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Rice defends U.S. handling of terror suspects

BERLIN—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday rejected European criticism of how the United States handles terrorist suspects, saying the war against terrorism requires using "every lawful weapon," but insisting that the Bush administration doesn't sanction torture.

Rice acknowledged that U.S. intelligence agencies transport detainees to third countries for questioning, a practice known as "rendition," but she said "the United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture."

U.S. officials, human rights experts and news reports, however, said that the United States has rendered terror suspects to a number of countries that use torture according to the State Department's own human rights reports.

The suspects have included Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, a senior al-Qaida operative who under questioning provided bogus information on Iraqi chemical weapons training for the terrorist network, who was returned to Egypt.

The State Department's 2004 human rights report on Egypt said that despite legal safeguards, "there were numerous, credible reports that security forces tortured and mistreated detainees."

Rice refused to confirm or deny reports of a network of secret, CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. She maintained the Bush administration's no-comment policy on a subject that's caused an uproar in the European Union.

"The president is going to use every lawful means to fight the war on terror," Rice told reporters on her plane en route to Germany. "It is important that all of us that are fighting the war on terrorism remind ourselves and our publics that we have an obligation to protect ourselves and our people."

Late last week, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, wrote Rice requesting an explanation of the reported secret prisons. Human rights groups have said that two are in Romania and Poland, and the EU's justice minister said that they're illegal if they exist.

Rice left Monday for a four-day trip that will take her to Germany, Romania, Ukraine and Belgium. She is expected to be dogged by the detainee issue.

Before leaving Andrews Air Force Base early Monday, Rice went before TV cameras to read a five-page statement responding to European concerns about the reports of prisons and secret CIA flights carrying detainees that use European airspace and airports.

While not denying the flights, Rice said: "The United States does not use the airspace or airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured. The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured."

Her statement concluded: "The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees. Torture, and conspiracy to commit torture, are crimes under U.S. law, wherever they may occur in the world."

"Our people are operating under U.S. law and U.S. treaty obligations," Rice told reporters en route to Europe. She said that America's obligations under the international Convention Against Torture "are interpreted and enforced by U.S. law and by our Justice Department."

Rice's statement appeared to be a more clear-cut disavowal of torture than the Bush administration has given in the past.

Some officials have argued for a narrow definition of torture that would permit brutal techniques in interrogating terrorist suspects.

The "principle methods of torture" employed in Egypt included stripping and blindfolding prisoners, beatings with fists, whips and metal rods, electric shocks and dousing with cold water.

U.S. authorities also have returned at least two detainees to Syria. One of them, a Canadian citizen, claims he was tortured there.

The State Department 2004 human rights report said that there were credible allegations that Syrian security forces "continued to use torture frequently" last year.

Other countries to which detainees have been sent that the State Department said allegedly practice torture include Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Uzbekistan.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch took issue with Rice's statement.

"They are claiming that they are not sending people to Syria because they consciously desire people to be tortured. But they know perfectly well that torture is standard operating procedure in these countries," he said. "They continued rendering people to these countries even after serious allegations (of torture) emerged.

"The notion that the Syrians won't torture some one because they (the United States) get a promise from the Syrian secret police is laughable," he continued. "They know perfectly well what is going on."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Condoleezza Rice

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