BRUSSELS, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The European Union agreed to allow the United States freer access to its airspace to move unwanted people around the world in 2003 -- and then tried to cover up the deal, according to censored EU documents seen by United Press International.
The revelation adds further weight to claims that EU governments were fully aware the Central Intelligence Agency was using European airports to hold and transport prisoners, but preferred to turn a blind eye to the practice.
Documents obtained by British civil liberties group Statewatch show that at a high-level meeting of European and American justice officials in Athens on Jan. 22, 2003, the two sides agreed on the "increased use of European transit facilities to support the return of criminal/inadmissible aliens."
This crucial phrase was deleted from the minutes of the meeting made available on the Web site of the Council of Ministers, the body that represents EU governments in Brussels. A spokesman for the council told Statewatch the deletions were made out of "courtesy" for the United States.
"Whether these U.S. transit flights are for "criminals," "inadmissible aliens" or for rendition, the same questions arise," said Statewatch editor Tony Bunyan. "Do EU governments know how many times their airports have been used for "transit" by U.S. government flights? Which airports were used? How many people have been moved in this way? How many "criminals" and how many "inadmissible aliens?" If they do know, then why are the facts and figures not available? And if they do not know, why not?"
Bunyan Thursday accused EU governments of creating a "climate of complicity" when testifying at the European Parliament's first hearing about alleged CIA covert prisons and extraordinary renditions in Europe, which saw several lawmakers fume with frustration over the lack of cooperation from national governments.
"It is entirely legitimate to have EU-U.S. cooperation in combating terrorism and serious crime," said Baroness Ludford, the vice-chair of the special parliamentary committee. "But EU governments refuse to permit proper parliamentary scrutiny, which can ensure this respects fundamental rights. They therefore have a real difficulty in convincing members of the European Parliament not to regard agreement on 'increased use of European transit facilities' as collusion in U.S. illegal rendition, torture and disappearances."
Allegations of illegal U.S. intelligence activities in Eastern Europe first surfaced in November when Human Rights Watch published details of CIA planes landing in Poland and Romania. A cluster of European governments and organizations have since launched investigations into the affair, including the EU parliament and the Council of Europe.
Terry Davies, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, said 41 of the human rights body's 46 member states had provided information on the flights by Tuesday's deadline, but Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Italy and San Marino had not yet replied. Noting that all members had a legal obligation to supply the requested data under the European Convention on Human Rights, Davies said: "The breach should be rectified as a matter of urgency."
The European Parliament's committee, on the other hand, has no legal or judicial power and cannot single-handedly impose sanctions on any member state found to have breached human rights laws. Nor does it have the power to subpoena U.S. officials such as CIA Director Porter Goss, although this was suggested by several lawmakers.
What it does have is the ability to make trouble for the U.S. administration and cause embarrassment for European governments. It used both powers to full effect Thursday as representatives of human rights groups were invited to make their 'case for the prosecution.'
"There is no doubt that the United States held and tortured detainees," said Joanne Mariner, a terrorism expert at Human Rights Watch. "The only doubt is whether these detainees were being held on European soil."
Amnesty International's Anne Fitzgerald told EU legislators that her organization had records of 800 flights around Europe that were linked with the CIA. But when Italian conservative member Jas Gawronski appeared skeptical about the conclusions to be drawn from such "circumstantial evidence," she acknowledged: "The fact that the CIA has been flying planes in and out of Europe is not conclusive: it is indicative."
Pushed by German Green member Cem Ozdemir to provide information on any possible detention centers in Europe, Fitzgerald admitted Amnesty had "no hard evidence of any black sites on European territory."
The Council of Europe's investigator Dick Marty also struggled to back up his claim that the CIA had moved 100 suspects through European camps, possibly for torture. Satellite images of airbases in Romania, which the human rights watchdog obtained last month, have still not provided any conclusive evidence but are being scrutinized by experts, the Swiss senator told the assembly.
The hardest piece of evidence of CIA involvement in Europe was provided by Italian prosecutor Armando Spartato, who last year indicted 22 U.S. agents for the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian Islamist in Milan. Spartato said he had no conclusive evidence of Italian secret service complicity, leading Ludford to remark: "One is extremely puzzled as to how such a large CIA operation could have taken place in broad daylight without the Italian secret service's knowledge."
(With additional reporting by Christiane Kirketerp)