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RIGHTS: Questions in Portugal About CIA Flights to Guantanamo

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Apr 4 2008 (IPS) - Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates and his predecessor José Manuel Barroso should answer “clearly and transparently” questions about secret CIA flights transporting prisoners to Guantánamo, says British lawyer and activist Clive Stafford Smith.

Speaking to the press in Lisbon on Thursday, Stafford Smith, the head of the non-governmental British human rights group Reprieve, said the Portuguese government may be sued if it fails to cooperate voluntarily in the search for the truth.

Reprieve says it has documentary evidence that Portugal was involved in the illegal transfer of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prisoners, in CIA or chartered planes, to the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

The case of the so-called CIA “extraordinary renditions” flights goes back to November 2005, when a U.S. newspaper, The Washington Post, revealed the existence of secret CIA prisons in several countries, and the illegal transport of prisoners, particularly to Guantánamo.

The CIA extraordinary rendition programme involves flying or otherwise transferring terror suspects from their place of detention to countries where they are not nationals, and where the security services are known to practise torture.

Stafford Smith, who is also the defence lawyer for three detainees in Guantánamo, added that many prisoners were transported aboard ships which made port calls in Portugal, when conservative Social Democratic Party (PSD) leader Barroso was prime minister, from 2002 to 2004.

Barroso is now the president of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union.

“There is zero doubt that the Portuguese government was complicit with the rendering of prisoners,” said Stafford Smith.

Reprieve, which among its activities defends prisoners facing the death penalty, said the intention of its questions to the Portuguese government was to provide evidence urgently needed to prove their clients’ innocence and save their lives.

In January, the group released a report stating that 728 prisoners at the notorious U.S. detention camp in Cuba had been transported through Portuguese jurisdiction, and that at least 94 rendition flights used Portuguese airspace or facilities between 2002 and 2006.

Stafford Smith said that he was not in Lisbon to make accusations against anyone in the socialist Sócrates administration, but that everyone had an obligation to cooperate when a person was facing the death penalty, especially in a place like Guantánamo.

According to the lawyer and activist, the fight against terrorism cannot be undertaken at any price, but must be based on the values accepted by civilised society that are the foundation of the United States and every democracy.

As a student, he said, he never dreamed that when he became a lawyer he would be asking why the U.S. government allowed torture such as cutting prisoners’ genitals with razor blades.

Even in war and the fight against terrorism, human rights must be respected, and the truth cannot be extracted by torture, on Washington’s say-so, he said.

He added that although the Guantánamo prison camp is the most notorious and has received the heaviest media coverage, it is far from being the only detention centre where torture is practised.

He said his group estimates that there are presently about 27,000 illegal prisoners, which means that more than 95 percent of them are not at Guantánamo, but at different secret prisons.

Asked about the cooperation Lisbon may or may not provide, Stafford Smith said he hopes that the government will understand that it has not only a legal but also a moral obligation toward individuals facing the death penalty.

“There are two ways of making the Portuguese government cooperate: the nice way, by voluntary cooperation with our investigation, and the not so nice way. The not so nice way is to sue them and make them do it,” he said.

On Thursday afternoon Stafford Smith was received by Attorney-General Antonio Pinto Monteiro, to whom he handed a list of names of the prisoners transferred to Guantánamo and information on dates when ships docked in Portugal with illegally detained suspected terrorists on board.

So far, transport by sea had been excluded from investigations of the secret CIA renditions programme, widely used by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

In January 2007, Pinto Monteiro ordered an investigation into the alleged illegal actions of the two most recent Portuguese governments, after receiving a complaint presented by Portuguese socialist Ana Gomes, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) where she is one of the most visible leaders of legal action against the CIA flights in EU airspace.

In contrast to Portuguese government declarations saying the Reprieve report was “irrelevant,” Gomes told IPS that the work done by the British human rights group “is extremely important.”

“Clearly the attorney-general considers the Reprieve report to be relevant, which is my view too, but unfortunately the Socrates administration holds the opposite view,” Gomes said.

What is known to date about the CIA flights “is only the tip of the iceberg,” Gomes told IPS after Stafford Smith’s press conference, which she said she attended “out of solidarity,” as an “observer.”

After persistent allegations by Reprieve, the British government finally admitted in March that several CIA planes had in fact passed through its territory, contradicting a series of denials by London since the scandal erupted in late 2005, “which shows that an inquiry is necessary, to investigate the evidence in the report that has now been published about Portugal,” she said.

The CIA flights “clearly did not only pass through Portugal, because they came from Spain and Italy, and in the European Parliament we also investigated Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom,” she said. But the difference in the case of Portugal is that, unlike the other countries, “here the investigation was wilfully obstructed.”

In late February, Sócrates “denied the existence of those flights, just as then British Prime Minister Tony Blair had done previously, based on information received from the United States. I hope the lesson from the UK is learned, because the evidence presented is extremely serious,” Gomes said.

The investigation is not progressing, “because a cover-up has been agreed by several governments, but especially by the Barroso administration, which kept the facts secret for the sake of its alliance with the United States,” she said.

“Now the main source of information is the United States, and they will be even more forthcoming when, as I hope, the Democratic Party wins the U.S. elections,” she said.

The MEP complained that the Socialist government, “my party, the party that defends human rights and democracy in Portugal, should now be colluding in the cover-up and obstructing investigations.” She said she would continue to press the issue, “no matter who gets hurt,” because it is “fundamental for our democracy.”

“The more we cover up what happened, the more we expose our country to being seen as a state that obstructs the search for truth in a case involving murders, torture, kidnappings, deaths and other violations of human rights,” Gomes said.

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