UK: New report reveals fresh details of CIA rendition flights and black site detentions

Front companies, private planes and secret underground prisons part of illegal operation

Amnesty International today (5 April) called for a full independent public inquiry into all aspects of the UK’s involvement in secret CIA “rendition” flights, as it published a new report on the illegal movement of prisoners to covert detention and torture.

The 41-page report, Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and ‘disappearance’, reveals new information about detention in secret “black site” prisons, with former detainees describing a high-tech underground prison with American guards and elaborate measures to preserve secrecy and thwart respect for human rights.

The report outlines a shadowy system in which detainees were either literally abducted or handed over to US operatives by other law enforcement agencies before being effectively “disappeared”. Prisoners have told Amnesty International - in what is the only detailed information to emerge from an Eastern European or Central Asian “black site” prison - of being “professionally” prepared for secret transportation by black-masked “ninjas”.

Amnesty International’s report traces the movements of four planes from the CIA’s much larger fleet of at least 26 aircraft. These four planes, known to have rendered prisoners to illegal detention and torture, have landed and taken off at numerous airports in the UK and Ireland in the past five years - including Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, Glasgow International, Glasgow Prestwick, Edinburgh, Londonderry, Belfast, Oxford Brize Norton, Shannon, Limerick and Dublin.

With renditions shrouded in secrecy it is extremely difficult to gauge the true extent of its operation, though is likely to involve hundreds of detainees, dozens of planes and thousands of flights.(1) One plane known to have “rendered” a prisoner was also used by the Boston Red Sox to fly the baseball team’s coach home for his son’s graduation.(2)

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

“With mounting evidence of illegal CIA rendition flights through European airspace - and multiple landings and take-offs of CIA planes at UK airports - there must be an independent inquiry into all aspects of UK involvement in these sinister practices.

“The British public requires reassurance that UK airports like Prestwick, Belfast and Stansted are not hosting planes used to transport prisoners for secret detention and torture.

“We are insisting that the US administration immediately ends all renditions, that all ‘rendered’ prisoners are identified and allowed lawyers, and that American aviation companies stop turning a blind eye to what the CIA does with their planes.”

The report describes how some “rendered” prisoners were prepared for secret transportation - stripped naked and made to wear absorbent plastic underpants and blue overalls, they were handcuffed, blindfolded, shackled, had their hands strapped to waist belts, their ears plugged with foam and their mouths covered with surgical face masks; finally, they were hooded and heavy sound-deadening headphones were placed over their ears. Along with food and clothes in detention centres being systematically stripped of identifying labels, the transportation measures were designed to completely obscure the location of secret prisons.

The report details a pattern of nearly 1,000 flights directly linked to the CIA through “front” companies, most of which have used European airspace, as well as another 600 CIA flights by planes commercially transacted from US aviation companies - none of whom seem to have taken any steps to ensure that their planes were not used to commit human rights abuses.

Amnesty International’s report includes information on several rendition cases, including:

* Three Yemeni men (Muhammad al-Assad, Muhammad Bashmilah and Sala Qaru) who were held for over a year (April 2004-May 2005) at a suspected “black site” prison. They were held without charge, trial or access to lawyers or anyone in the outside world. US guards at the prison systematically removed all labels from detainees’ clothes and food, apparently to minimise awareness of where the detainees were being held. Doctors and other staff were either American, English speakers with European accents or native Arabic speakers. Most wore masks at all times. After cross-referencing prayer schedule data, daylight saving time practice, the position of the sun and flight times, Amnesty International believes the likely location of the prison to be Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Macedonia, Albania, Georgia or Azerbaijan. It is not known which aircraft (including helicopters) were used in the rendition operation.

* Muhammad Zammar, a German national of Syrian descent, who was taken into custody in Casablanca by Moroccan intelligence agents in December 2001. He was interrogated by both Moroccan and US intelligence officials for over two weeks before reportedly being flown by the CIA’s Gulfstream V jet (N379P) to Syria. Mr Zammar was apparently held for several years in solitary confinement at the Far’ Falastin military intelligence prison in a rat- and lice-infested underground “tomb” cell believed to be only six-feet long and less than three-feet wide. Though formerly a heavily-built man, Amnesty International has learnt that his condition is latterly described as “skeletal”. He is still believed imprisoned without charge or trial in Syria.

Notes

(1) A former CIA agent has testified that "hundreds" of detainees may have been sent by the US to prisons in Middle Eastern countries. in 2005 the Egyptian prime minister said that the US had transferred 60-70 prisoners to Egypt alone, and the USA has acknowledged the capture of about 30 "high value" detainees whose whereabouts remain unknown. Meanwhile, the CIA is reportedly investigating some three dozen additional cases of "erroneous rendition", in which people were detained based on flawed intelligence or confusion over names.

(2) In June 2004 the Boston Red Sox hired a Gulfstream jet (N85VM) to take the team’s manager home for the weekend for his son’s graduation after a Friday night game. The same plane was used to render Abu Omar from Germany to Egypt after his kidnapping the previous day in a street in Milan in February 2003. There are allegations that Abu Omar has been severely tortured in Egypt. He is still held and Italian prosecutors are investigating. The Gulfsteam jet is a private plane whose owner is also part-proprietor of the Red Sox. The plane sometimes carries the Red Sox logo.

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