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Human Rights

European court finds Poland complicit in torture at CIA secret prison

Poland enabled human rights violations by allowing the CIA to run a secret prison on its territory, according to a European court ruling. Warsaw has been ordered to pay two suspected former al Qaeda operatives damages.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Thursday that the Polish government was complicit in human rights abuses carried out by CIA operatives at a so-called "black site," shedding further light on a network of secret prisons built by the US in Eastern and Central Europe after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

According to the court, Poland's government allowed the CIA to operate a secret prison, where two suspected al Qaeda operatives were subjected to torture among other rights violations. The black site was located on a Polish military facility in a village called Stare Kiejkuty, located 180 kilometers (111 miles) north of Warsaw.

Suspected al Qaeda operatives Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Zayn Al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn - also known as Abu Zubaydah - brought the case against Poland, accusing Warsaw of aiding and abetting in their rendition and mistreatment in 2002-2003. They are currently being held by the US at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Although the judges said that "it was unlikely that the Polish officials had witnessed or known exactly what happened inside this facility," they had enabled the CIA to commit human rights abuses by allowing the facility to operate, making them culpable.

"For all practical purposes, Poland had facilitated the whole process, had created the conditions for it to happen and had made no attempt to prevent it from occurring," the court wrote in its ruling.

CIA / Abu Subaida / Abu Zubaydah

Zubaydah was captured in 2002 in Pakistan and held in Thailand before being transferred to Poland

According to Crofton Black, who has been investigating the CIA's now closed secret prisons in Europe, Thursday's ruling makes attempts by the Polish government to whitewash its involvement look increasingly "ridiculous."

"It's the first time there's been a ruling by any court on the CIA's black sites in Europe, and it confirms what we and other legal organizations have been saying for years, which is the evidence that such sites existed and suspects were tortured in them is overwhelming," Black, who works for the advocacy group Reprieve, told DW.

Pressure for accountability

The court has accused Poland of failing to effectively investigate the alleged role of its former government officials in the CIA black site. In 2008, Warsaw opened its own investigation, more than six years after al-Nashiri and Zubaydah were first brought to the secret prison.

"The fact of the matter is these events happened more than a decade ago and to this date Poland has not conducted an effective investigation," Amrit Singh, an attorney who represents al-Nashiri, told DW.

Singh said that Poland has changed prosecutors several times, indicating political influence over the investigation. But Thursday's ruling could put additional pressure on Warsaw to come clean and hold officials accountable for their involvement.

According to Black, the question is whether or not the former head of Polish intelligence, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, will simply become the fall guy. Siemiatkowski was charged by Poland in 2012 over his alleged role in the black site.

"It's going to be difficult for them not to prosecute somebody," Black said. "The question is how high do they go."

"It's clear the buck has to stop with the former president and the former prime minister," he added. At the time, Leszek Miller was prime minister and Aleksander Kwasniewski was president.

Damages awarded

The European court also ruled that the Polish government was complicit in depriving the two al Qaeda suspects of their right to liberty, a fair trial, effective remedy, and respect for their private and family lives. These rights are all guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

In the case of al-Nashiri, Warsaw also infringed against his right to life and the ECHR's prohibition against capital punishment, by allowing him to be transferred to a US military commission where he faces the death penalty. Zubaydah, for his part, has been held at Guantanamo for 12 years without being charged.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri

Al-Nashiri was captured in Dubai in 2002 and held in Afghanistan and Thailand before being transfered to Poland

Al-Nashiri, a Saudi national, is suspected of participating in the terrorist attack against the USS Cole at Yemen's port of Aden in 2000. Zubaydah, a stateless Palestinian, is suspected by the US of helping to plan the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The Polish government has been ordered to pay al-Nashiri 100,000 euros ($134,000) in damages and 130,000 euros to Zubaydah. According Singh, the court ruling could potentially have an impact on al-Nashiri's case before the US military commission.

"This is more than just a moral vitctory," Singh said. "The factual findings the court made are extremely significant and directly relevant to the military proceedings at Guantanamo Bay."

The European Court of Human Rights called on Warsaw to seek diplomatic assurances from Washington that al-Nashiri won't be executed if convicted over his alleged role in the USS Cole attack.

"Poland is now on the hook to do everything within its power to ensure that Mr. al-Nashiri is not subjected to the death penalty," Singh said.

Broader impact

Two cases have also been filed with the European Court of Human Rights against Lithuania and Romania for their alleged involvement in CIA black sites. Zubaydah was subsequently transferred to Lithuania, while al-Nashiri was sent to Romania before they both ultimately ended up in Guantanamo Bay.

"The fact of the matter is that the program would not have been possible had those governments not collaborated with the US in the first place," Singh said.

According to Black, the court's ruling against Poland serves as a warning to the governments in Vilnius and Bucharest.

"It sends them a very clear signal that their time is coming," Black said. "They need to study this and need to think very carefully about whether they want to be in the same position as Poland in six months time."

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