(New York) – The Central Intelligence Agency secretly operated illegal prisons for terrorism suspects in multiple locations in Poland and Romania from 2003 to 2005, according to a report released today by the Council of Europe, a European intergovernmental human rights body.

The result of an investigation initiated in November 2005 by the council’s Parliamentary Assembly under the leadership of assembly member and Swiss senator Dick Marty, the report provides evidence confirming allegations first made by Human Rights Watch in 2005 that locations in Poland and Romania were among sites used by the CIA for secret detention.

It concludes that there is “now enough evidence to state that secret detention facilities run by the CIA did exist in Europe from 2003 to 2005, in particular in Poland and Romania.” It also finds that prisoners in these facilities were subjected to “interrogation techniques tantamount to torture.”

“Today’s report confirms that Poland and Romania helped the CIA operate illegal detention sites on their territory in violation of international law,” said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “It is now clear that US officials illegally conspired with intelligence officials in several European countries to ‘disappear,’ interrogate and illegally transfer terrorism suspects, flouting basic human rights norms.”

The report suggests that former President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland and former President Ion Iliescu of Romania authorized the secret detentions.

The Council of Europe report castigates the US and several European countries for these abuses. It also deplores what it terms “obstruct[ion]” by many of the governments implicated in the abuses, who “have done everything to disguise the true nature and extent of their activities and are persistent in their uncooperative attitude.” In this respect, the report singles out the United States, Poland, Romania, Macedonia, Italy and Germany for criticism.

The report provides new information – including from cross-referenced testimonies of over 30 current and former members of intelligence services in the US and Europe – about how the secret program operated in Poland and Romania. It contains details from civil aviation records about CIA-operated airplanes used for detainee transfers, showing airplanes in the period 2003 through 2005 landing at remote airstrips in Poland and Romania. It also describes how flights to Poland – including one that may have carried terrorism suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed from Kabul to Szymany on March 7, 2003 – were deliberately disguised using fake flight plans.

Human Rights Watch believes that detainees held in Poland were likely transferred there from Afghanistan in late 2003 and early 2004. Other detainees held in CIA custody in Afghanistan were transferred to military custody, and subsequently to Guantanamo.

CIA detainees were held in Poland until late 2005. They are believed to have been transferred out of the region after the Washington Post reported in November 2005 that the CIA was using detention sites in Eastern Europe and Human Rights Watch released information showing that Poland and Romania were likely among the sites used. ABC News, relying on sources within the CIA, reported in December 2005 that the detainees were flown to Morocco.

In September 2006, President George Bush publicly acknowledged the existence of the secret CIA detention system, and announced that 14 prisoners in secret CIA custody had been transferred to the US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Human Rights Watch believes that most of these 14 prisoners were among those held in Poland and Romania in the period 2003 through 2005.

In status hearings earlier this year, at least four of these 14 prisoners claimed that they had been tortured while in US custody.

For example, Zayn al Abidin Muhammed Husayn, a Palestinian whom ABC News claimed was held in Poland, submitted a statement during the hearing in which he described “months of torture.” In broken English, he told the hearing officers how he had made statements under torture to please his interrogators. The presiding officer summed up Husayn’s claims by saying that “during this treatment, you said things to make them stop, and these things were actually untrue.” But the details of the “treatment” that Husayn underwent were censored from the transcript.

Many detainees who are believed to have been held in CIA custody remain missing. Human Rights Watch has done extensive research on detainees believed to have been held by the CIA, and earlier this week issued an updated list of missing detainees jointly with five other human rights groups. The list named 39 persons whose fate and whereabouts are unknown.

Human Rights Watch deplored the fact that the CIA’s illegal system of secret prisons is still operational. In 2007 alone, three detainees have been transferred to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and in all cases the CIA may have had custody of the detainees before their transfer. Indeed, the US government has confirmed that the CIA had custody of one detainee before his transfer, proving that the CIA detention program still operates.

“Shutting secret prisons down in one part of the world, only to open them in another, is not acceptable,” Mariner said.

The Council of Europe report issued today also documents the involvement of European governments in CIA-facilitated illegal transfers of suspects to third countries, known as renditions. The report criticizes Italy and Germany’s involvement in the illegal transfer of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, kidnapped in Milan in February 2003. Over 20 CIA agents have been indicted in Italy on kidnapping charges related to the Abu Omar case; their trial in absentia begins today.

The report also discusses the involvement of Macedonia in the illegal detention and transfer of a German citizen, Khalid el-Masri, who was abducted and flown out of Macedonia in January 2004 and held in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan until his release in mid-2004.

The report, adopted by a Council of Europe parliamentary committee today, is also strongly critical of NATO, which it says “never replied to our correspondence.” It notes that “strict observance of the rules of confidentiality laid down in the NATO framework” helped keep the CIA program secret for so long.

Human Rights Watch applauded Dick Marty on his investigation into the CIA’s illegal activities in Europe, and urged European governments and parliaments to follow up by carrying out or finalizing their own public investigations, and by ensuring timely implementation of the recommendations the report makes to prevent the occurrence of further abuses.

Among the report’s most urgent recommendations are the following:

• Establish enhanced control (through parliamentary oversight and judicial control) over the activities of secret services, both domestic and foreign;
• Establish enhanced safeguards and controls over aircraft transiting through member states;
• Ensure that state secrecy or national security cannot be invoked to shield governments or individual government officials from responsibility for serious human rights abuses;
• Ensure compensation and rehabilitation for the victims of secret detention and unlawful transfers; and,
• Set up a genuine European parliamentary inquiry mechanism with adequate investigative powers and resources, including the possibility of appointing a special investigator modeled on the rules governing the German Bundestag commissions of inquiry.

Human Rights Watch also reminded Council of Europe member states about their obligation to act on the conclusions of the inquiry initiated by the institution’s secretary-general, Terry Davis. Nearly one year after the secretary-general issued his recommendations on measures to prevent future illegal practices, member states have yet to take action.

“Investigations by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament have been met by stonewalling,” said Mariner. “It’s time now for governments to face their responsibility and take concrete steps to ensure that illegal operations like these don’t happen again.”

Human Rights Watch also urged the US Congress to schedule hearings on CIA activities and detention practices, and work to pass legislation banning secret detention and rendition to torture.