By DOUG SAUNDERS
Toronto Globe and Mail
December 06, 2005
He travels from his home in Oporto, Portugal, to one of Europe's major airports and spends a couple of days standing at the side of the runway with a bunch of friends, photographing every airplane that takes off or lands.
He is proud to call himself a plane spotter. And like hundreds of Europeans who share this peculiar hobby, his only desire is to build up his life list: a compilation of thousands of high-quality photos of jet airplanes, building toward the almost unattainable goal of owning a photo of every registered plane in the world.
But his hobby has placed him at the center of an international political controversy, a scandal involving torture, secret prisons, terrorism and spy networks that is threatening to destroy the fragile relationship between the United States and Europe.
With Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State, visiting Europe this week, the main item on her agenda will be to defuse the secret-prison crisis that began with a photograph that 28-year-old Goncalves unwittingly snapped on a runway in Oporto three years ago.
He had no interest in provoking a geopolitical crisis and, in fact, he has avoided the public eye because he wants to have nothing to do with the fates of nations, he said in an interview.
"In reality, I didn't know anything about the plane I was photographing," he said of the unmarked Gulfstream bearing the number N379P. "And the ownership didn't interest me at all."
Months later, human-rights groups began noticing this plane showing up in the galleries of plane spotters across Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the former Soviet Union. They traced its registration to a shell company allegedly controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The plane, according to the testimony of prisoners and officials, is used to ferry terrorism suspects between a network of secret prisons and so-called "black sites" across Europe, usually without the knowledge of the countries in which the suspects are held, and sometimes it serves to transfer suspects, in a process known as "extraordinary rendition," to countries known to torture prisoners.
The governments of France, Germany and Britain launched investigations after learning that the plane had been used to transfer prisoners, who have not been charged, to secret prisons in their countries.
In Milan, the CIA station chief has been charged with kidnapping along with 21 other alleged CIA agents working in Italy after the Gulfstream, which plane spotters say has changed its registration to N44982, was used to take a suspect out of the country.
It emerged recently that 26 planes allegedly used by the CIA have made more than 30 flights in Europe since Sept. 11, 2001, and that Germany and Britain have become major transfer centers.
At least seven of those aircraft have landed in Canada, including three in Newfoundland, one in Nunavut and one in Northern Ontario during the past six months.
Human Rights Watch released a list of 26 "ghost detainees" who are held by the United States without charge and allegedly transferred around the world on these flights.
The Washington Post also has reported that dozens of prisoners had been taken by mistake, with some kidnapped in their home countries and held incommunicado for weeks before being released.
European politicians have said they would confront Rice over these reports.
"The allegations are now beyond speculation. We now have sufficient evidence involving CIA flights," said Sarah Ludford, a British member of the civil-liberties committee of the European Union parliament.
"We need to know who was on those flights, where they went."
Stephen Hadley, an adviser to Rice, said she will defend the use of secret prisons "in a comprehensive way," that prisoners are not tortured and that the United States will not alter its transport and treatment of terrorism suspects. But among the fraternity of plane spotters, the only concern about the CIA scandal is that it could hurt their hobby.
"All these negative reports about plane spotters uncovering secret CIA operations may in the long run turn out unfavorable both to myself and to our hobby as a whole," said Giovanni Verbeeck, a Belgian plane spotter who photographed the secret plane in Germany.
"It may sound ironic, but it wasn't until my photos were all over the media that I knew these planes were something special. ... they behaved like regular aircraft."
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