Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Lawyers say US "renditions" on shaky legal ground

Lawyers say US "renditions" on shaky legal ground

By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent

BERLIN (Reuters) - Secret U.S. transfers of terrorist suspects are open to challenge under several statutes of international law, despite Washington's most robust defense yet of their legality, human rights lawyers said on Monday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the practice of "rendition", which she defined as transporting terrorist suspects from one country to another "to be questioned, held or brought to justice".

She said it was a decades-old instrument used by the United States and other countries.

In cases where the local government could not detain or prosecute a suspect, and traditional extradition was not an option, that government could make a sovereign choice to cooperate in a rendition, Rice said.

"Such renditions are permissible under international law and are consistent with the responsibilities of those governments to protect their citizens."

Rice was speaking before leaving for Europe on a trip overshadowed by allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency has run secret prisons on the continent and covertly transferred suspects via European airports.

Human rights lawyers said some of the cases which have come to light amounted to "disappearing people", a practice recognized as illegal for decades since its widespread use by Latin American governments in the 1970s.

"If we're actually taking people, abducting them and then placing them in incommunicado detention, which appears to be the case, we would be actually guilty then of a disappearance under international law, in addition to a rendition," said Meg Satterthwaite of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law.

She pointed to Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which outlaws arbitrary arrest or detention and says an arrested person has the right to be told why he or she is being held and brought before a judge.

Gabor Rona, international legal director of advocacy group Human Rights First, said: "If people are simply being spirited off the streets ... and secretly being transferred into detention from one state to another, and have no opportunity to contest the legality of that in a court, then that is very obviously in violation of international law and most domestic law regimes."


In one case at the center of controversy in Europe, a German man says he was seized in Macedonia at the end of 2003 and flown by U.S. agents to Afghanistan, where he was interrogated for five months before the CIA realized it had the wrong man.

In another, Italian and German prosecutors are investigating the abduction of a radical cleric in Milan and his alleged transfer by CIA agents to Egypt, where he later said he was tortured.

Rice did not comment on individual cases, saying Washington would not compromise intelligence, law enforcement or military operations. She specifically mentioned U.S. adherence to the U.N. Convention against Torture.

"The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured," Rice said.

Satterthwaite said assurances were not enough to bring the United States in line with the anti-torture convention, which forbids states to "expel, return ... or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture".

She added: "It's kind of absurd to say that we don't know that they're at a risk of torture, or that we believe that X or Y government would not torture this individual, when we know through our own State Department reports that myriad people have been tortured in the same facilities, same locations."