Judges of the European Court of Human Rights enter the hearing room of the court in Strasbourg, Tuesday.Vincent Kessler/Reuters
Europe's human rights court shone a rare public light Tuesday on the secret network of European prisons that the CIA used to interrogate terror suspects, reviving memories and questions about the "extraordinary renditions" that angered many on the continent.
At Tuesday's hearing, lawyers for two terror suspects currently held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, accused Poland of human rights abuses. The lawyers say the suspects fell victim to the CIA's program to kidnap terror suspects and transfer them to third countries, and allege they were tortured in a remote Polish prison.
The case marks the first time Europe's role in the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects reached the European Court of Human Rights. The program, which occurred at the height of former President George W. Bush's war on terrorism, upset many Europeans.
All the prisons were closed by May 2006. Interrogations at sea have replaced CIA black sites as the U.S. government's preferred method for holding suspected terrorists and questioning them without access to lawyers.
One of the cases heard at Tuesday's trial concerns 48-year-old Saudi national Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who currently faces terror charges in the U.S. for allegedly orchestrating the Al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in 2000, a bombing in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 sailors and wounded 37.
The second case involves 42-year-old Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian also held in Guantanamo. Abu Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime.
In November, Al Jazeera obtained diaries Abu Zubaydah wrote as a jihadi in Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to the documents, he was building a network to wage a war that would "bring America to its knees" before he was captured in 2002.
A declassified report released in 2009 showed the CIA deemed al-Nashiri and Zubaydah as "high value detainees" meaning they are held under ultra-secure conditions in a secret section of Guantanamo known as Camp 7.
Both men say they were brought to Poland in December 2002, where they were detained and subjected to harsh questioning in a Polish military installation in Stare Kiejkuty, a village set in a lush area of woods and lakes in the country's remote northeast.
There they were subject to mock executions, waterboarding and other tortures, including being told their families would be arrested and sexually abused, said Amrit Singh, a lawyer representing al-Nashiri.
"This case is an opportunity to break the conspiracy of silence" about the participation of some European governments in the CIA's rendition program, Singh said. "These acts occurred on Polish territory with the acquiescence and connivance of the Polish authorities," Singh said.
Polish prosecutor Janusz Sliwa said that Poland should be allowed to complete its own investigation into the claims before having them taken up by Europe's human rights court. Sliwa is leading the Polish investigation, which has gone on for five years without an outcome.
Lawyers for the terror suspects are asking the court to condemn Poland for various abuses of rights guaranteed by Europe's Convention on Human Rights.
Former CIA officials have told The Associated Press that a prison in Poland operated from December 2002 until the fall of 2003. Human rights groups believe about eight terror suspects were held in Poland, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Click for the complete Zubaydah diaries.
Polish leaders in office at the time — former President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller — denied the prison's existence.
In his memoir "Decision Points" former President George W. Bush wrote that he ordered the CIA to subject about 100 terror detainees to harsh interrogation techniques, arguing the methods did not constitute unlawful torture and that they produced intelligence that prevented further attacks.
The CIA has never said where the black sites were based, but intelligence officials, aviation reports and human rights groups say they included Afghanistan and Thailand as well as Poland, Lithuania and Romania.
Polish prosecutors opened an investigation into the matter in 2008. It has been extended several times and remains pending, although authorities have never disclosed the investigation's terms or scope.
Sliwa said that Polish investigators have not had access to the two men. He acknowledged that their investigation has been long, "but not excessively lengthy."
The court's ruling is expected at a later date. Singh said she is hopeful that a ruling in her client's favor will come before Sept. 2, 2014 — the date his U.S. trial is scheduled to begin.
The Associated Press