WASHINGTON - More than 20 nations - from Central Asia to Western Europe - colluded in a CIA-run "spider's web" of secret flights and prisons for abducted terrorism suspects that breach European and international human rights accords, a report to Europe's top human rights organization charged Wednesday.
"Rather than face any form of justice, suspects become entrapped in the spider's web," the report says.
The findings could further damage the United States' image in Europe and the Muslim world, where many people already are angry about the Iraq invasion, alleged torture of U.S.-held detainees and what they perceive as a Bush administration bias toward Israel.
Bush administration spokesmen said the report rehashed old allegations with no basis in facts. They denied that the United States practices torture and said rendition - transporting suspects to face criminal charges in their native countries - was legal under international law.
"The fight against terrorism is our highest priority, but it must be conducted with respect for the international rule of law," asserted Rene van der Linden, the president of the 46-nation Council of Europe.
The council, Europe's oldest human rights organization, can pressure member governments and legislatures into using the report as the basis for further investigations. It has no power on its own to enforce human rights accords, however.
The report, by Swiss Sen. Dick Marty, charges that 14 European governments and eight other nations aided the CIA in some way in illegally seizing suspected Islamic terrorists.
It didn't give a total number of abductions, but said investigators had confirmed 10 cases of "alleged unlawful interstate transfer" involving 17 men.
The men claimed they were abducted by American agents, trussed up and blindfolded, subjected to maltreatment that included beatings and flown to U.S. prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Afghanistan or to Poland, Morocco, Romania, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
Several of the men were released after investigators found that they'd been erroneously identified as Islamic terrorists or accomplices.
"Rendition is not something that began with this administration, and it's certainly going to be practiced, I'm sure, in the future," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
But Marty said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration oversaw a "critical deviation" in U.S. rendition policy under which the practice was used to "place captured terrorist suspects outside the reach of any justice system and keep them there."
The "absence of human rights guarantees" and the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" led in several cases "to detainees being subjected to torture," he said.
The extraordinary renditions were carried out by "an elite, highly trained and highly motivated group of CIA agents who traveled around the world mistreating victim after victim," the report charges.
Interviews with released detainees found they suffered from "lasting psychological damage," it says.
Marty said he had "no formal evidence" to substantiate American news reports that the CIA maintained secret detention centers in Poland and Romania. Both countries deny the allegation.
"Nevertheless, it is clear that an unspecified number of persons . . . were arbitrarily and unlawfully arrested and/or detained and transported under the supervision of (security) services acting in the name, or on behalf, of the American authorities," he wrote.
The report traced specific flights of U.S. military and CIA-operated aircraft, often beginning in Washington, using flight logs from Eurocontrol, the European air-traffic authority, and national aviation authorities.
It also relied on the statements of people who claimed to have been abducted, interviews with American and European officials, and police and judicial investigations in several countries.
Among the cases the report cites is that of Khaled El Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent who was detained in Macedonia in 2003 and flown to Baghdad and then to Kabul, where he was imprisoned until May 2004.
El Masri, who's sued the CIA in the United States, claimed he was stripped, beaten, drugged and chained up during his abduction.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last December after speaking with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about El Masri that the United States "has acknowledged being in error." Washington denied that Rice had admitted a mistake.
The report also cited the CIA's alleged 2003 abduction in Milan, Italy, of an Egyptian cleric suspected of links to Islamic militants, who was flown to Cairo. Italian authorities have issued arrest warrants for 22 CIA officers in the case.
© 2006 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources