November 7, 2005

The Washington Post reported on November 3, 2005 that the United States has used secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe and elsewhere to illegally hold terrorist suspects without rights or access to counsel. Citing U.S. government concerns, the article did not identify the locations in Eastern Europe.

Human Rights Watch has conducted independent research on the existence of secret detention locations that corroborates the Washington Post’s allegations that there were detention facilities in Eastern Europe.

Specifically, we have collected information that CIA airplanes traveling from Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 made direct flights to remote airfields in Poland and Romania. Human Rights Watch has viewed flight records showing that a Boeing 737, registration number N313P – a plane that the CIA used to move several prisoners to and from Europe, Afghanistan, and the Middle East in 2003 and 2004 – landed in Poland and Romania on direct flights from Afghanistan on two occasions in 2003 and 2004. Human Rights Watch has independently confirmed several parts of the flight records, and supplemented the records with independent research.

According to the records, the N313P plane flew from Kabul to northeastern Poland on September 22, 2003, specifically, to Szymany airport, near the Polish town of Szczytno, in Warmia-Mazuria province. Human Rights Watch has obtained information that several detainees who had been held secretly in Afghanistan in 2003 were transferred out of the country in September and October 2003. The Polish intelligence service maintains a large training facility and grounds near the Szymany airport.

The records show that the N313P plane landed the next day, September 23, 2003, at the Mihail Kogalniceanu military airfield in Romania. The flight records indicate that the plane flew on to Morocco the same day, and then to Guantanamo Bay. The Department of Defense, which releases information about all detainee transfers to Guantanamo, released no statement about a transfer to Guantanamo around this date.

According to our research, the United States has been using the Mihail Kogalniceanu airfield in Romania for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, and the base has been closed to the public and journalists since early 2004. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Romania and the Mihail Kogalniceanu base in October 2004. The N313P plane also flew from Kabul to Timisoara airport in Romania on January 25, 2004.

On Friday, the Associated Press quoted Szymany airport officials in Poland confirming that a Boeing passenger plane landed at the airport at around midnight on the night of September 22, 2003. The officials stated that the plane spent an hour on the ground and took aboard five passengers with U.S. passports.

The N313P airplane, and other planes allegedly used by the CIA to transport prisoners, have also repeatedly landed at airports in Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, and Libya, as well as in Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Macedonia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and Greece. Most of these landings have taken place at major civilian airports or joint civilian-military airports, both unlikely locales for clandestine operations. The Szymany and Mihail Kogalniceanu airfields are more remote.

Further investigation is needed to determine the possible involvement of Poland and Romania in the extremely serious activities described in the Washington Post article. Arbitrary incommunicado detention is illegal under international law. It often acts as a foundation for torture and mistreatment of detainees. U.S. government officials, speaking anonymously to journalists in the past, have admitted that some secretly held detainees have been subjected to torture and other mistreatment, including waterboarding (immersing or smothering a detainee with water until he believes he is about to drown). Countries that allow secret detention programs to operate on their territory are complicit in the human rights abuses committed against detainees.

Human Rights Watch knows the names of 23 high-level suspects being held secretly by U.S. personnel at undisclosed locations. An unknown number of other detainees may be held at the request of the U.S. government in locations in the Middle East and Asia. U.S. intelligence officials, speaking anonymously to journalists, have stated that approximately 100 persons are being held in secret detention abroad by the United States.

Human Rights Watch emphasizes that there is no doubt that secret detention facilities operated by the United States exist. The Bush Administration has cited, in speeches and in public documents, arrests of several terrorist suspects now held in unknown locations. Some of the detainees cited by the administration include: Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian arrested in Pakistan in March 2002; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, arrested in September 2002; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (also known as Abu Bilal al-Makki), arrested in United Arab Emirates in November 2002; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, arrested in Pakistan in March 2003 along with Mustafa al-Hawsawi; and Hambali (aka Riduan Isamuddin) arrested in Thailand in August 2003.

Human Rights Watch urges the United Nations and relevant European Union bodies to launch investigations to determine which countries have been or are being used by the United States for transiting and detaining incommunicado prisoners. The U.S. Congress should also convene hearings on the allegations and demand that the Bush administration account for secret detainees, explain the legal basis for their continued detention, and make arrangements to screen detainees to determine their legal status under domestic and international law. We welcome the decision by the Legal Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to examine the existence of U.S.-run detention centers in Council of Europe member states. We also urge the European Union, including the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, to further investigate allegations and publish its findings.

More reporting on: