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ECHR probes CIA jail in Poland

December 3, 2013

Poland has declined to tell the European Court of Human Rights whether it hosted a secret CIA jail. Rights campaigners say the case could help dismantle the wall of secrecy around extraordinary rendition.

Trial against Poland in Strasbourg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

For the first time, judges questioned Polish officials in court about allegations that the country allowed the US Central Intelligence Agency to hold suspects within its borders. Polish envoys refused to share information with the court on Tuesday, saying it would compromise a domestic investigation.

"The government does not wish to confirm or deny the facts cited by the applicants," Artur Nowak-Far, the undersecretary of state in Poland's Foreign Ministry, told the court.

Lawyers for Saudi-born Abu Zubaydah and Saudi national Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, both held in the US Guantanamo Bay prison since 2003 without trial, brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Though al-Nashiri faces charges in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole missile destroyer, the US has never charged Abu Zubaydah with anything. The lawyers argue that Poland broke the law by allowing their detention to take place and permitting the US to torture them.

The lawyers allege that officials repeatedly tortured them by waterboarding and other methods. Al-Nashiri's lawyer, Amrit Singh, said ECHR intervention could end "impunity."

"This case presents an opportunity for the court to break the conspiracy of silence, to uphold the rule of law," Singh said. "CIA interrogators subjected him to torture, to mock execution 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 and sexually abusing her in front of him."

'A long time'

Last month, the UN Committee Against Torture announced concern over Poland's dragging investigation and urged Poland to cooperate with the ECHR. In Strasbourg, judges asked Polish officials why their ongoing investigation had taken five years. Janusz Sliwa, a prosecutor from Krakow working on the domestic case, called the matter highly complex.

"All that does not allow one to conclude that the investigation in Poland is biased or ineffective," he said, through the court's translator. "It is taking a long time; that does not mean it is slow."

Rights groups allege that officials have deliberately lagged. Mikolaj Pietrzak, a lawyer for al-Nashiri, said Poland had done nothing and not cooperated with a Council of Europe probe.

"The only organization that the Polish state did cooperate with is the Polish state," Pietrzak said.

Not just Poland

Several European countries face allegations of facilitating extraordinary rendition. In 2012, for example, the ECHR condemned Macedonia in the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German of Lebanese origin arrested in Macedonia at the end of 2003 and transferred to a prison in Afghanistan, where the CIA held him in secret for five months. The court ordered Macedonia to pay el-Masri 60,000 euros ($81,000) in damages.

The US has acknowledged that it had facilities around the world after the September 11 attacks as part of the program to detain and question men the CIA deemed terror suspects. Keeping the detainees on foreign soil meant they would not receive the protection afforded under the US Constitution. The US claims to have closed all such prisons by 2006.

The ECHR is not due to issue a ruling in the case for several months.

mkg/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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