Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-EUROPE: Scandal over CIA “Renditions” Flights Revived

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Dec 5 2008 (IPS) - Portuguese European Parliament member Ana Gomes will ask the EU legislative body to restart the debate on stopovers in EU territory by secret CIA flights carrying prisoners captured in Afghanistan.

The Portuguese socialist deputy became known for her active role in the European Parliament’s temporary committee on CIA flights and prisoner renditions (TDIP), set up to report on the use of EU airspace and airport facilities for the transportation of terror suspects to third countries for interrogation (known as “extraordinary renditions”) between 2001 and 2005.

Following two years of investigations which concluded last January, the committee reported that 336 stopovers had taken place in Germany, 170 in the United Kingdom, 147 in Ireland, 91 in Portugal, 68 in Spain, 64 in Greece, 57 in Cyprus and 46 in Italy, and issued recommendations to the EU.

The committee lamented that it was not possible to verify the existence of secret detention centres in Poland, due to the Polish government’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, which according to the chairman of the committee, conservative Portuguese deputy Carlos Coelho, “fuelled suspicions.”

Among the main recommendations was a request to the European Commission, the EU executive body, to launch an “independent investigation” into the possibility that any of its member states violated human rights and fundamental freedoms by cooperating with the CIA.

If found guilty, member states would face possible sanctions outlined in the EU treaty.

Unlike Gomes’ previous requests, the latest one has found echo among politicians of the governing Socialist Party, led by Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates. Socialist officials want to question Foreign Minister Luis Amado on CIA flights authorised to pass through Portugal.

Instead of joining the pro-U.S. voices in the party hostile to Gomes, former justice minister Jose Vera Jardim and former labour minister Paulo Pedroso are pressuring the executive to clarify whether any contacts took place between Lisbon and Washington, with a view to allowing CIA flights to pass through Portuguese territory.

The deputies, both prominent figures within the ranks of the Socialist Party, asked the foreign minister if he had launched, or planned to launch, an inquiry into possible contacts between Portugal and the U.S. similar to those reported by the newspaper El País with regard to Spain.

Citing an official document, the influential Spanish paper once again reported, in its Dec. 1 edition, that former conservative prime minister Jose Maria Aznar (1996-2004) authorised the stopover in Spanish airports of rendition flights headed for Guantanamo.

The daily had previously reported that Portugal gave the go-ahead to CIA flights. Deputy Gomes had made the same accusation, in an interview with IPS.

Amado has been asked by Vera Jardim and Pedroso to shed light on the possibility of Portuguese and U.S. authorities having established contacts similar to those reported by El Pais, and on whether or not such conversations were documented.

The document leaked by El País dates back to January 2002, when Portugal was governed by the now United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. Later that year Guterres was replaced by Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the current president of the European Commission, who headed the Portuguese cabinet until June 2004.

Portugal’s foreign minister reacted by denying knowledge of “any official document in Portugal, whether in the Defense or Foreign Affairs ministry archives, that would compromise any previous cabinet on this matter.”

Amado has urged critics to “patiently await results,” pointing to the ongoing “process in the Attorney General’s Office, which is free to investigate and access information.”

The inquiry began in January 2007 when, following an accusation by Gomes, Attorney General Fernando Jose Pinto Monteiro ordered an investigation into alleged illegalities committed by Portuguese governments.

Asked by IPS to comment on the reasons behind her request to spark an investigation affecting a government headed by her own party, Gomes said it was the prime minister’s lack of substantive support in cooperating with the investigation that prompted her to submit “documents with relevant information” to Pinto Monteiro.

She added that CIA flights “not only passed through Portugal, because they came from Spain and Italy, and the European Parliament also investigated Germany, Sweden and Britain,” where, unlike in Portugal, there were no “attempts to obstruct the investigation.”

The European Parliament and human rights groups have accused Portugal of allowing suspicious plane stopovers in the Porto airport in northern Portugal, and in the Azores islands in the Atlantic, where the U.S. air base of Lajes lies halfway between Europe and North America.

Most U.S. military flights were allowed by Portugal in the spirit of the Lajes agreement. However, stopovers by Saudi, Kuwaiti, French and British planes remain shrouded in mystery.

Gomes points a finger at the slow pace of investigations, which she said was caused by an “aim to conceal. Many governments share this approach, centred on Durao Barroso’s attitude to silence it in the name of the alliance with the U.S.

“It’s unacceptable for a state to obstruct the quest for truth in a case involving murder, torture, kidnapping and other human rights violations,” added the European Parliament deputy.

The Attorney General’s Office investigation should clarify whether the Lajes base was used by U.S. forces as an illegal detention centre for terror suspects seized mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York.

“The team of European deputies engaged in this matter will not give up. We will push for a public debate and we want to know with how many of the European Parliament’s recommendations the 27 member states have complied with,” said Gomes.

El País claimed Washington had duly informed Portugal, Italy and Turkey of the CIA flights, and Gomes said “they were obviously notified.”

Noting recent changes in the world, Gomes called on “EU members, including Portugal, to decide how they will help the next U.S. administration, led by (Barack) Obama, to close Guantanamo.”

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