In the long quest for accountability for those who ordered, authorized or were complicit in the Bush administration’s torture program, every avenue has been shut down within the US by the Obama administration, the Justice Department and the courts, and the only hope lies elsewhere in the world, and specifically Poland, one of three European countries that hosted secret CIA prisons, where “high-value detainees” were subjected to torture.
Whereas the other two countries — Romania and Lithuania — have either refused to accept that a secret prison existed, or have opened and then prematurely shut an investigation, Poland has an ongoing official investigation, which began four years ago and shows no sign of being dismissed, even if numerous obstacles to justice have been erected along the way.
Last week, two US news outlets — the Los Angeles Times and ABC News — reported the latest claim by Senator Jozef Pinior, who, as ABC News explained, told the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that prosecutors “have a document that shows a local contractor was asked to build a cage at Stare Kiekuty,” the Polish army base that was used by the CIA as its main prison for “high-value detainees” from December 2002 (when the previous prison in Thailand was closed down) until September 2003, when, for six months, the main “high-value detainees” were held in a secret prison within Guantánamo, before being transferred back to facilities in Europe and Morocco. 14 “high-value detainees” were eventually returned to Guantánamo, as military prisoners, in September 2006.
“In a state with rights,” Pinior said, “people in prison are not kept in cages.” He added that a cage was “non-standard equipment” for a prison, but that it was standard “if torture was used there.” He was also asked “if he was sure the cage was for humans,” to which he replied, “What was it for? Exotic birds?”
Pinior said that he had not actually seen the order for the cage, but had learned that the prosecutor’s office investigating the prison, which is based in Krakow, has a copy of it. He also explained that the prosecutor’s office has an order signed by Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, who was the head of Polish intelligence in 2002, authorizing the establishment of the prison. ABC News claimed that a source told Gazeta Wyborcza that the agreement “has a space intended for an American signature, but that the Americans did not sign the document ‘because they do not want to sign documents inconsistent with their own Constitution and international law.'” That is a rather risible conclusion, as it is the use of torture that is “inconsistent with their own Constitution and international law.” A more honest analysis would have been that the US wanted plausible deniability; that, in other words, they did not want to leave any traces of their actions.
Pinior is a key player in the Polish investigation, as he worked on the EU investigation into European complicity in rendition and torture that preceded the Polish investigation, when he was first told about documents proving the prison’s existence, by a reliable source who explained that he had seen papers that dealt with the procedures to be followed in case any of the prisoners died — which, it should be noted, was not mentioned last week in the US reports.
For this, Pinior was ridiculed by an establishment that closed ranks to protect Alexander Kwasniewski and Leszek Miller, the President and the Prime Minister at the time of the prison’s existence, although with the passage of time Pinior and his source have come to be regarded as trustworthy, even though the official denials continue.
Pinior said that he presented his evidence “with regret,” because he “always valued” Kwasniewski’s presidency, but to date the only senior official to be charged is Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, who, as reported in March this year, has been charged with allowing prisoners of war to be subjected to corporal punishment. Siematkowski has publicly acknowledged that he is under investigation, but has refused to say more. Asked about the existence of the agreement, he said, “if my signature is on it, it means it is secret and I can not discuss it, nor even confirm or deny its existence.”
In the Los Angeles Times, there was speculation that the case might eventually “result in criminal charges” against the former political leaders, as well as Siemiatkowski. The paper noted that the story of the CIA’s secret torture prison on Polish soil “has deeply shaken many Poles’ faith in the United States and in Poland’s sense of itself as a successful democracy born from the ashes of the Cold War,” and has “damaged the reputation of the country that Poles thank for helping them to cast off Communist oppression.” It was also noted that many Poles “believe the US took advantage of their gratitude, loyalty and eagerness to please by setting up a torture site that it would never have allowed within its own borders.”
Mikolaj Pietrzak, a lawyer who represents Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the men held in the “black site” in Poland, said, “It’s the kind of thing we expect from Soviet Russia. We remember the Soviet occupation; we remember the German occupation. The fact that this beacon of liberty which is America would allow this — it’s a great disappointment in the United States as the land of the free.”
In March, the current President of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski, declared, “The reputation of Poland is at stake. Certainly this is a sensitive and touchy issue, and possibly painful for the Polish state, but it is the task of the legal apparatus to clarify this.”
Despite this, lawyers, journalists and human rights activists have complained that, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “the investigation has been halting, opaque and prone to political meddling because of its potential repercussions for US-Polish relations and for prominent public figures” involved in the establishment of the prison, most recently when, for reasons that have not been explained, the case was transferred from Warsaw to Krakow.
Mikolaj Pietrzak said that he was “frustrated by prosecutors’ refusal to give him access to classified files” beyond the brief access he was granted when the case began. His client, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, is accused of plotting the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, in 2000, which killed 17 US sailors, and is currently facing a trial by military commission at Guantánamo, where he faces the death penalty — a fact that makes Pietrzak even more frustrated with the glacial pace of the prosecutors’ case in Poland.
“It’s not a robust investigation if it takes you four years,” he said, adding, crucially, “This is the single worst case of human rights violations known in Eastern Europe in the last 20 years,” and that the public “has a right to know” what took place.
The exact contours of what took place do indeed need to be uncovered, to explain, for example, exactly who knew what. The Los Angeles Times noted that Polish reporters have suggested that Zbigniew Siemiatkowski “faces possible charges of exceeding his authority and abetting torture” by working with the CIA to establish the prison at Stare Kiejkuty. However, Adam Bodnar of the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said it was “hard to believe Siemiatkowski acted on his own authority in an operation requiring coordination among the intelligence service, the military and the border control agency,” although he understood that “chasing responsibility higher up the chain of command, perhaps all the way to the president’s and prime minister’s offices, could open a can of worms.”
He was also disturbed that some prominent Poles were defending the secret prison, including former President Lech Walesa, the former leader of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement, of which Jozef Pinior was also a member. Unlike Pinior, however, Walesa, while declaring that he is “against torture,” has also stated, “This is war, and war has its particular rules.” Bodnar lamented, “The same guys who helped create the constitution now seem to be approving the violation of the constitution.”
The Los Angeles Times also noted that some Polish commentators “fear negative repercussions for Poland’s relationship with its most valued ally, the US,” which, predictably, has failed to cooperate with the Polish prosecutors, although Mikolaj Pietrzak has vowed to continue to push for accountability, noting, as the paper put it, “If it turns out that senior Polish leaders are implicated in the end, causing political and social uproar, so be it.” As he explained, “The truth is going to come out sooner or later. The question is whether it’s going to come out thanks to Poland, thanks to the active role of the prosecutor, or whether it’s going to come out in spite of the prosecutor’s failure to act.” He added, “It is a hot potato, but I don’t care. This case isn’t going away.”
For now, the agreement about the establishment of the prison, which was handed over to prosecutors in April — and the information about the cage, which has just surfaced — demonstrates, not for the first time, that documents exist revealing what was supposed to remain hidden. My friend Anna Minkiewicz — who took me to Poland last February to tour the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which I co-directed with Polly Nash — explained further details that were not mentioned in the US accounts, and added her own interpretations.
Noting that the agreement that bore no US signature — just that of Zbigniew Siemiatkowski — was written in both English and Polish, she suggested that someone in the service kept the document in spite of it having no “official” value, either through bureaucratic zeal, for conscientious reasons, hoping that one day it would serve the purpose it is serving now, or out of a sense of self-preservation, pointing the blame on those who were culpable if the whole sordid scenario ever became public.
She also noted that the emergence of the latest documents suggested that someone was “regularly leaking documents in small doses,” and added that Jozef Pinior said that “more and more people are contacting him with information, including people who live in the area” where the prison was established, as well as the insiders with whom he has, presumably, been in communication for many years.
In conclusion, she explained that the current situation is particularly interesting, because, as a senator, Pinior has parliamentary immunity, and therefore cannot be stopped from speaking out, and it is to be hoped that, as more information continues to leak out, Senator Pinior will continue to point out that too much of a paper trail exists for this shameful episode in Poland and America’s recent history to be suppressed.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
On Facebook, Joyce McCloy wrote:
liked and shared.
Thank you, Joyce. Good to hear from you.
Chris Dorsey wrote:
Thanks Andy sharing
You’re welcome, Chris. Thank you for your interest.
I wrote a detailed letter to the current President of the United States 3 years ago after the current Attorney General and the then-Speaker of the House declared that any Department of Justice pursuit of the previous administration luminaries responsible for this barbarism was “…off the table” warning him that failure to pursue them in a court of law would lead to the loss of credibility that this article reports. I can’t speak to the reasoning behind how something so obviously necessary to reestablish the standing of the United States in the world would have been so callously tossed aside… nor do I care to; when something is wrong, it is still wrong – no matter how many empty, jingoistic excuses are used for justification.
