LONDON, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Politicians and human rights groups are ratcheting up the pressure on the British government to investigate reports of U.S. rendition flights passing through its territory, after the Council of Europe said European governments almost certainly knew of the "illegal" practice.
Members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rendition met with representatives from leading human rights groups in Westminster Wednesday to discuss what steps to take to force an investigation, to which the government has so far been resistant.
The United States has been accused of operating covert flights through European airfields carrying terror suspects to prisons abroad for interrogation using torture, a practice known as extraordinary rendition. It has been alleged that since Sept. 2001 some 210 CIA flights have passed through British territory, some of which were involved in prisoner transfers. Washington acknowledges the practice of rendition but insists it is conducted in accordance with U.S. and international law, while Britain maintains it has only received four requests for prisoner transfers, all under the Clinton administration.
A preliminary report released Tuesday by the Council of Europe, said the United States moved more than 100 terror suspects through Europe as part of an "outsourcing of torture," with governments there likely knowing of the practice.
"There is a great deal of coherent, convergent evidence pointing to the existence of a system of 'relocation' or 'outsourcing' of torture," the investigating Swiss senator, Dick Marty, wrote in the report. There was reason to believe "European governments were aware of what's going on," he later added in a news conference.
Speaking after the Westminster meeting - which was closed to the press --Doug Jewell, campaigns coordinator at the prominent human rights group Liberty, said it was imperative the government conducted a full investigation into the claims. He told United Press International that a number of measures had been discussed to ensure rendition flights no longer took place.
An amendment was being tabled to the Civil Aviation Bill, currently before Parliament, to place a positive duty on the authorities to board planes and investigate when illegal activities were alleged, he said, adding: "These are serious criminal offences that we're talking about."
Liberty would launch a legal action to force the government to investigate should it refuse to do so, Jewell continued. An action would also be brought if the government refused to fully cooperate with the Council of Europe investigation, he said. All European governments had been given a preliminary deadline of Feb. 21 to provide the information requested by the Council, he said; it was now a matter of waiting to see how the government responds.
Ministers are also facing further scrutiny from a European Parliamentary committee and the British Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights, both of which are conducting investigations.
Andrew Tyrie, a Conservative parliamentarian and chairman of the parliamentary group, told UPI it was clear the government had become "deeply concerned" about the issue.
He cited a government memo leaked to the British media last week, in which a Foreign Office Official advised ministers to "try to avoid getting drawn on detail" and "move the debate on." The document also said the government did not know how many times the United States had requested to use British airports for renditions, which, it went on to say, were illegal in most circumstances.
Tyrie also noted Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's parliamentary response to the leaked memo, in which he said Britain had made clear "that the U.S. would not render a detainee through U.K. territory or airspace (including overseas territories) without our permission," and reminded Washington of its international obligations under the United Nations convention against torture. "It suggests they are worried that British territory or airspace may have been used to assist with renditions without permission," he told UPI.
It was also clear that the government was worried about having to rely on U.S. assurances that nothing illegal was taking place, he said. So far these assurances had been "so narrow as to render them virtually worthless."
Tyrie said he had the impression that the British government wanted to bring to an end any rendition flights that may have passed through its territory, and that they believed the issue to have "explosive properties."
The Conservative MP said he was a strong Atlanticist and believed the United States and Britain had shared security interests. But, he asked: "Does kidnapping people and taking them to places where they may be tortured make us safer? In my view it does not. It undermines the very values that we are trying to export."
Such practices acted as "a recruiting sergeant for terrorism," as the British government had found out to its cost in Northern Ireland, he said.
Allegations of rendition would galvanize moderate Muslim opinion against the West, he added; the very group it was crucial to win over if the struggle against terror was to be successful.