November 25, 2007 – The secret flight plans of American military planes have revealed for the first time how European countries helped send prisoners, including British citizens, to the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
Despite widespread criticism of alleged human rights abuses and torture at the US base in Cuba, a Sunday Times investigation has shown that at least five European countries gave the United States permission to fly nearly 700 terrorist suspects across their territory.
Three years ago, The Sunday Times published flight logs of CIA civilian jets in Europe, setting off a controversy over the whether countries across the continent have been secretly involved in America’s rendition of terrorist suspects to countries that carry out torture.
The row is now set to be reignited. Inquiries by Ana Gomes, a Portuguese member of the European parliament, have uncovered not only more CIA flight logs but also more sensitive military flight plans, which until now have remained a closely guarded secret.
The logs show how most prisoners changed planes at a Turkish military airbase and flew across Greek, Italian and Portuguese airspace. Others reached Cuba after touching down in Spain, whose governing socialist party once expressed indignation at conditions in Guantanamo.
The flight logs show that three Britons — Shafiq Rasul, Jamal Udeen and Asif Iqbal — were flown across Europe to Cuba on January 14, 2002. Moazzam Begg, another Briton, was taken by the same route to Guantanamo on February 2, 2003; and Binyam Mohamed, a British resident whose release the British government is now trying to negotiate, arrived in Cuba after crossing Europe in a special flight in September 2004.
According to the flight plans, the first 23 prisoners to arrive at Guantanamo — including another British citizen, Feroz Abbasi, then 21, and an Australian, David Hicks — had arrived at the American naval base in Cuba after flying from the Moron airbase in Spain.
Abbasi has claimed in a statement that prisoners were abused within hours of arriving. “We were made to sit on our heels, one foot over the other, supported by one foot’s toes alone, for hours. Some of us were old, weak, fatigued, and injured — they were the ones to drop first in the searing Caribbean heat.”
Described by the Pentagon as the “worst of the worst” from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the images of prisoners such as Abbasi dressed in orange jumpsuits, their heads shaved and shackled by their wrists and ankles, shocked the world. Within a day, Donald Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, announced that the Geneva conventions would not apply to what were now called “enemy combatants”.
Last week, Europe’s leading watchdog on human rights alleged that European countries had breached the international convention against torture by giving the US secret permission to use its airspace.
Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said: “What happened at Guantanamo was torture and it is illegal to provide facilities or anything to make this torture possible. Under the law, European governments should have intervened and should not have given permission to let these flights happen.”
Gomes added: “It’s clear to me that Guantanamo could not have been created without the involvement of European countries.”
Methods used at Guantanamo Bay, condemned by Britain’s Court of Appeal as a legal “black hole” and as a “monstrous failure of justice” by one law lord, have included the prolonged use of isolation, sleep deprivation, and use of stress positions. “These are methods that have been declared as unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights,” Hammarberg said.
The military flight plans show that all key flights arriving in Guantanamo had come across European airspace either through Spain or the Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey. The Sunday Times compared the military flight plans against a database compiled by Reprieve, the British-based charity that represents Guantanamo prisoners, of when prisoners first weighed in at the camp.
The investigation, cross-checked against other Pentagon documents, shows for the first time which prisoner arrived on which flight at Guantanamo, and by what route. At least 170 other prisoners flew over Spanish territory, more than 700 crossed Portuguese space, and more than 680 were transshipped at Incirlik. Most flights also crossed Greek and Italian airspace, according to a source in European air traffic control.
On February 2 2003, for example, a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster plane took off from Incirlik with 27 prisoners on board for Cuba. The same day, prisoner number 558 weighed in at 136lb (62kg) at the camp. He can be named as Moazzam Begg, now 39, from Birmingham, who was released in January 2005, and has never been charged with a crime.
Interviewed by phone last week, Begg recalled: “Inside the plane there was a chain around our waist, and it connected to cuffs around my wrists, which were tied in the back, and to my ankles. We were seated but it was so painful not being able to speak, to hear, to breathe properly, to look, to turn left or right, to move your hands, stretch your legs, or anything.” At the time flights were landing in Spain and crossing Spanish airspace, socialist leaders there were expressing “indignation” over conditions in Guantanamo. Now the socialists are in government after winning an election in March 2004 just after the Madrid train bombings and they are being asked to defend Spain’s continued collaboration with American operations. Under international law, government and military planes can cross another country’s territory only with diplomatic permission.
In a statement to the European parliament on the visits of CIA planes to Spain, the foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has testified: “Our territory may have been used not to commit crimes on it, but as a stopover on the way to committing crime in another country.”
Spain, it has now emerged, had a specific agreement with the US to allow flights and visits to Spanish airbases for American planes.
In Portugal, the foreign minister Luis Amado has said flights across his country’s airspace took place “under the aegis of the UN and Nato and that Portugal naturally follows the principle of good faith in the relations with its allies”. Nato’s role in Guantanamo stems from a secret agreement made in Brussels on October 4 2001 by all Nato members, including Britain. Although never made public, Lord Robertson, the former British defence secretary who was later Nato’s secretary-general, explained that day that Nato had agreed to provide “blanket overflight clearances for the United States and other allies’ aircraft for military flights related to operations against terrorism”.
Today, Nato is more coy about its role in helping send prisoners to Guantanamo.
In a letter to Gomes, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the current secretary-general, said no Nato planes had “flown to or from Guantanamo Bay” and that Nato “as an organisation has no involvement or co-ordinating role in providing clearance or overflight rights for other flights”. Turkey, meanwhile, has declared that its agencies had “reached no findings regarding any unacknowledged deprivation of liberty conducted by foreign agencies within the territory of the republic of Turkey or any transport by aircraft or otherwise of the persons deprived of their liberty”.
In London, Clive Stafford Smith, legal director of Reprieve, said, with America threatening that Guantanamo prisoners faced the death penalty, European governments had made “pious statements” that they would never send prisoners to the US without obtaining assurances they would not be executed.
Stafford Smith added: “Some European governments, it’s now clear, systematically assisted in clandestine flights and illegal prisoner transfers to Guantanamo Bay. We need a full investigation and Europeans need to face their responsibility for these crimes.”