As an American citizen, this is not the country I was raised to pledge my allegiance to, nor does it contain a majority of persons with the kind of moral clarity, sense of citizen pride and civic responsibility required to maintain the sort of democracy that we enjoyed as a country a scant 40 years ago. I speak for the minority in this country that is ashamed and embarrassed to have to read about tragic examples such as this from the regressive majority’s mentality that currently elects the kind of people to public office who sanction and authorize this filth in the name of “freedom”.
Thank you, Andy, for your decency, your eloquence and your outrage. One day, I hope, we will see a return to the values you mention, but I fear that, in refusing to investigate and thoroughly repudiate the crimes of the Bush administration, Obama and his administration have “normalized” the crimes, and far too many people have decided that being tough and bigoted, and having a complete disregard for justice and fairness and a sense of proportion, is acceptable behavior.
Bill Gibbons wrote:
My heart goes out to all prisoners. Torture and abuse must stop! USA is the worst country.
Toia Tutta Jung wrote:
How sad if it’s true that even Lech Walesa thinks that these prisons are justified, because “it’s war”. These cage prisons – along with all the other measures adopted by the USA after the 9-11 attacks are completely insane and must be stopped.
Paul Rigby wrote:
Walesa never saw a CIA initiative, directive or stipend he could refuse
Toia Tutta Jung wrote:
I don’t have much faith in mankind, so nothing surprises me. We can only know the true nature of people by their actions. These cage prisons are like a nightmare in a world that’s going in the wrong direction.
Thanks, Bill, Toia and Paul – and everyone who has liked and shared this. Poland is such an important part of the story for anyone concerned with accountability for torture, and it’s refreshing to see so much interest.
Willy Bach wrote:
Andy, I didn’t want to comment till I read it. Excellent article, thanks. The people of Poland have a particularly strong reason to seek answers on whether torture happened in their country at the behest of the US. I’d say all the political capital earned by the CIA in helping the Polish people get rid of the old Communist regime has now been spent overnight.
Would that British people had a conscience regarding their role in CIA renditions and torture.
Thanks, Willy. Your thoughts are always appreciated. Credit to those Polish citizens who still recall with horror the torture inflicted on them by the Nazis and the Soviet Union, and who find it intolerable that their government allowed the US to undertake torture on Polish soil.
There are many British people who care strongly about the laws against torture, of course, and judges too, as was demonstrated in particular in the case of Binyam Mohamed, but as in most countries, it seems, the majority of citizens just don’t care. I actually think the biggest threat to transparency and accountability in the UK is the Tory-led coalition government, with its plans to expand the use of secret evidence in any case that involves issues of “national security.”
Bill Gibbons wrote:
Nothing good about Lech Walesa. He was there to teach Poland to have unemployment. And don’t forget that self proclaimed conservative musician Frank Zappa was his minister of culture.
Thanks again, Bill. Yes, the benefit of the rigged “free market” embraced by Walesa wasn’t entirely obvious to me on my visit last year. Prices were about half what they are in the UK, but the minimum wage was one-fifth of what it is in the UK. A recipe for increasing hardship, not any sort of liberation.
“This is the single worst case of human rights violations known in Eastern Europe in the last 20 years,”
Oh, I don’t know. Clinton’s war crimes beat this surely?
I guess “in this century” might have been a better way for Mikolaj Pietrzak to have put it, Bill.
On Op-Ed News, Paul Repstock wrote:
The Poles should smell the roses.
American support for Poland is nothing more than a political gambit, a twig to push in Russia’s eye. Poland would be bargained off in an instant in return for Russian agreement on some strategic matter.
As for people like Walesa saying, ‘in War things are different'; that is weasel talk.
Poland is not currently at war with anyone, and none of the various wars against Middle Eastern nations has been declared by the United States.
Many of the people subjected to the Secret Prisons abuses, have demonstrably had no connection to the so called terrorist wars. Many were arrested on hearsay evidence and abused, simply because nobody was able or willing to defend them.
Thanks, Paul. Good to hear from you. It’s very sad indeed that senior figures in the Polish government – and the governments of Romania and Lithuania – were so desperate to secure the favors of the US that they allowed access to Bush and Cheney’s torturers.
Paul Repstock wrote:
No thanks necessary Mr. Worthington.
People around the world are indebted to you for the tireless personal and journalistic work you have done on behalf of imprisoned and tortured people.
You should have posted a link to your website so that readers would have access to support your work in some small way.
Thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated, Paul. Someone else posted the article here, hence the lack of reference to my website, so thanks for posting the link. New readers are always welcome!
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: