- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2005

The European Union’s top justice official said yesterday that members of the 25-nation bloc could be stripped of their voting rights if it is proven that they agreed to host secret U.S. prisons for terrorists.

Accusations that the CIA established a network of covert jails in unnamed Eastern European countries have roiled the Continent, and are expected to come up when new German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier meets today with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior U.S. officials.

Franco Frattini, the EU justice and home affairs commissioner, told reporters in Berlin that the bloc has not received a formal response to its request for more information on the prisons from the Bush administration, which has declined publicly to address the charges.

Mr. Frattini, a former Italian foreign minister and close ally of center-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said the presence of clandestine jails would violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I would be obliged to propose serious consequences, including suspension of voting rights” in the European Council, Mr. Frattini said.

The council, made up of ministers from EU nations, oversees a broad range of bloc policies in areas ranging from foreign policy and finance to energy, health and the environment.

The proposed punishment — which would require a unanimous vote from the other EU countries — would go much further than the sanctions the bloc imposed on Austria after a far-right, anti-immigration party joined the government coalition in 2000.

In that case, EU partners froze all diplomatic contacts with their Austrian counterparts and declined to back Austrian candidates for international positions. Austria did not lose its vote in senior EU councils.

Mr. Frattini, considered a low-key technocrat in EU circles, stressed that there was no proof that any EU state or country in line to join the union has harbored the secret CIA jails, first detailed in a Nov. 3 story in The Washington Post.

He said it was imperative to get a detailed response from Washington because “it is impossible to move only on the basis of allegations.”

Mr. Steinmeier, making his first trip to Washington since assuming the foreign minister’s post under new Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters en route: “I presume that the seriousness of these accusations is being recognized in Washington.”

Germany is one of several EU countries investigating reports that secret CIA-chartered flights used their airports to transfer terror suspects to covert detention sites in East Europe and Asia.

All six parties in the new German parliament backed a resolution urging Mr. Steinmeier to press the issue during his Washington visit.

The State Department announced yesterday that Miss Rice will travel next week to Germany, Romania, Ukraine and Belgium — where the European Union has its headquarters.

Department spokesman Sean McCormack yesterday again refused to discuss the prison issue, but said Miss Rice would address it if her European counterparts raised it.

“If the topic does come up in any of the secretary’s meetings, whether it’s here or in Europe, she will be prepared to discuss these issues,” said Mr. McCormack, adding that the discussions “will take place in the broader context of our common struggle against terrorism.”

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said earlier this month that Poland and Romania were among the countries housing the CIA secret prisons. Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and Romania is on track to join the bloc in 2007.

Both countries have denied the charges.

“We stated from the very beginning that there are no such things in Romania, that there was no such request from the U.S., and that there was no such project in the government’s activity portfolio,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu said in a statement supplied yesterday by the Romanian Embassy.

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