European Court Condemns Poland in Historic Ruling on CIA “Black Sites”

LONDON—The European Court of Human Rights has become the first court anywhere to publicly confirm the existence of the so-called “black site” secret prisons operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Europe after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

In the first ruling of its kind, the court found “beyond reasonable doubt” that Poland allowed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to operate a secret torture center at the Stare Kiejkuty military base in the northeast of the country in 2002 and 2003.

The unanimous ruling by the court’s seven judges found that Poland breached its obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights by allowing two suspects to be secretly detained and subjected to torture at the Stare Kiejkuty base.

Poland has officially refused to confirm the existence of this site since its existence first emerged in 2005.

The court ruling came in a case brought by the Open Society Justice Initiative on behalf of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national currently held at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, where he is facing trial and a possible death sentence before a military commission. Mr. al-Nashiri was held by the CIA at Stare Kiejkuty after being seized by the CIA in Dubai.

The court found that Poland had violated the European Convention of Human Rights by:

  • allowing his torture on Polish soil by the CIA;
  • allowing his secret detention at Stare Kiejkuty;
  • allowing his transfer out of Poland despite the risk of further torture and secret detention; and
  • allowing his transfer out of Poland despite the risk of a “flagrant denial of justice” before a U.S. military commission, and the risk of a death penalty.

It ordered Poland to intervene with the U.S. government to secure assurances that al-Nashiri will not be subject to the death penalty. The court also found that Poland had failed in its duty to cooperate with the court, and ordered it to pay al-Nashiri €100,000 in compensation.

Amrit Singh, the lawyer who heads the Open Society Justice Initiative’s work on accountability for human rights abuses linked to national security issues, and who also represents al-Nashiri before the court, said:

This ruling is of landmark significance for ending impunity with respect to the abuses associated with the rendition program. In stark contrast to U.S. courts that have closed their doors to victims of CIA torture, this ruling sends an unmistakable signal that these kinds of abuses will not be tolerated in Europe, and those who participated in these abuses will be held accountable.

Mikolaj Pietrzak, a lawyer with the Warsaw-based law firm Pietrzak Sidor who represents al-Nashiri before the court as well as in Polish proceedings, said: “This judgment is a watershed moment in the decade-long effort to establish the truth about the Polish government’s cooperation with the CIA. The Polish government should now publicly acknowledge the facts around what happened, to support the rule of law and to make sure it never happens again.”

The court made a similar finding in the case of a second Guantanamo detainee, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn (Abu Zubaydah).

Singh added: “This European Court ruling includes a damning indictment of the U.S. military commission system, where Mr. al-Nashiri is now facing the threat of a death penalty. The court’s findings underline the extent to which the U.S. case against our client is tainted by torture, and the extent to which a conspiracy of silence has sought to cloak these events from further public scrutiny.”

In addition to Singh and Pietrzak, al-Nashiri is represented before the European Court by James Goldston, Rupert Skilbeck, and Nancy Hollander.

The ruling comes as the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is preparing to release a 480-page summary of its massive examination of the CIA interrogation and detention program, including its use of waterboarding and other abusive interrogation techniques against prisoners. 

The report will contain some redactions proposed by the CIA that will at a minimum delete references to the involvement of specific foreign countries, thereby unfortunately continuing to obscure the role played by Poland and other countries in the CIA’s program.

Poland was one of at least 50 governments that supported a program of secret rendition and torture launched by the CIA after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Mr. al-Nashiri was captured in Dubai in October 2012, and secretly transferred to CIA custody. He was taken to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan known as the “Salt Pit,” and then to another black site prison in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was waterboarded. On or about December 5, 2002, the CIA “rendered” al-Nashiri to Poland. The Polish authorities provided extraordinary levels of security cover for this flight.

In Poland, U.S. interrogators subjected al-Nashiri to mock executions with a power drill as he stood naked and hooded; racked a semi-automatic handgun close to his head as he sat shackled before them; held him in “standing stress positions”; and threatened to bring in his mother and sexually abuse her in front of him.

On or about June 6, 2003, Poland assisted the United States in secretly flying al-Nashiri out of Poland, despite the grave risk of his being subjected to further torture, incommunicado detention, a flagrantly unfair trial, and the death penalty in U.S. custody.

The Justice Initiative has also filed a separate ECHR complaint on al-Nashiri’s behalf against Romania, where he was similarly secretly detained and abused at a CIA black site.

In December 2012, in another case argued by the Justice Initiative, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the arbitrary arrest, detention, and interrogation of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen who was mistakenly seized in Macedonia in 2004, handed over to the CIA, and shipped to Afghanistan for interrogation.