Thursday, January 19, 2006

Report says Britain doubts legality of CIA flights

Report says Britain doubts legality of CIA flights

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain believes the CIA's reported secret transfer of terrorism suspects to foreign countries for interrogation is illegal, according to a leaked government document published on Thursday.

The Foreign Office memo says the practice, known as extraordinary rendition, "could never be legal" if the detainee is at risk of torture, according to extracts printed in the Guardian newspaper.

It adds that British cooperation "would also be illegal if we knew of the circumstances", according to the newspaper.

Human rights groups have accused the Central Intelligence Agency of running secret prisons in Europe and elsewhere, abducting suspects and transferring them between countries by plane.

President George W. Bush said last month the United States does not secretly move terrorism suspects to foreign countries that torture to get information.

"We do not render to countries that torture, that has been our policy and that policy will remain the same," Bush said.

Washington has come under growing pressure to explain why hundreds of flights by CIA planes have criss-crossed the world, stopping in many European countries.

Britain, a key U.S. ally, has repeatedly sought to play down its role in the rendition controversy.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told parliament on January 10 that Britain has approved only two CIA rendition flights. However, the leaked document, dated December 7, 2005, says the CIA may have used British airports more often.

"The papers we have uncovered so far suggest that there could be more than the two cases referred to in the House (of Commons) by the foreign secretary," the BBC News Web site quoted from an extract of the memo.

It was sent by an official in Straw's department to an aide in Prime Minister Tony Blair's office, the Guardian said.

It was leaked to the New Statesman magazine and parts were reprinted in several British newspapers on Thursday.

The briefing document's author, named as Irfan Siddiq, appears to suggest the British government should seek to sidestep difficult questions over its role in the renditions.

"We should try to avoid getting drawn on detail and to try to move the debate on," he wrote, according to the newspaper."

A spokesman for Blair declined to comment. A Foreign Office spokesman had no direct comment.

"The government does not deport or extradite anyone to another state where there are substantive grounds to believe they would be subject to torture," he said in a statement.