Michael McKevitt, 2 february 2006
On 20 March 2003, the coalition government secured the necessary parliamentary approval to allow US military forces utilise landing and refuelling facilities at Shannon Airport. During the debate Bertie Ahern argued that a refusal to allow US military and civilian aircraft avail of Shannon would be viewed as “a radical and far-reaching change in our foreign policy and in the long-standing national interpretation of what is and what is not participation in war.” In actual fact the decision to permit US forces land and refuel at Shannon en route to Iraq represented a radical departure from previous government policy. For the past fifty years foreign military aircraft were denied over flight and landing facilities if they were armed, carrying armaments or aerial photographic equipment, engaged in intelligence gathering or part of a military exercise or operation.
On several occasions George W Bush has publicly thanked “the countries in the coalition who are giving crucial support, from the use of naval and air bases to help with intelligence and logistics to the deployment of combat units”. The Irish government is clearly part of the “coalition of the willing”. However, the question remains, is the government also complicit in “extraordinary renditions” – one of the most scandalous aspects of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”?
Extraordinary rendition, the abduction of people and their transferral to countries where they are interrogated under torture, was devised by the Clinton administration during the initial stages of its intelligence war against militant Islam. Rendition is illegal under international law. According to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, “no state shall expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subject to torture”. It is also illegal under international law to assist extraordinary renditions. According to New York University’s centre for human rights and global justice, “a state which aids or assists another state in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the later is internationally responsible for doing so”. So is the Irish government in breach of international law?
Anti-war activists and Amnesty International have been monitoring the flight paths of CIA-owned planes. This scrutiny has highlighted the important role Shannon has played in the Bush administration’s rendition programme. For example, on 16 February 2003, Abu Omar was abducted by 13 CIA operatives while walking along Milan’s Via Guerzona. The Islamic cleric was bundled into a Gulfstream IV jet [call sign N85VM] and flown to Egypt, where he was tortured during a prolonged interrogation. Having departed Egypt, the CIA-owned plane landed and refuelled at Shannon at 0552 on 18 February, before returning to Dulles Airport in Washington. The Italian state has since issued extradition proceedings against the American agents involved in the abduction.
Irish complicity in the CIA’s rendition programme is not restricted to the Abu Omar abduction. For example, two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad el-Zary, were abducted by the CIA in Sweden. The two men were flown to Cairo in a Gulfstream jet [call sign N379P]. While in Egyptian custody Agiza and el-Zary were subjected to electrical shocks under interrogation. Flight N379P has landed at Shannon on numerous occasions over the past four years. Initially, the government refused to confirm this fact. However, under persistent questioning by Finian McGrath TD and Senator David Norris, the government admitted the CIA-owned plane had landed in Shannon on more than a dozen occasions since 2001.
Therefore have abducted prisoners been transported through Shannon? It is highly probable that they have. Senator Mary O’Rourke recently stated: “there have been incidents of which we would not be proud as a country.” However, to date, no specific evidence has entered the public domain which confirms that abducted prisoners have landed at Shannon. Yet some questions remain unanswered. For example, Amnesty International consulted the US Federal Aviation Administration files and found that 50 CIA-owned planes recently landed in Shannon. However, the human rights organisation also discovered that only 35 take-offs were logged by the airport authority during the same period. Why the discrepancies? Have flights been kept secret? Were abducted Islamic prisoners on any of these flights?
Michael McDowell believes we should accept US assurances that no abducted prisoners have passed through Shannon. The UN does not concur and has stated that diplomatic assurances have no validity and provide no exemption from legal obligations under international law.
The government has established a special Seanad select committee to investigate Irish involvement in renditions. Village recently published an extract from a memo prepared for the committee by the Department of Foreign Affairs International Security Policy Section, which states the Irish government “has not and will not permit any flight engaged in rendition to pass through Ireland”. The information contained in this departmental document is totally untrue. The CIA plane involved in the Abu Omar rendition landed and refuelled in Shannon on the return leg of its journey. This was a specific instance of assistance. And it was not an isolated case.
The Irish Human Rights Commission and the Council of Europe has stated that the government has “a positive obligation” to inspect incoming US flights to ensure there is no breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. But is this sufficient? Obviously no abducted Islamic prisoner should enter Irish airspace. But surely the government must go further and terminate the current practice of logistically assisting extraordinary renditions?
The Irish government is complicit in the illegal Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, which has resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. To make matters worse it is now facilitating an illegal CIA intelligence gathering operation that is founded on abduction and torture. It is time for the Irish government to fulfil its obligations under international law. And how is this best achieved? By immediately withdrawing Irish landing and refuelling facilities from all US military and intelligence aircraft and all chartered flights transporting US military and intelligence personnel.
Michael McKevitt is a political prisoner currently detained in Portlaoise Prison Ireland. He was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in August 2003 for Directing and Membership of an Illegal organization namely the Real IRA, on the sole evidence of a paid FBI/MI5 informer David Rupert. This article appeared in a recent issue of Forum.