I’m just catching up on a story from two weeks ago that I was unable to post at the time because I was busy with another couple of stories — the dismissal of David Hicks’ Guantánamo conviction, and the ongoing campaign to free Shaker Aamer.
The story I didn’t have time to report involved the European Court of Human Rights and the CIA “black site” that existed on Polish soil from December 2002 to September 2003. In July last year, the court delivered an unprecedented ruling — that, as the Guardian described it, Poland “had violated international law by allowing the CIA to inflict what ‘amounted to torture’ in 2002 at a secret facility in the forests of north-east Poland. The court found that Poland ‘enabled the US authorities to subject [the detainees] to torture and ill‑treatment on its territory’ and was complicit in that ‘inhuman and degrading treatment.'”
The ruling dealt with two of the “high-value detainees” held in the site — Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia, for whom the torture program was specifically developed, even though it was subsequently discovered that he was not involved with Al-Qaeda, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi accused of involvement in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Both men were subjected to the ancient torture technique known as waterboarding, as well as a variety of other torture techniques, and, while Abu Zubaydah is still held without charge or trial, al-Nashiri is facing a war crimes trial in the military commissions at Guantánamo, a process that has been stuck on the pre-trial phase for years, as his defense team tries to raise the question of his torture and prosecutors do all they can to keep it hidden. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week there was some extremely important news for those of us who have spent many long years hoping to hold senior US officials — up to and including former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney — accountable for approving and implementing a torture program in the “war on terror,” when the European Court of Human Rights unanimously condemned the US for implementing a program of extraordinary rendition and torture, and condemned Poland for its involvement in the program by hosting a secret torture prison — a CIA “black site” — on its soil in 2002-03.
The rulings were delivered in the cases of two men, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national accused of masterminding the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and Abu Zubaydah (a Saudi-born Palestinian whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), mistakenly described as al-Qaeda’s number 3 after his capture in March 2002. In its report on the rulings, the New York Times provided a more appropriate description of Zubaydah as someone who is “believed to have overseen the operation of guesthouses in Pakistan,” who vetted recruits and “provided letters of recommendation allowing them to be accepted for training at a paramilitary camp in Afghanistan” — which, it should be noted, was not affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Both men are currently held at Guantánamo, where they have been since September 2006, but they were held for over four years in “black sites” where they were subjected to torture, including the site in Poland that the European Court of Human Rights highlighted in its rulings. Read the rest of this entry »
In the long search for accountability for the torturers of the Bush administration, which has largely been shut down by President Obama, lawyers and human rights activists have either had to try shaming the US through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or have had to focus on other countries, particularly those that hosted secret CIA torture prisons, or had explicit involvement in extraordinary rendition.
Successes have been rare, but hugely important — the conviction of CIA officials and operatives in Italy, for the blatant daylight kidnap of Abu Omar, a cleric, on a street in Milan in February 2003, and the court victory in Macedonia of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen kidnapped in Macedonia, where he had gone on a holiday, and sent to a CIA “black site” in 2003 until the US realized that his was a case of mistaken identity. In the UK, the whiff of complicity in torture at the highest levels of the Blair government led to pay-offs for the British nationals and residents sent to Guantánamo.
Court cases were also launched in Spain, although they were suppressed, in part because of US involvement (under President Obama), and currently there are efforts to hold the US accountable before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for its use of Djibouti in a number of cases involving “extraordinary rendition” and “black sites.” Read the rest of this entry »
On Monday and Tuesday, as I explained in a subsequent article, “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 a ground-breaking hearing took place in Strasbourg. For the first time since the start of the “war on terror” and the abuses that, in particular, took place between 2002 and 2006, the European Court of Human Rights listened to evidence about 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 were held at a secret prison at Stare Kiejkuty in the northeast of the country, between December 2002, when they were moved from a previous CIA “black site” in Thailand, until October 2003, when they were moved for five months to “Strawberry Fields,” a secret facility in Guantánamo, until the Bush administration realized that the Supreme Court was about to grant the Guantánamo prisoners habeas corpus rights, thereby allowing lawyers to visit and to shatter the secrecy that was necessary for torture abuse to take place unchallenged. They were then shunted around other “black sites” in Romania, Lithuania and Morocco, until they were returned to Guantánamo in September 2006, with 12 other “high-value detainees” held in “black sites” for several years.
Writing about the hearing, Crofton Black, an investigator with Reprieve, one of the organizations representing Abu Zubaydah, stated that the court had “heard overwhelming and uncontested evidence that the CIA was running a secret torture prison on Polish soil, with the Polish government’s knowledge.” As I wrote in my article, “although I am prepared for disappointment, 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.” Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s almost exactly eight years since Dana Priest of the Washington Post first broke the story, on November 2, 2005, that, “according to current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents,” the CIA had been “hiding and interrogating some of its most important al-Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe … part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe, as well as a small center at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba.”
The Post bowed to pressure from the Bush administration not to reveal the name of any of the countries in Eastern Europe, but just days later, on November 7, 2005, Human Rights Watch announced that the facilities were in Poland — on the grounds of an intelligence training facility near the village of Stare Kiejkuty, in the north east of the country — and Romania. In June 2007, Council of Europe special investigator Dick Marty issued a detailed report about Europe’s role in the US rendition and torture program in which he stated that he had “enough evidence to state” that there definitely had been CIA prisons in Poland and Romania. It later emerged, in December 2009, that a third European torture prison was in Lithuania, but to this day no one in the Bush administration or the CIA has been held accountable for America’s post-9/11 torture program.
Since the stories of the secret prisons first emerged, only Poland has shown any willingness to tackle the revelations with anything approaching the rigor they deserve. The Romanian government has refused to even acknowledge the existence of its prison, despite a detailed investigation exposing its existence, conducted by the Associated Press and Germany’s ARD Panorama, and although the Lithuanian government opened an official investigation, it was closed in 2011 when the government claimed that there was insufficient evidence, also citing restrictions imposed by its statute of limitations. Read the rest of this entry »
In June 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, a notorious memo from August 2002 was leaked. It was written by John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and it claimed to redefine torture and to authorize its use on prisoners seized in the “war on terror.” I had no idea at the time that its influence would prove to be so long-lasting.
Ten years and four months since it was first issued, this memo — one of two issued on the same day, which will forever be known as the “torture memos” — is still protecting the senior Bush administration officials who commissioned it (as well as Yoo, and his boss, Jay S. Bybee, who signed it).
Those officials include George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and their senior lawyers, Alberto Gonzales and David Addington. None of these men should be immune from prosecution, because torture is illegal under US domestic law, and is prohibited under the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture, which the US, under Ronald Reagan, signed in 1988 and ratified in 1994. As Article 2.2 states, unequivocally, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Read the rest of this entry »
Exactly ten years ago, on August 1, 2002, Jay S. Bybee, who, at the time, was the Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, signed two memos (see here and here) that will forever be known as the “torture memos.” Also known as the Bybee memos, because of Bybee’s signature on them, they were in fact mainly written by John Yoo, a law professor at UC Berkeley, who worked as a lawyer in the OLC from 2001 to 2003.
Although the OLC is supposed to provide impartial legal advice to the executive branch, Yoo was not interested in being impartial. As one of six lawyers close to Vice President Dick Cheney — along with David Addington, Cheney’s Legal Counsel, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, White House Deputy Counsel Tim Flanigan, William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s General Counsel, and his deputy, Daniel Dell’Orto — he played a significant role in formulating the notion that, in the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” prisoners could be held as “enemy combatants” without the traditional protections of the Geneva Conventions; in other words, without any rights whatsoever.
This position was confirmed in an executive order issued by President Bush on February 7, 2002, and was not officially challenged until the Supreme Court reminded the government, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld in June 2006, that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment,” applies to all prisoners seized in wartime. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Since November 2005, when the Washington Post first reported that the CIA had held “high-value detainees” in its “war on terror” in secret prisons in eastern Europe, and Human Rights Watch then revealed that prisons were located in Poland and Romania, concerned politicians and organizations have worked hard to expose the truth about these prisons (and another that was later discovered in Lithuania).
No one in a position of authority in these countries admitted that these prisons had existed, but important work confirming their existence was done within the EU and the Council of Europe, and of great significance, in June 2006 and June 2007, were two Council of Europe reports (2007 PDF), and a European Parliament report, in January 2007 (PDF). In the 2007 CoE report, Swiss Senator Dick Marty concluded that, after two years’ research and interviews with over 30 current and former members of the intelligence services in the United States and Europe, stated that he had enough “evidence to state that secret detention facilities run by the CIA did exist in Europe from 2003 to 2005, in particular in Poland and Romania.” Marty also identified both sites, and explained how the flights were disguised using fake flight plans.
One of the MEPs who worked on the EU investigation was Józef Pinior, a former member of the Solidarity movement, who was an MEP from 2004 to 2009, and was first a member, and then the Vice-Chair of the Subcommittee of Human Rights. Pinior has always claimed that, during his investigations, he was told about a document signed by Leszek Miller, Poland’s Prime Minister at the time the CIA prison was in operation, providing information regulating the operations of the prison — in a military intelligence training base in Stare Kiejkuty in north eastern Poland — including information about how, if necessary, to deal with corpses inside the facility. Read the rest of this entry »
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: