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CIA prison will haunt Poland

Poland's role in hosting a CIA "black site" is now certain. Whether the government will voluntarily admit it is another matter. 

Claudia Ciobanu
10 April 2013
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Amnesty International protest against the CIA's rendition program. Flickr/Ric James. Some rights reserved.

Researching Poland’s role in the CIA rendition scheme and seeing the nature of the evidence which is already public left me with a feeling I rarely experience as a journalist: certainty. I am certain that Poland hosted a secret prison and this is why I also believe that, no matter how keen the Poles and the Americans are to withhold the truth, it will come out sooner or later.

The most recent document I have read relating to Poland’s involvement in the CIA extraordinary rendition scheme is the file supporting Abu Zubaydah’s case against Poland in front of the European Court of Human Rights. Abu Zubaydah is accusing Poland of breaching the European Convention on Human Rights for his unlawful detention, torture and mistreatment.

In the case file, the Palestinian’s lawyers state without a doubt that Poland was “prime among the U.S.’ international partners” in the extraordinary rendition programme and that the country hosted “the most important secret prison established by the U.S. in the ‘war on terror’”.

Abu Zubaydah was the first prisoner in the US “high value detainee” programme and is known for having experienced all interrogation techniques considered by the CIA, some of which were later dismissed for being too cruel. To date, Abu Zubaydah has not been put on trial by any court, despite being detained by the US since 2002. He has been in Guantanamo Bay since 2006, when President Bush notoriously announced the end of all black sites around the world and the moving of CIA prisoners to Guantanamo Bay.

The case file also says that a CIA prison operated in Poland in an intelligence service training school in the village of Stare Kejkuty in the north of the country. At least eight CIA prisoners were kept at the site, which functioned for at least a year starting from December 2002.

In the course of my research, I have read most existing reports from international institutions and NGOs which look into the role of Poland in the CIA scheme, as well as cases filed by prisoners against various governments at the European Court of Human Rights. Over the years, words such as “alleged” or “suspected” have been dropped from the reports as researchers became increasingly convinced that a black site indeed operated in Poland.

The evidence

Poland’s hosting of a CIA black site is concluded by reports commissioned by the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the United Nations. Journalistic investigations and major NGOs researching the CIA rendition scheme such as Amnesty International, the Open Society Foundation and UK’s Reprieve support the claim. The most recent is Amnesty’s “Globalizing Torture”, which sets out to record for the first time the full list of prisoners detained by the CIA and all the information available to date about them.

While Polish officials speaking anonymously have confirmed the existence of the secret prison to journalists and NGO researchers, Warsaw continues to officially deny that the black site existed. The cases of two prisoners, Abu Zubaydah and Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, convinced me to the contrary.

In 2011, Al-Nashiri, the alleged leader of Al-Qaeda in the Persian Gulf who was thought to have organized the bombing of USS Cole, filed a similar case to Abu Zubaydah’s against Poland at the ECHR, accusing the country of violating not only Polish legislation but also the European Convention on Human Rights, among others, for allowing for Al-Nashiri to be tortured on Polish soil and permitting his transfer to a location (Guantanamo Bay, the US) where he is amenable to the death penalty. 

In their cases, the two prisoners are claiming they were brought into Poland from Thailand on December 5, 2002, on flight N63MU which landed at regional airport Szymany, close to Stare Kejkuty. They additionally state that they were both subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) while in Poland.

It is, in fact, possible to convincingly support their claims by relying solely on official information from governmental sources, using reports of international bodies or NGOs only as guidance. I looked more closely at Al-Nashiri’s case as at the time of my research Abu Zubaydah had not yet filed his case before the European court.

The infamous 2004 CIA Inspector General report, which discusses interrogation techniques used by the CIA between 2001 and 2003 on prisoners thought by the CIA to be linked to Al-Qaeda, gives us some of the important details of Al-Nashiri’s case.

According to this report, by November 2002, the Saudi Arabian national had been detained by the CIA, and enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) were applied on him “through to 4 December 2002.” In a heavily redacted further section, the CIA report reads, “…two waterboard sessions in November 2002 after which (…) Al-Nashiri was compliant. However, after being moved (…) Al-Nashiri was thought to be withholding information.”

Various analyses of the CIA IG report, including a 2010 UN Report, conclude that they signal that Al-Nashiri was moved immediately after December 4 to a new location where EIT were again 'applied' on him. CIA reports make it similarly clear that Abu Zubaydah was moved immediately after December 4, when the detention site where both prisoners were held (likely Thailand, thought to be the first place CIA detainees were taken after being captured, at the start of the rendition programme) was closed and videotapes of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations that had been made by the CIA were destroyed.

Further proof indicates that Poland is the new location. Documents disclosed by the Polish Border Guards to the Polish Helsinki Foundation (also public now) show that flight N63MU landed at Polish Szymany airport on 5 December 2002, with 8 passengers and 4 crew members, and left with only the 4 crew. The regional airport Szymany, in the north of Poland, was allegedly used to service the CIA black site at Stare Kejkuty in the Masurian voivodeship.

The Dick Marty report and British NGO Reprieve, which has conducted solid research into the CIA rendition programme, have analyzed huge volumes of flight data and flight contracts to prove that N63MU was a rendition flight and on 5 December 2002 it flew from Thailand via Dubai to Poland. Important information about the rendition flights comes from court cases in the US in which private air companies contracted by the CIA for these flights are suing each other for money and, in the course of settling the financial dispute, reveal important evidence about routes and contracts.

Importantly, Poland was the only European black site thought to be in operation in December 2002 – Romania and Lithuania are thought to have opened much later. There are few other places where Al-Nashiri could have been moved at the time but Poland.

I have not checked flight data myself as this is too complicated a task for a neophyte. Nevertheless, the British NGO Reprieve, which compiled a comprehensive data base of 200-300 planes suspected of or having done renditions has checked, upon my request, whether any other relevant flight flew out of Thailand on or around December 5, to another location – which would mean that the two prisoners could have been moved somewhere other than Poland. No such flight is known of to date.

The waning of an official investigation

Lawyers for both Abu Zubaydah and Al-Nashiri have told me that they hope the European Court cases will help to get more official information out of a reluctant Poland. The case of Abu Zubaydah is too fresh, but in the case of Al-Nashiri, the European Court has already solicited answers from Poland which were denied under the excuse that a national investigation opened in 2008 into the existence of a black site in the country has to be completed first.

And this investigation is still dragging on and on: it was supposed to be completed this February (after a few previous postponements), but once again it got deferred to a new deadline which is not made public.

Observers of the case, such as Adam Bodnar, head of the legal department at the Polish Helsinki Committee, the main Polish NGO monitoring the investigation, explain that the Polish authorities are caught in a limbo: they cannot complete the investigation because that would lead to the conviction of high level political figures; but they cannot deny the existence of the black site either, because there is too much evidence and too many eyes are watching Poland. So a sine die delay is the preferred alternative.

The proceedings of the Polish investigations are twisted enough to raise eyebrows.

Since the case begun, the prosecutor of the case has been changed three times and, one year ago, the case was moved from Warsaw to Krakow.

The first prosecutor in charge of the case in Warsaw, Jerzy Mierzewski, was removed from the case soon after the main Polish daily, Gazeta Wyrbocza revealed in 2011 a set of ten questions he had asked of legal experts concerning the legality of Poland having hosted a site where foreign agents interrogated prisoners in a way that amounts to torture.

His successor and superior, Waldemar Tyl, went so far as to announce that Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, Poland’s head of intelligence services between 2002 and 2004, would have charges brought against him for violating international law by allowing the unlawful detention and treatment of prisoners in Poland. After this information became public and was confirmed by Siemiatkowski himself, the case was moved from Warsaw to Krakow.

In 2010, Al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah were granted “victim status” by the Polish prosecutors, amounting to a recognition of the possibility that Poland may have acted unlawfully in their regard; one of the implications of this status is that the legal representatives for the two prisoners would have the right to be updated on the status of the investigation. Polish lawyers for both individuals claim that their access to the case file has become more difficult since the investigation was moved to Krakow.

Mikolaj Pietrzak, the Polish lawyer for Al-Nashiri, has had access to the full file of the Polish prosecutors’ investigation for some time and, while being extremely careful not to reveal information as he is bound by a confidentiality clause, makes it clear that what he has seen is enough to make him convinced that Poland will be forced to speak out. Knowing what he knows, Pietrzak says he is certain the dynamics of truth will play out to deliver the real account about Poland’s black site. He says too, that it would be in Poland’s best interest to voluntarily tell the truth rather than be forced to admit it later on, in shame.

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