For the first time, a court has ruled on the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prison network in Europe. The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday found “beyond reasonable doubt” that two current prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were transferred from Thailand to Poland by the CIA and tortured there.
The language in the judgment is damning. Evidence of the prisoners’ rendition and treatment is “coherent, clear and categorical.” The facts presented by their legal teams “demonstrate” that the Polish authorities knew at that time that the CIA was using Szymany airport and, as a secret detention site, the Stare Kiejkuty military base. The court judged it “inconceivable” that rendition aircraft landed in and departed from Poland, or that the CIA occupied the premises in the Polish base, without Poland being “informed of and involved in the preparation and execution of the [CIA’s High Value Detainee] Programme.” It concluded that “Poland, for all practical purposes, facilitated the whole process, created the conditions for it to happen and made no attempt to prevent it from occurring.” In short, through its “acquiescence and connivance,” Poland “must be regarded as responsible” for secret imprisonment, torture and transfer onward to further secret imprisonment.
The judgment is remarkable and unprecedented, but the facts underlying it have long been in the public domain. Since 2005, when the existence of the “black site” network — top-secret locations where the CIA imprisoned and tortured terrorist suspects — was first revealed, there has been a steady drumbeat of disclosure, and the veil of secrecy woven by the world’s pre-eminent intelligence agency has been reduced to a collection of tattered rags. There is nothing astonishing about this. Planes are readily tracked and difficult to hide. A breach of contract case that concluded in 2011, Richmor Aviation v. Sportsflight, introduced into the public domain a plethora of contractual material showing how the logistics of prisoner transfer were organized and where prisoners were taken. Numerous tortured suspects, released after the CIA belatedly determined their lack of involvement in terrorist activity, gave firsthand accounts of their treatment to lawyers and NGOs. Investigative journalists, legal teams, NGOs such as Reprieve and national and international parliaments all played a role in gathering these facts. Eventually, the U.S. Senate, too, has recognized that the events constitute “a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen.”
It is easy to be lulled into complacency by the bureaucratic language with which the CIA and the U.S. Department of Justice crafted their internal memorandums, but, as the court recognized, what went on in Poland and in other countries that hosted black sites included suffocation by water, confinement in small boxes, beatings, extreme sleep deprivation, exposure to cold and noise and other “enhanced techniques.” The “horrible details” of what happened in Poland constituted a major part of, in the words of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, “the CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.”
The new judgment crystallizes a decisive moment at which, for countries complicit in the “rendition, detention, interrogation” program, it has become absurd to deny involvement. The contortions into which the Polish government twisted itself are well documented by the court, and none of its excuses has been found credible. In Britain, meanwhile, similar absurdity abounds. The government recently stated that crucial documents attesting to plane movements through the island of Diego Garcia had been “water-damaged,” before admitting a week later that they had dried out, while a Foreign Office official was photographed carrying a briefing annotated with the words “What else in public domain?” — an unwanted photo opportunity revealing that, behind its staunch insistence that nothing untoward had occurred, the British government is becoming increasingly rattled.
The answer to that question is, of course, not as much as will be in a month or two, when the Senate releases its summary of the “terrible mistakes” that occurred in Poland, Romania and elsewhere. And that must be particularly galling for those stalwart bastions of obfuscation — Poland, the U.K., Lithuania and Romania in particular — for whom every new release by the U.S. undermines their wonky edifice of denial. Already on Thursday the Polish president’s office has announced its “embarrassment” at the judgment, describing it as a “burden on our country’s image.”
It is a burden of Poland’s own making. Clearly, over the coming months the pace of revelation about these events of 2001–06 will only accelerate. Poland, as well as the U.K., Lithuania, Romania and others, faces a very simple choice: it can undertake the smelly but salutary task of cleaning its Augean stable, or it can sink further into its self-made morass of implausible and increasingly ridiculous denial.