Allegations and denials of secret CIA prison camps in eastern and central Europe

The Council of Europe this week opened an investigation into allegations the CIA is running secret prisons for terror suspects in eastern and central European democracies. The allegations first came to light in the Washington Post and were backed up by the Human Rights Watch, which says it has evidence the CIA flew suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan to Poland and Romania.

The reports of secret CIA prisons in Central and Eastern Europe have been met with firm denials by Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic saying there was no request for detention of terror suspects and even if there had been it would be refused on security grounds. Romanian president Traian Basescu says Romania has not received such requests from the US government. Despite these denials the allegations are being taken seriously by the European Commission. It's backing an investigation by the Council of Europe into whether American planes have flown prisoners into Poland and Romania in violation of European human rights laws. Vanessa Saenen of Human Rights from Human Rights Watch says there is evidence of undercover flights:

"Human Rights Watch has been able to view flight records which show that a Boeing 737 which is a plane used by the CIA to ferry several prisoners to and from Europe, Afghanistan and the Middle East was used to make repeated stops in Poland and Romania in 2003. This plane flew from Kabul to the North East of Poland on September 22nd 2003 to an area where there's basically a military training base."

The Council of Europe has appointed a Swiss parliamentarian, Dick Marty, to investigate the allegations. He says so far its just a suspicion - one that must be followed up. But he also says it's worrying that Washington has given no clear denial of the allegations. In fact Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - when asked directly whether there are secret US detention centres in Eastern Europe - avoided the question:

"We, our allies, others who've experienced attacks, have to find a way to protect our own people. But I want to be very clear, the President made very clear to everyone that, ah, he did not want and would not, ah, tolerate torture."

The allegations come in the middle of a bitter debate in the US over its moral and legal obligations in the treatment of terror suspects. US President George W. Bush this week denied allegations suspects were tortured...

"We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding, we are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do to that effort - to that end in this effort - any activity e conduct is within the law. We do not torture."

But human rights groups question the motivation for prison camps like the one at Guantanamo bay, and, if the reports prove correct, those in Europe. Vanessa Saenen:

"We've had in the past anonymous interviews with people who've been released from Guantanamo who did say that they've been transported from Iraq or Afghanistan to for instance Jordan or Egypt where they've very often been tortured or detained for a long time. And only then to Cuba, to Guantanamo Bay."

If the European investigation does reveal the US has used soviet-era prison camps in countries like Poland and Romania - it will be a major embarrassment for the Bush administration. But a bigger embarrassment for the governments of the host countries. They've gone so far as to deny the existence of the prisons - the Bush administration has not. If the prisons do exist it will either appear governments were lying - or were not told what was happening by their security services.