April 5, 2006

Amnesty Report Fuels Secret Prison Suspicions

By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent

BERLIN -- Three men newly freed from jail in Yemen have given detailed accounts to Amnesty International that suggest they may previously have been held at a secret U.S. prison in Eastern Europe, the rights group said on Wednesday.

Muhammad Bashmilah, Salah Qaru and Muhammad al-Assad spent 13 months in one secret facility before being flown to Yemen in May 2005 and imprisoned there until their release last month, Amnesty said in a report.

It based its assertion that they may have been held in Europe on a combination of details, including the men's estimates of flight times during their initial transfer from Afghanistan and their return to Yemen.

The men were also provided by their guards with Muslim prayer schedules, downloaded from the Web site islamicfinder.org, which showed that the local sunset time varied from about 4.30 p.m. in winter to 8.45 p.m. in summer.

"Such a degree of variation indicates a location north of the 41st parallel, well above the Middle East, and very likely to be within one of the member states of the Council of Europe," Amnesty said.

"Countries that would fit the time range include Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia."

Analysis of the men's estimated flight times also suggested Bosnia and Slovakia as possible locations, the report said.

It said the men were in a country that observed daylight saving time, which is the case throughout Europe but not, for example, in countries such as Afghanistan, Jordan or Pakistan. They said the temperature in winter was colder than they had ever experienced.


The Council of Europe, which monitors human rights on the continent, and a European Parliament committee are both investigating a report by the Washington Post last year that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency ran secret prisons for terrorist suspects in Eastern Europe.

European governments have denied hosting such facilities and the United States has refused to comment on the allegations.

Kathalijne Buitenweg, a Dutch Green member of the European Parliament investigation, said the detail on the prayer times was "definitely interesting" but did not amount to proof the men had been held in Europe.

"There is so much circumstantial evidence. But I admit there's not a smoking gun, we don't have it," she told Reuters.

Amnesty researcher Anne FitzGerald said she believed the new information was significant, even if partly "subjective." She said two of the men had told her they believed they had been held in Europe when she interviewed them in prison in Yemen last September.

"At the time, no one had ever mentioned the possibility of secret detention in Europe," she told Reuters. "When the reports from the Washington Post came out in November, it immediately struck me that perhaps these guys were right."

She said Amnesty was "completely confident" from its investigations that the men had been in U.S. custody since being arrested in 2003 -- Assad in Tanzania, and the other two in Jordan.

Their case was highlighted in a wider Amnesty report on the U.S. use of "extraordinary rendition" -- the practice of secretly transferring terrorist suspects between countries, outside normal legal channels.

The United States has acknowledged using renditions as a tool in the war on terrorism, but denies allegations it has handed over suspects to countries where they would be tortured.