European Court of Human Rights Hears Evidence About CIA Torture Prison in Poland

5.12.13

Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, two prisoners held in a secret CIA "black site" in Poland, whose cases were heard by the European Court of Human Rights in December 2013.On Monday and Tuesday, an important step took place in the quest for those who ordered and undertook torture in the Bush administration’s “war on terror” to be held accountable for their actions, when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg held a hearing to examine the role of the Polish authorities in the extraordinary rendition, secret detention and torture of two men currently held in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Both men are amongst the 14 “high-value detainees” who arrived at Guantánamo in September 2006 after years of incommunicado detention and torture in a variety of CIA “black sites,” one of which was in Poland, and as Interights, the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights, explained in a news release, “This historic court hearing [is] the first time a European country has been taken to court for allowing the CIA to run a torture site on its territory and comes after years of silence from the Polish government about the CIA’s prison there.”

The cases of these two men are enormously significant for everyone seeking accountability, as they are two of only three prisoners whom the US had admitted were subjected to waterboarding, the ancient torture technique that involves controlled drowning. With another “high-value detainee,” Ramzi bin al-Shibh, they were the only men held at a CIA “black site” in Thailand prior to their transfer to Poland in December 2002. In October 2003, they were moved to a secret “black site” within Guantánamo, identified as “Strawberry Fields,” and were then moved around a number of other CIA “black sites” in Romania, Lithuania and Morocco until their eventual return to Guantánamo in 2006.

The Bush administration’s torture program was initially designed for Abu Zubaydah, a stateless Palestinian seized in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March 2002. He was initially touted as al-Qaeda’s number 3, although in reality he was nothing more than the gatekeeper for a training camp that was not affiliated with al-Qaeda. He is apparently in dreadful shape, and suffers regular seizures, although, as befits his downgraded status, he has never been charged. Jason Leopold of Al-Jazeera recently obtained his diaries, which reveal in detail his mental state and confirm that he was never a member of al-Qaeda (please also read this powerful article about him by one of his lawyers, Brent Mickum, written nearly five years ago).

Al-Nashiri, who was seized in the United Arab Emirates in October 2002, has been charged with being the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and has been put forward for a trial by military commission, in which he faces the death penalty if convicted. However, in March 2007, at his Combatant Status Review Tribunal in Guantánamo, his military-appointed personal representative told the tribunal, “The detainee states that he was tortured into confession and once he made a confession his captors were happy and they stopped torturing him. Also, the detainee states that he made up stories during the torture in order to get it to stop.”

Interights is just one of a number of organizations and individuals representing Abu Zubaydah, the others being Joseph Margulies of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School, Jankowski & Co. in Poland (where Bartlomiej Jankowski is Abu Zubaydah’s counsel), Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, and Helsińka Fundacja Praw Człowieka, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland. Al-Nashiri is represented by the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Describing the case before the ECHR, Interights stated, “Poland stands accused of facilitating Abu Zubaydah’s extraordinary rendition onto its territory, being complicit in his incommunicado detention, and subjecting him to torture and ill-treatment. Poland is also accused of complicity in his transfer to another state despite being aware Abu Zubaydah was at substantial risk of further torture and ill treatment. A pre-trial criminal investigation initiated by Polish prosecutors in 2008 purporting to examine these events has proven to be ineffective and as a consequence Poland is accused of breaching its legal obligation to properly and promptly investigate the claims made against it.”

Describing al-Nashiri’s case, the Open Society Justice Initiative stated that al-Nashiri “accuses Poland of allowing him to be held incommunicado and tortured at a secret CIA base at Stare Kiejkuty in the northeast of the country,” and argues that Poland violated his rights under European law, and also “by allowing his transfer out of the country despite the risk of further ill-treatment,” and, after his transfer to Guantánamo, “an unfair trial and possible death sentence.” The complaint “also accuses Poland of failing in its duty to properly investigate what happened, as required by European law.”

Before the hearing, Amrit Singh of the Open Society Justice Initiative said, “Poland must account for its complicity in CIA torture and for rendering Mr. al-Nashiri to face the death penalty after a trial by a Guantánamo military commission that does not meet international standards. In the face of Polish and US efforts to draw a veil over these abuses, the European Court of Human rights now has an opportunity to break this conspiracy of silence and to uphold the rule of law.”

“Overwhelming and uncontested evidence” of the existence of the secret prison in Poland

In a press release following the first day of the hearing, which, unusually and unacceptably, was held in private, Reprieve stated that the ECHR heard “overwhelming and uncontested evidence” of the existence of the “black site” in Poland — at Stare Kiejkuty, in the north east of the country — which explicitly involved the Polish government having knowledge of it.

Reprieve investigator Crofton Black, who has been researching the issue of secret prisons in Europe during the “war on terror,” and was allowed access to the secret session, said, “We have now heard overwhelming and uncontested evidence that the CIA was running a secret torture prison on Polish soil, with the Polish government’s knowledge. Despite being given many opportunities to do so, the Polish government has failed to contest that it knew prisoners were being held beyond the rule of law and tortured by the CIA inside their own country. It has also become clear that the Polish government’s investigation into the issue was in reality nothing more than a smoke-screen, which was neither designed nor intended to get to the truth.”

He added, “European support for the CIA’s torture programme is one of the darkest chapters of our recent history. It is encouraging that the court now looks set to bring it to light, where the government has sought to sweep it under the carpet.”

As the Guardian noted, Amrit Singh added, “The court heard expert testimony [on Monday] confirming how Polish officials filed false flight plans and assisted in the cover-up of CIA operations. In a secluded villa, hidden from sight, CIA interrogators subjected him to torture: to mock executions while he stood naked and hooded before them; to painful stress positions that nearly dislocated his arms from his shoulders; and to threats of bringing in his mother to sexually abuse her in front of him.”

Reporting on the second, open day of the hearing, the Guardian also noted that the court heard a submission from Ben Emmerson QC, the UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, who argued that where gross or “systematic human rights violations are alleged to have occurred, the right to know the truth is not only an individual right that belongs to the immediate victim of the violation, but also a collective right that belongs to the whole of society.”

I certainly hope that the European Court of Human Rights will find that the Polish authorities acted unlawfully in hosting a CIA “black site” on their territory, although I am prepared for disappointment. After all, anyone who knows anything about the Bush administration’s torture program knows that the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to shield any Bush administration officials (up to and including the former president, his vice president Dick Cheney and his defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld) from accountability for their actions.

In Poland’s case, this has involved a blanket refusal to cooperate with the Polish prosecutor investigating the cases of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and it is sadly significant that this week’s ECHR hearing had to rely on publicly available information about the two men, in large part because of US obstruction, but also because the men’s lawyers are prevented from divulging any information about their clients’ cases. As the Guardian described Abu Zubaydah’s predicament, “Communication with his lawyers is restricted, making it impossible to pass on information or evidence directly from him to the ECHR. The presentation of his case is principally based on publicly available sources.”

Noticeably, a Polish official also cited problems with the US, telling the court that “his country was the only European state that was ‘conducting a real investigation’ and that the inquiry had been hindered by the fact that it was difficult for the prosecutor to talk to the complainants,” as the Guardian described it. He added that relations between Poland and the US “were subject to secrecy.”

The absolutely unacceptable blanket censorship of the “high-value detainees” in Guantánamo — involving the censorship of every single word that takes place — and has taken place — between the men and their lawyers, since their arrival at Guantánamo in 2006, is, however, essentially unchallenged in the US, where there is also very little outrage — or even commentary — about the fact that, in Europe, mechanisms are underway to try and secure justice for two men tortured by the CIA, while, in Guantánamo, one man is facing a kangaroo court trial and the death penalty, and the other is permanently locked away with no trial in sight.

When this kind of injustice goes unchallenged, it is hard to see that the European Court of Human Rights will be able to land a blow on the US, but a ruling against Poland would be a powerful message to the US, that not everyone is content to “look forwards as opposed to looking backwards,” as President Obama said before taking office in January 2009.

Note: Interights has filed a separate complaint before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of Abu Zubaydah, against Lithuania, where he was also secretly detained and abused at a CIA “black site.” To date, as Interights describe it, “European states alleged to have been involved in the extraordinary rendition programme have failed to properly address allegations relating to their involvement. This case presents the Court with an opportunity to ensure States understand their obligations to the public and to victims in such cases.” The Open Society Justice Initiative has also filed a separate ECHR complaint on al-Nashiri’s behalf against Romania, where he was also secretly detained and abused at another CIA “black site.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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43 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. Greetings from Europe. So by “Kangaroo Court,” are you referring to the Gitmo military commissions — a legal system which has already freed Bin Laden’s driver Salim Hamdan to Yemen and Australian Taliban David Hicks back home after their relatively light sentences? In all candor, you must admit that the facts don’t suggest there’s anything “Kangaroo” at all about it. Unless it is just your wordplay on Hicks’ nationality? Certainly nothing wrong with criticizing govt policies, though we are not entitled to our own facts.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Where to begin, J.d.? The commissions are an inadequate substitute for proper credible federal court trials, as we have discovered through the rulings in the cases of Salim Hamdan and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul in the appeals court in Washington D.C., where conservative judges quashed the convictions against both men because they involved war crimes invented by Congress. That makes for a fundamentally broken system, as we can see from how few prisoners are now expected to face trial – a maximum of 20 out of 779 prisoners, instead of the figure of 39 that was bandied around four years ago when Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force made its deliberations. They recommended 36 men for prosecution, to add to the three prosecuted under Bush. Now, of the seven men convicted, two more are appealing their convictions, and the entire system is in disarray.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne McClintock wrote:

    Thanks Andy. Keep it coming. All strength to you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anne. Great to hear from you. I hope our paths will cross again one of these days. Our interview is now available on the Columbia University website, and I’ll be publicizing it soon.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:

    Thanks, as always, Andy. Shared.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:

    PS: Has anyone heard about this before today (I just read about this myself.)

    “Yesterday, the United States government sent Djamel Ameziane from Guantánamo to Algeria against his will. His forcible repatriation is a violation of international law. He is now being held in secret detention. CCR is calling for his immediate release and calling for the Algerian government to respect and protect his human rights.”

    MORE INFO HERE: http://www.ccrjustice.org/get-involved/action/HelpDjamel

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Christine. Thanks for sharing. As for the CCR alert, the plans to forcibly repatriate Djamel Ameziane and another Algerian, Belkacem Bensayah, were announced last Thursday. I wrote about the problems with the Obama administration’s plans here, but at the time I wasn’t expecting the US to move so swiftly: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/12/03/meet-the-cleared-algerian-prisoners-in-guantanamo-who-fear-being-repatriated/

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    David Peterson wrote:

    Wow Great work Andy! Is there anyone in Congress who supports trials, with public oversight, for all 779 Guantanamo prisoners?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t believe lawmakers have ever been concerned about trials for all but a handful of the prisoners, David. When trials were first proposed in November 2001, they were the military commissions, resuscitated by Dick Cheney. I wrote and spoke about the 12th anniversary of the shameful order introducing the military commissions here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/11/17/radio-andy-worthington-discusses-guantanamos-12th-anniversary-and-accountability-for-torture-with-scott-horton-and-peter-b-collins/
    Lawmakers have generally not cared that the Bush administration held prisoners neither as criminal suspects (who would have been fairly swiftly tried in federal court) nor as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, who shouldn’t have been abused, and ought to have been able to legally challenge their seemingly endless detention.
    Of course, the prisoners finally secured habeas corpus rights, via the Supreme Court, and a few dozen were released, but then conservative judges in the appeals court decided that was intolerable, and rewrote the rules so that no one could be released by legal means.
    As a result, the remaining 162 prisoners are still in a horrible kind of legal limbo. 82 are supposed to be freed, but Obama won’t tackle Congress which has raised obstacles to their release, 71 others are held indefinitely pending the results of some dubious review process that has only just begun and is moving at a glacial pace, and only nine are facing trials or have been tried.
    The problem isn’t really trials with public oversight; it’s that most of the men held committed no crime. Some were soldiers, others were civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, and only a handful are accused of terrorism.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Once every so often I just want to say something about GITMO – it goes something like this… ARRRRGGHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:

    Ditto. It goes like this:

    #!!$%(*&&^%@#!!$%^(!!@*$#!!@*^#!@&^$!!!!!!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, thanks, David and Christine. Those are entirely valid and appropriate responses to the #!!$% responsible for keeping Guantanamo open!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    When my Polish friend Aneta Jay shared this, she wrote:

    Finally – after more than 2 years since we started to talk about Polish complicity in the torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri at a secret CIA prison in Poland. Andy Worthington writes about the European Court of Human Rights case about CIA torture prison in Poland.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing this, Aneta, and for your comments. Yes, it’s hard to believe that it’s nearly three years since I came to Poland to show “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo,” just after Abu Zubaydah had been given victim status. But if we’ve learned one thing from trying to bring to an end the injustices of the “war on terror,” it’s that everything takes a long time. Thanks for still caring.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Aneta Jay wrote:

    Thanks for your great work Andy! 3 years ago almost everybody were denying (I mean politicians, except Jozef Pinior) the fact that we had CIA secret prisons..Now it became finally public. Keep doing the great work!

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Christopher Caster wrote:

    Why bother to answer people who speak of “light sentences” handed out to David Hicks etc.? They’re too far gone.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon was the Pentagon spokesman on issues including Guantanamo under President Bush, Christopher. His responses therefore provide us with some insight into how Bush administration officials thought about, and still think about Guantanamo. In this world, David Hicks’ torture, and the five and half years he spent in US custody, leading to a plea deal that Hicks correctly perceived to be his only way home apparently constitutes a “relatively light sentence.” I find that quote informative.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Christopher Caster wrote:

    Absolutely, quite informative. Thanks.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Christopher!

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Christopher Caster wrote:

    I love the way Don Rumsfeld said he keeps telling and retelling himself that he did absolutely nothing wrong in Iraq. Lady Macbeth, anyone?

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha, yes. That almost sounds like a shred of humanity, Christopher, but I don’t suppose that any of the war criminals responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq – Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld – have ever lost much sleep over their actions. I think we need to recognize that our political systems are broken, and that we can no longer endorse mechanisms that only allow psychopaths and sociopaths to attain high office.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    I think the Onion was probably the most prescient of all the media over what the Supreme Court’s decision to elect George W Bush to the Whitehouse would represent. They pretty much got it all except the unthinkable even for satirists… torture and indefinite detention for over a decade…
    “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over'”
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/bush-our-long-national-nightmare-of-peace-and-pros,464/

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Genius, David, but also a sad reminder of more innocent times, in hindsight, with no premonition of 9/11 and its gruesome response – two illegal wars, hundreds of thousands of civilians dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention without charge or trial. However, that really is a great Onion headline!

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    On the other hand, The Onion was quite prescient, David:

    Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years. “You better believe we’re going to mix it up with somebody at some point during my administration,” said Bush, who plans a 250 percent boost in military spending. “Unlike my predecessor, I am fully committed to putting soldiers in battle situations. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a military?”

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    And, more topically:
    “Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed”
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/nelson-mandela-becomes-first-politician-to-be-miss,34755/
    “Following the death of former South African president and civil rights leader Nelson Mandela today at the age of 95, sources confirmed that the revered humanitarian has become the first politician in recorded history to actually be missed.”

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Harry Fear wrote:

    Amazing article. Thank you so much.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Harry. Much appreciated.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    You don’t really need the Onion where George was concerned though. He made satire redundant with his own quotes.. “You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.” – George W Bush -interview with CBS News’ Katie Couric, Sept. 6, 2006 “It’s amazing I won. I was running against peace, prosperity, and incumbency.” -George W. Bush, June 14, 2001, speaking to Swedish Prime Minister Goran Perrson, unaware that a live television camera was still rolling. I could find 100 equally revealing quotes while on that subject.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Ah yes, if only he had remained a figure of fun, David. I remember before he got elected – sorry, stole the election – how he was identified as knowing nothing about other countries. His stated foreign policy was to be as insular as possible. That didn’t quite happen, did it? Obviously, he still knew nothing about other countries, but that didn’t stop him from illegally invading two of them.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Great piece from the Onion on Mandela, Andy!

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, David, an Onion classic, quietly pointing out how politicians are untrustworthy scum. I’ve seen David Cameron’s sickening Tweet praising Mandela, and another from Rush Limbaugh. I recommend everyone to stay away from broadcast news for the next few days – if you haven’t already permanently switched off from the circus freakshow of dull conformity and misinformation and lifestyle brainwashing and celebrity obsession that is mainstream news.

  32. Thomas says...

    Quite apart from being nasty, torture hardly ever works for uncovering terrorists (I think there was a single exception when Israel tortured some genuine terrorists and foiled a bomb plot ). If someone is tortured, he or she will just say what the torturer wants to hear to make it stop. He or she would say they were a sapient pony if that was what the torturer wanted to hear. Generally, torture does not work for what a Western government might want to use it for. Normal police interrogation does far better at finding out genuine terrorists.

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, I posted this about Nelson Mandela’s death:

    RIP Nelson Mandela – I believe that the process of truth and reconciliation that took place after apartheid, and the prevention of widespread bloodshed, was an outstanding achievement, and a sign to the rest of the world of how human progress is possible.

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Diana Murtaugh Coleman wrote:

    Well said, Andy.

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, as well as the US apology I think that Britain has its own apology to make, perhaps people will sign this:
    “Nelson Mandela was on the US terrorist watch list till 1 July 2008 – there should be an apology from the US government”
    http://bit.ly/1bNNYBR

  36. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Diana, and thanks, Willy. I still remember vividly a massive anti-apartheid protest I went to in London, under Thatcher, at which I had never seen so many police before. To protect her plundering racist colleagues in South Africa, Thatcher filled every street from Trafalgar Square to the Embankment with police. Even so, we were an unstoppable force. We could do with that spirit again!

  37. Andy Worthington says...

    I’d say that the present ANC government has the biggest apology of all to make, as they have robbed the people of all hope of a better life.. Even under apartheid there was the sense of a better day to come for the people – now the hope has gone.. destroyed by corruption and greed.

  38. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Neil. Unfortunately, I think the corruption was inevitable. I will always be thankful that Mandela showed that the end of apartheid didn’t have to involve a bloodbath, but capitalism is just as incompatible with a decent society for all as apartheid was. Leaders get corrupted, and racists in the West then claim that it’s something to do with their colour, when the most corrupt people of all are those running the mechanisms of power in the west. You want filthy corrupt scum? Look at our leaders and those whose monstrously exploitative ways they facilitate 24/7.

  39. Andy Worthington says...

    And I must cross-post what my friend Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    For the life of me I can not watch BBC News channel any more and all this drivel about Nelson Mandela who was suddenly *always* adorded by Tories, Queen, Prince Charles and others dignitaries and politicians, who called him a terrorist when he was in jail. 27 years in prison because of them and other white supremacists only concerned about plundering the natural resources of South Africa at that time, treating indigenous Black people as their slaves with no rights whatsoever. It was a wold wide movement to free him, by ordinary people disgusted by the treatment of him and black people, not by them, disgusting white supremacists and imperialists.

  40. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy – too late! I was just reading Premier Netanyahu’s tribute, which takes the biscuit from even David Cameron, for contemptible chutzpah

  41. Andy Worthington says...

    Good grief. I’m trying to stay away from it all, David, and with good reason, apparently. The lying hyperbole is here: http://www.haaretz.com/news/world/1.562059

  42. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, Thomas, for the most part. I must admit, however, that I have never found an incident referred to when a bomb plot was foiled in Israel through the use of torture. If that information came from the Israelis, I find it as untrustworthy as Dick Cheney’s claims that torture worked, because the Israeli government is a torturing nation, just as they also use indefinite detention without charge or trial, euphemistically referred to as “administrative detention,” so, like Cheney, they have a reason to try to justify their activities.

  43. Avoiding Habeas Corpus And The Need For A Bagram | LAW AND INJUSTICE: A People's History Of The Law In Pakistan says...

    […] CIA ‘black sites’ located in European countries (see various cases being filed against Poland, Romania and Lithuania to name just a few. Similar actions are now being organised in Africa […]

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