BUCHAREST, Romania — There are only a few hundred Muslim immigrants in Iaşi, a city of 350,000 that is Romania’s second-largest metropolis, and few of them seem eager to talk about what happened in January 2005. That’s when Romanian security forces converged on an Iaşi mosque and arrested five North African and Middle Eastern students enrolled at the local University of Medicine and Pharmacy on suspicion of being terrorists.

The suspects were Musaab Ahmed Mohamed Mujalli of Saudi Arabia; Yousuf Ali Mohamed Al Balushi of Oman; Aymen Ahmed Fouad Jadkareem of Sudan; Asad Abrar Qureshi of Pakistan; and Khaldoon Walid Monir Nabham, whose citizenship wasn’t disclosed. The students — along with a Saudi medical student from Bucharest and a Syrian doctor, both also accused of terrorism — were deported in February 2005 without legal proceedings. They haven’t been seen in Iaşi since.

What the SRI did not explain was why such supposedly dangerous terrorists were simply kicked out of Romania instead of being held and tried on terrorism charges. Later, the local prosecutor said he couldn’t pursue a case against the students because of insufficient evidence. The Romanian government denied a request from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for the exact dates and flight details of their deportations, citing national security concerns.In a story in the Romanian newspaper Jurnalul National, officials from the SRI, Romania’s domestic intelligence agency, depicted the group as an al Qaeda cell, preparing to brainwash recruits and mount suicide attacks not previously seen in the Eastern European country. “When they met together the cell members were extremely cautious and behaved as true espionage operatives,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying. Another unnamed source said, “They were trained how to avoid the control of Romanian authorities, tested those in their close entourage and learned how to use the Internet for stealth communication.” In a press release, the SRI described the group’s members as “trained in techniques to resist interrogation, torture or eventual pressure from the intelligence services.”

The case was just one sign of Romania’s zeal to be an integral partner in America’s global war on terror, a commitment that would bring the country significant financial and political benefits — and gain the United States a new ally strategically located not far from the continuing tensions of the Middle East and Central Asia. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, Romania has made a concerted effort to align itself with the Bush administration’s get-tough anti-terror policies by:

  • Signing on as one of a few European nations to agree not to extradite U.S. military personnel to the International Criminal Court, a body that probes allegations of war crimes and human rights violations — and is staunchly opposed by the U.S. government.
  • Making an air base available as a staging area for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
  • Sending several hundred troops to fight in Iraq, buttressing the Bush administration’s “coalition of the willing.”
  • Serving as a transit point, according to investigations by the European Union and the Council of Europe, for CIA-operated aircraft that transported terrorism suspects from Europe and the Middle East to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and other, more secretive foreign facilities, where they have been held without trial and subjected to what human rights groups decry as torture.
  • Positioning itself to become the most important U.S. ally in the Black Sea region by agreeing to host a rotating contingent of up to 2,000 U.S. troops.

While payments to Romania under the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program have increased substantially since 9/11, the country’s decision to align itself closely with the U.S. has hurt its reputation with much of Europe and dismayed some of its own citizens.

As for the deported students, court documents examined by ICIJ show that Romanian authorities had tapped both their landline and mobile phones, intercepted their text messages and tracked them to a public Internet cafe in Iaşi. But despite the intense surveillance, Romanian prosecutor Gheorghe Muscalu told ICIJ in an interview that the government had to drop the case because it had been unable to find evidence linking the students to terrorism. The students were deported anyway under new, controversial powers adopted after the September 11 attacks that gave the Romanian government broad authority to deport terrorism suspects.

“It seems to me that it’s all been a fraud,” Dr. Mohamed Daoud, an Egyptian physician who graduated from medical school in Iaşi, told ICIJ. Daoud, who knew the deported students, is one of the few Muslims immigrants willing to speak out.

“These guys were not terrorists,” he said. “They might have been a little bit more faithful [to Islam] than the others.” He said he suspected that the SRI staged the arrests to justify the need for strict new national security laws that President Traian Băsescu wanted the Romanian Parliament to enact. “They can say now, ‘Look — we have terrorists, too,'” Daoud said.

A ripening relationship

The Clinton administration began providing military aid to Romania in 1994, just a few years after the 1989 uprising that overthrew the communist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. The aid began when Romania joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, under which former Soviet bloc countries could engage in joint military operations and training with NATO as preparation for eventual membership. The following year, President Clinton decided to permit U.S. manufacturers to sell offensive weaponry to Romania and other former communist countries.

Since 1998, Romania has received more than $100 million in U.S. military aid, the bulk of it coming from the Foreign Military Financing program, which provides grants to buy U.S. military equipment and services. U.S. military contractors active in Romania include Cubic Corp., a San Diego-based electronics manufacturer, which in December 2006 received $13.4 million in contracts from the U.S. Army to provide combat training simulators to the Romanian and Slovakian armed forces. Another is Wexford Group International of Vienna, Va., a consulting organization that advises Romania on how to transition its military from a Warsaw Pact force to a NATO model. Management Vectors Inc., a consulting firm based in Lake Mary, Fla., has helped the Romanian Ministry of Defense with strategic simulations.

After the September 11 attacks, U.S. and Romanian military and intelligence interests became more closely intertwined.

As President Băsescu revealed last year in an interview with The Washington Post, within months of the attacks Romania and the U.S. opened a joint anti-terrorism center where personnel from the CIA and other U.S. agencies worked alongside their Romanian counterparts.

Romania’s secret services — the SRI, which handles domestic intelligence, and the SIE, the foreign intelligence service — became valuable to the CIA because of their extensive connections in the Middle East, according to an SRI officer who was interviewed by ICIJ on the condition of anonymity.

In the summer of 2002, when Romania was the first country to say yes to the Bush administration’s request that allies agree not to extradite Americans to the International Criminal Court, the European Union chided Romania for acting unilaterally without Brussels’ blessing.

But the Romanian government apparently saw support for the U.S. position as a quid pro quo for military aid and for U.S. support for Romania’s bid to join NATO.

“I think that when it comes to this decision, the immediate strategic interests of Romania prevailed,” then-Romanian foreign minister Mircea Geoană toldFinancial Times. Then-Romanian President Ion Iliescu told the Associated Press that the decision to comply with the U.S. request was “an opportunity and necessity for Romania.”

Invasion of Iraq

In September 2002, then-U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith visited the Romanian capital of Bucharest, where he held talks with Romanian leaders on the possible role their country might play in the upcoming U.S. attack on Iraq.

Two months later, President Bush journeyed to Bucharest to close the sale. In welcoming Romania into the NATO alliance, Bush gave a speech that drew a parallel between the Eastern European nation’s overthrow of Ceauşescu and the impending U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

“The people of Romania understand that aggressive dictators cannot be appeased or ignored; they must always be opposed,” Bush said. “An aggressive dictator now rules in Iraq. … By his search for terrible weapons, by his ties to terror groups, by his development of prohibited ballistic missiles, the dictator of Iraq threatens the security of every free nation, including the free nations of Europe.”

In the spring of 2003, Romanian military cooperation with the U.S. became crucial after Turkey denied permission for U.S. forces to use its territory to attack Iraq from the north and Romania stepped in to play that role. Thousands of U.S. military personnel converged on the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanţa. A short distance away, Mihail Kogalniceanu air base became a major staging area for the airborne invasion.

In July 2003, Romania sent some 700 troops — including military police, engineers and a chemical-biological weapons team — to Iraq. Coming at a time when major NATO powers France and Germany had refused to participate in the Iraq war, Romania’s support helped the Bush administration maintain that the war was being fought by an international “coalition of the willing.”

Again, Romania saw the war as an opportunity.

“I think it’s in our interest to send troops [to] Iraq,” then-Romanian Deputy Defense Minister George Maior told National Public Radio in 2003. “I think the risk for our national security coming from the area of the Middle East or Central Asia or the Black Sea implies that we should take responsibilities in that region and participate in international operations. I think also it’s a question of credibility. This is very important for a country that is defining its political role in the world, its strategic role, its military role.”

Romania has continued its close military relationship with the U.S. under Băsescu, who became president in 2004. A 2005 article for the Web site of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, an international journalism organization, depicts Băsescu, who has twice visited President Bush at the White House, as positioning Romania to become one of the most important U.S. military allies in the Black Sea region.

In December 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice journeyed to Bucharest to sign the agreement under which Romania will allow the U.S. to station as many as 2,000 troops at three Romanian bases, beginning as early as the summer of 2007. A spokesman for the U.S. military in Europe explained that the bases, though much smaller and more temporary than older U.S. bases in Western Europe, would enable the U.S. to maintain smaller and “more agile” forces at strategic locations.

Paying the piper

One way Romania provided assistance for the Iraq war effort was through deportations. Documents obtained by ICIJ under the Romanian Freedom of Information Law show that in 2003, the Romanian government expelled 20 Iraqis, including five diplomats, accusing all of posing threats to national security.

That same year, the SRI announced that it had stopped a terrorist operation against Israeli interests in Romania. In a press statement, the SRI said the Iraqi Embassy in Bucharest had plotted to provide the would-be terrorists with grenade launchers, though it acknowledged that none of the weapons actually had been brought into Romania.

The expulsions were made possible by a new governmental authority adopted after September 11. In December 2002, the Romanian government issued an emergency ordinance regulating the status of foreign citizens. A Romanian government document obtained by ICIJ describes the ordinance as a necessity imposed by “the 11th of September terrorist attacks and by the globalization of the efforts to combat international terrorism.” According to the document, signed by the then-Prime Minister Adrian Năstase, “the removal of foreign citizens is especially covered by this ordinance in order to create effective tools for dealing with threats to national security.”

One provision appears to have violated international human rights agreements to which Romania was a signatory. Paragraph 1 of Article 92 states: “An alien cannot be expelled to a state where there are justified fears that his life is in danger or that he will be subjected to tortures, inhumane or degrading treatments.” But Paragraph 4 says, “The alien who is subject to one of the cases provided in paragraph 1 and 2 [an alien who if expelled may be subject to torture] may be expelled for reasons of national security and public order.” The loophole violated various European and international human rights conventions that prohibit handing over suspects to countries where torture is expected or known to be used. The offending Paragraph 4 was removed in November 2004 — after the 2003 expulsion of the Iraqis — at the request of Năstase, who said that the ordinance had to be made compliant with EU legislation.

The expelled Iraqis also included businessmen who had lived in Romania for years. One, Reyadh Abdul Amer Al Sharba, a 20-year resident, tried to challenge his deportation in the Romanian courts. But Al Sharba and his attorney, Nicolae Saim, ran into an insurmountable obstacle. In a striking similarity to U.S. limitations on terrorism suspects’ access to the evidence used against them, under Article 84 of the Romanian Emergency Ordinance, an alien deemed by Romanian intelligence agencies to be a threat to national security has no legal right to examine the evidence against him. Neither, for that matter, do Romanian judges, who apparently are expected to take the word of the SRI that an alien is a threat to national security.

Saim, Al Sharba’s attorney, said that he challenged the secrecy provisions in the Romanian courts but that the Romanian Constitutional Court ultimately rejected his petition and Al Sharba was deported. Court documents obtained by ICIJ indicate that the Romanian Court of Appeals had in fact previously found that the legal basis for such secrecy was unconstitutional but was ultimately overturned by the Romanian Constitutional Court. In all, during 2003 and 2004, Romania expelled 44 foreigners, including citizens of Jordan, Syria and Turkey. The majority of the expulsions were carried out at the SRI’s request.

Some of the SRI’s secrecy policies are regarded by Romanian civil liberties activists as violations of human rights. “There’s no control over SRI whatsoever,” Catalina Radulescu, a lawyer with the Bucharest-based Center for Legal Resources, said in an interview. “The SRI can do whatever they like, and they can do it however they like it. They are a state in a state. They say they are protecting the so-called national security, but they do this against the national interest. What they’re doing is an abuse against the public interest.”

The Romanian government defends the policy. “After September 11, there have been many unfortunate events in some of the world’s countries,” said a spokesman for the Authority for Foreigners, the Romanian agency that handles deportations. “However, such incidents didn’t occur in Romania. This is due to the good job performed by those meant to ensure the citizens’ safety.”

Secret flights, secret prisons

Deportations of foreigners weren’t the only post-9/11 assistance Romania provided to the United States.

On the afternoon of December 6, 2004, a Gulfstream jet, tail number N478GS, prepared to touch down at Băneasa airport outside Bucharest.

The jet’s previous stop — Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has a detention facility for terrorism suspects — suggests that it was no routine business flight. According to a later investigation by the European Union, the aircraft was owned by Centurion Aviation Services, a company with a special permit authorizing it to land at U.S. military bases worldwide. To European Union investigators, that would be a tipoff that the aircraft’s actual operator was the CIA.

The landing didn’t go smoothly. According to Romanian National Transportation Safety Board records and the EU investigation, the Gulfstream struck part of the runway that was under construction, destroying the aircraft’s wheels and fuel tank.

After the accident, the Gulfstream’s seven passengers — one of whom was carrying a handgun — disappeared, according to the EU investigation.

The mysterious flight was just one of the clues that Romania may have assisted the U.S. in the transportation — and possibly the actual detention — of prisoners the CIA was holding secretly and without due process.

In November 2005, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. operated secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere to hold terrorism suspects outside the protections of U.S. or international law. Although the Post left out the names of the countries at the request of the U.S. government, Human Rights Watch, an international civil liberties organization, obtained European flight records showing that aircraft traveling along a circuit between Afghanistan and the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, where the U.S. operates a prison for terrorism suspects, had stopped over at airports in, among other places, Romania.

According to a November 2006 EU draft report, CIA-operated aircraft made 21 stopovers at Romanian airports. The same aircraft were identified as having been used on other occasions to transport other U.S. prisoners, such as Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, an Egyptian cleric allegedly kidnapped in Italy by the CIA (with help from the Italians). Two of the fights originated at or were destined for Guantánamo Bay.

According to the June 2006 report prepared for the Council of Europe by Swiss lawyer Dick Marty, the pattern and route of at least one of the flights suggests that Romania served as “a detainee transfer or dropoff point” for the CIA.

In January 2006, the Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick published a fax reportedly sent from Cairo to the Egyptian Embassy in London and intercepted by Swiss intelligence that described the interrogation of 23 Iraqi and Afghan prisoners at Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, the same facility the U.S. military used to deploy forces in the invasion of Iraq. The newspaper said the fax identified Romania — along with Ukraine, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bulgaria — as a host of secret interrogation sites.

Following the public revelations of alleged Romanian involvement in the CIA’s controversial renditions program — which transfered, outside of any legal process, terrorist suspects to foreign countries for interrogation — the Romanian Parliament launched an inquiry. Ironically, one of the main parliamentary investigators was Norica Nicolai, one of the original proponents behind the emergency ordinance used to deport terrorism suspects. In an interview with ICIJ in March 2006, Nicolai said that the Parliamentary Commission evaluated the data it had received about military flights allegedly involved in the CIA program and concluded there was no wrongdoing.

The Romanian Defense Ministry subsequently denied that the CIA was using the air base as an interrogation site. President Băsescu, in his interview withThe Washington Post last year, said that he allowed American planes with national security interests in Romanian airspace but insisted that he had never permitted prisoners to be held at the base. He added, however: “You can’t be a partner of the United States only when you need advantage and the support of the United States. Sometimes the United States needs your support, and this is what we are doing.”

Despite the official denials, there may be reason to believe that Romanian authorities may have indeed been providing additional “support.” Two Romanian airports alleged by European investigators to be transit points for secret terrorist detainees are close to domestic Romanian government facilities used to expel foreigners from the country, helping to potentially explain the CIA’s alleged interest in using those particular airports.

Just a few kilometers away from the Băneasa airport where the Gulfstream crashed in 2004, the Romanian Authority for Foreigners maintains a detention facility for aliens who are considered threats to national security.

It is there, at the Otopeni center, in clean cells with labels glued to the door, that the five Muslim students from Iaşi were kept before they were expelled from Romania to a fate that remains murky. The Authority for Foreigners denied a Freedom of Information Law request by ICIJ for the dates, times, air carriers and other details regarding the flights on which the students were transported, saying that the information was classified. Otopeni is one of the two Authority for Foreigners centers that detain suspects before their deportation. The other is the Arad facility, a smaller center just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Timişoara airport, another location identified by Council of Europe investigators as an airport allegedly used by the CIA for secretly transporting terrorism suspects.

Mystery and worry

The members of Iaşi’s tiny Muslim community don’t know what happened to the students after their deportation from Romania, but they fear the worst. “If a Muslim is kicked out of Romania, his life is ruined,” said a Palestinian immigrant physician who spoke to ICIJ on the condition of anonymity. “He is taken into custody back home and questioned about the reasons why he was removed.”

Dr. Mohamed Daoud, the Egyptian physician who knew the students, is similarly worried. “In their countries of origin, the authorities will consider them guilty,” he said. “I’m talking now about countries where they don’t have respect for human rights. I believe you’d rather be dead than go through all the ordeals.”

Daoud said it was unfair that Romania didn’t give the students the opportunity to defend themselves against the terrorism allegations after they were arrested in the Iaşi mosque. But the Muslim immigrant knows that in the post-September 11 mindset in his adopted country, it might not be wise to protest too loudly. “If you ask too much, you become a suspect yourself,” he said. “And I don’t go to the mosque anymore, either.”