Europe's top human rights court ruled Thursday that Poland broke the law by allowing the CIA to secretly imprison two terror suspects on Polish soil from 2002-2003 and facilitating the conditions under which they were subject to torture.
The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights marked the first time any court has passed judgment on the so-called "renditions program" that President George W. Bush launched after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Strasbourg-based court said Poland violated the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to stop the "torture and inhuman or degrading treatment" of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, who were transported to Poland in 2002.
It ordered Poland to pay $175,000 to the Saudi-born Palestinian Zubaydah and $135,000 to al-Nashiri, a Saudi national charged with orchestrating the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
Poland's Foreign Ministry said it could not immediately comment because its legal experts still needed to examine the more than 400-page ruling. It also said it had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.
But Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski called the judgment "embarrassing" to Poland, and damaging both financially and to its image.
It a statement explaining its ruling, the court said the interrogations and ill-treatment of the suspects at the facility in Stare Kiekuty, a remote village in northern Poland, was "the exclusive responsibility of the CIA and it was unlikely that the Polish officials had witnessed or known exactly what happened inside the facility."
It argued, however, that Poland should have ensured that individuals held in its jurisdiction would not be subjected to degrading treatment.
"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 said.
The court also faulted Poland for failing to conduct an effective investigation into the matter. The government launched an investigation in 2008 but there are no signs that it is close to coming to a conclusion.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski said the ruling was premature and that Poland should have been given the chance to make its own ruling first.
However, the human rights lawyers who brought the case to Strasbourg did so "after it became clear that Polish domestic investigations were turning into a cover-up," said Reprieve, a U.K-based legal group that represented Zubaydah in the case.
The lawyers for both suspects hailed the ruling.
"This is a historic ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which has become the first court to confirm the existence of a secret CIA torture center on Polish soil between 2002 and 2003, where our client Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was held and tortured," said Amrit Singh, a lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative who represented al-Nashiri.
One of Zubaydah's lawyers, Joseph Margulies, said, "It's always gratifying when a court speaks truth to power. The question now is whether Poland will listen. The rule of law demands more than words on a page. It demands justice."
The ruling from Strasbourg may have implications for other European states alleged to have hosted CIA prisons: similar cases have been lodged with the court in Strasbourg against Romania and Lithuania. The court ruling did not directly cover the United States, which is outside its jurisdiction.
The Bush administration began the "extraordinary rendition" program to deal with suspected Al-Qaeda operatives, many of them captured in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Keeping the detainees on foreign soil meant they were not entitled to the protection afforded under U.S. law. The Bush administration said that was important because it gave it more scope to interrogate the suspects and extract information that is claimed helped avert violent attacks by militants.
President Barack Obama signed an order ending the use of the CIA jails after taking office in 2009. Obama's administration has, however, declined to launch an investigation and has not prosecuted any U.S. officials for their role in the program. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is preparing to publish parts of a previously classified report on the rendition program that the committee chair has said uncovered shocking brutality against detainees.