-U.S. relationship, and erode Europe's position as a protector of human rights.

Hunting Planes

One of the members of the European Parliament (M.E.P.) on the committee is Dutch M.E.P. Sophia in 't Veld. The picture of the affair they have built up is "astounding," she says. "It appears that the U.S. has had carte blanche regarding intelligence operations in the E.U. ever since 9-11." In its draft report, the committee builds up a picture of more than 1,000 secret flights flown over European soil.

So what are the legal implications? According to Eurocontrol, the European flight organization, the plane used for the alleged abduction of El Masri flew from Kabul to Poland and Romania and then on to the detention facility in Guantanamo. It is secret flights like this, argues Claudio Fava, the Italian M.E.P. who authored the committee's first report, which means European governments are breaching their obligations under international law that requires flights to declare their route, destination and the names of their passengers.

Furthermore, the E.U. member states are signatories of the European Convention of Human Rights (E.C.H.R.). In 't Veld explains:

"In the war on terror, Europe and the U.S. share information. But when the U.S. gathers intelligence through torture and then shares it with E.U. member states, it makes us complicit and in violation of these treaties."

Eyes Wide Shut

While the E.U. commission has been up in arms about the affair, individual governments have been more reticent about providing information. In April 2006, Macedonia's interior minister dismissed as mere speculation the idea El Masri was abducted from his country. Trying to find out about bilateral relations with the U.S. has proved difficult. For while national parliamentary inquiries are now under way in the U.K., Belgium and Sweden, governments have been reluctant to share information with the committee.

"The problem is that foreign policy is still a national matter," says In 't Veld.

In the case of Holland, In 't Veld explains, "It is well known that planes that landed at Schiphol Airport have also been spotted in Guantanamo, Libya and Egypt. These places are linked to the torture of detainees. So why were these planes in Amsterdam? In response to our questions, the Dutch government gave us official statements regarding 'the coordinated effort in the war on terror.' It seems to me that the Dutch government has a completely misplaced trust in the operations of the Americans."

With regard to the black sites, In 't Veld says that the committee has not been able to prove their existence. But she continues: "the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, recently stated: these black sites exist, we know of disappeared detainees, we don't know where they are. They are held in unknown places so by definition, these 'black-sites' exist."


Much of Europe is horrified by what is being discovered. An Italian court has issued Europe-wide arrest warrants for 22 supposed C.I.A. suspects purportedly involved in abducting Abu Omar, a cleric seized, without Italian permission, in 2003. Roberto Castelli, the former Italian justice minister, refused an extradition request for the agents last month.

The horrified response of the European governments should be taken with a large pinch of salt. In 't Veld explains, "they knew what was going on, and if they didn't they are completely incompetent! Look at the case of Abu Omar, an Egyptian who was abducted, tortured and then released. He was being shadowed by the Italian secret service for some time and then was suddenly arrested in Milan by 25 C.I.A. agents! Surely the Italians must have known what the C.I.A. was up to!" The Council of Europe report by Dick Marty has also concluded that European governments knew about the secret prison flights and Colin Powell has recently said that the Europeans are being disingenuous when claiming not to know about the flights.

A Rabid Dog on a Long Leash

Jans Wiersma, a Dutch M.E.P. working on the committee, explains that what shocked him is not so much "what the Americans have undertaken but the willingness from the European side to assist them without questioning all the means that are used."

The committees interim draft report claims that there was not just isolated violations of human rights but "rather a widespread regular practice, in which the majority of European countries were involved," Claudio Fava was quoted as saying.

The final report of the committee is due in January, but whatever the results, the affair already has profound implications for Europe. At what point does Europe's allegiance to America stop? Europe's efforts around the world to improve the human rights records of other countries may soon have a hollow ring.