The Malta Independent 5 June 2023, Monday
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Malta’s all-but-forgotten role in the US rendition and torture programme

David Lindsay Thursday, 25 December 2014, 15:30 Last update: about 9 years ago

Malta's role in the Central Intelligence Agency's highly controversial practice of extraordinary rendition may not feature in the international press, heavily outweighed as it is by EU states and other countries that have hosted so-called black sites where rendition victims have been interrogated and tortured, but Malta was nevertheless complicit in the practice.

Investigations carried out by The Malta Independent on Sunday between late 2005 and early 2006 had uncovered eight landings at Malta International Airport of seven private airplanes implicated in the highly controversial practice slammed by human rights groups and governments across the globe.

The term "extraordinary rendition" refers to the highly controversial US practice of kidnapping terrorism suspects and secretly transporting them on private aircraft, usually owned by CIA front companies, for transport to secret prisons in countries where torture was used as a routine interrogation technique.

The practice in European airspace and territory has been the subject of parallel probes by the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and a number of individual European countries, but not Malta.

The Maltese government, in fact, had never given a satisfactory answer to repeated allegations that Malta served as a staging post for such flights.

A report in 2007 by the European Parliament's 'Temporary Committee on the alleged use of European countries by the CIA for the transport and illegal detention of prisoners' found that Malta's airspace and soil had been used by Blackwater USA subsidiary company Blackwater Aviation for such purposes - allegations that Blackwater, in correspondence with this newspaper at the time, vehemently refuted.

Although it denied the accusations, the private security company acknowledged to this newspaper that it sometimes flew its security personnel through Malta, but denied any participation - through its landings in Malta or anywhere else in the world - in the extraordinary renditions of terrorism suspects as practiced by the American authorities.

But a subsequent report in the New York Times quoted former Blackwater employees confirmed that they had helped provide security on CIA flights transporting detainees after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

The EP committee report found that Malta's airspace and soil had been used by Blackwater USA subsidiary company Blackwater Aviation for extraordinary renditions and that Malta has served as a European base for Blackwater aircraft carrying out renditions.

The EP report underscored that, while Malta had been found to have been used on at least seven occasions by six different aircraft known to have carried out renditions, the Maltese dynamic in such operations was not extensively investigated due to a shortage of time and the sheer number of countries that had warranted investigation.

As such, the EP committee had only investigated higher profile cases in countries such as Italy, Germany and Poland and stressed its report was "therefore not exhaustive". 

It added, however, it was still concerned by stopovers in countries such as Malta.

The EP report claimed that the company's aircraft based in Malta "carry paratroopers and oversized cargo and can operate from short and unimproved runways" and added that Malta served as a European base for such aircraft.

The report underscored the fact that, on six of the seven occasions, Blackwater flights arrived from or departed to "suspicious locations" in terms of rendition activities.

These, according to the EP, included Amman, Jordan, Cairo, Alexandria and Hurghada in Egypt, as well as to Tripoli in Libya. The latter, however, has been has been linked to secret negotiations regarding Libya's nuclear weapon development programme between a CIA-MI6 joint team and their Libyan counterparts in December 2003.

According to the EP paper, the planes have also landed from or left for Northolt Air Base near London; Keflavik, Iceland; Palma and Mallorca in Spain; Ponta Delgada in Portugal; Kuwait; Barcelona and Frankfurt.

Blackwater, as expected, took exception to the EP report, as well as to our report detailing the committee's findings.

In a communication at the time with The Malta Independent on Sunday, legal representatives of the private security firm confirmed that "Blackwater provides training for military and law enforcement and protects US government civilians overseas. Its personnel often fly overseas on sister-company aircraft, including landings in Malta."

The firm's lawyers added: "None of these flights has ever transported terrorist suspects. Blackwater and its affiliates do not now and have never conducted so-called 'rendition flights' of terrorist suspects."

Blackwater disputed the contents of the EP committee's report and called on the committee to re-examine its findings, saying it was "alarmed by these statements, because they are completely false and defamatory".

Last year, the MaltaToday newspaper, through a Freedom of Information, obtained information from the US Department of State information that showed how the Maltese government provided the US with the approval for emergency landing for all military aircraft carrying either hazardous material or suspect personnel, in its support of the war against terrorism.

The Maltese government had, according to the newspaper, provided "approval of over-flight for all military aircraft, approval for emergency landing for all military aircraft, approval for emergency landing for all military aircraft including those with hazardous material or suspect personnel, use of the Malta Drydocks for routine and emergency repairs of US navy ships, and full security support for visiting US navy ships."

Additionally, in 2004 Malta also provided "vital blanket US military over-flight and emergency landing authorisation for Afghanistan and Iraq-related missions" and "exchanged important intelligence information on counter-terrorism and WMD activity."

UN officials demand prosecutions for US torture

In the wake of the US Senate's report on the CIA's torture techniques, top UN officials demanded that all senior US officials and CIA agents who authorised or carried out torture such as waterboarding as part of former President George W. Bush's national security policy must be prosecuted.

Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said it is "crystal clear" under international law that the United States, which ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1994, now has an obligation to ensure accountability.

"In all countries, if someone commits murder, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they commit rape or armed robbery, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they order, enable or commit torture - recognized as a serious international crime - they cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency," he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hopes the US Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities is the "start of a process" towards prosecutions, because the "prohibition against torture is absolute," says his spokesman.

Ben Emmerson, the UN's special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said the report released on Tuesday shows "there was a clear policy orchestrated at a high level within the Bush administration, which allowed [it] to commit systematic crimes and gross violations of international human rights law."

He said international law prohibits the granting of immunity to public officials who allow the use of torture, and this applies not just to the actual perpetrators but also to those who plan and authorise torture.

"The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability," Emmerson said.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth echoed those comments, saying: "Unless this important truth-telling process leads to the prosecution of officials, torture will remain a 'policy option' for future presidents."

The report said that, in addition to waterboarding, the US tactics included slamming detainees against walls, confining them to small boxes, keeping them isolated for prolonged periods and threatening them with death.

US President Barack Obama said, the interrogation techniques "did significant damage to America's standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies". CIA Director John Brennan said the agency had made mistakes and had learned from them, but he insisted the coercive techniques produced intelligence "that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives".

The Senate investigation, however, found no evidence that the interrogations stopped imminent plots. EU spokeswoman Catherine Ray emphasised this week that the Obama administration has worked since 2009 to see that torture is not used anymore but said it is "a commitment that should be enshrined in law"."

Earlier this year, Italy's highest court upheld guilty verdicts against the CIA's former Rome station chief Jeff Castelli and two others identified as CIA agents in the 2003 extraordinary rendition kidnapping of an Egyptian terror suspect. The decision was the only prosecution to date against the Bush administration's practice of abducting terror suspects and moving them to third countries that permitted torture.

All three had been acquitted in the original trial due to diplomatic immunity. They were among 26 Americans, mostly CIA agents, found guilty in absentia of kidnapping Milan cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr from a Milan street on 17 February 2003.



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