By Craig Whitlock
Friday, November 20, 2009
VILNIUS, LITHUANIA -- Twice in the past three years, the Lithuanian Parliament investigated reports that the CIA secretly imprisoned al-Qaeda leaders in this Baltic country. Both times, legislators concluded that there was no evidence.
Now the Parliament is investigating a third time, and it is looking a little harder. Fresh reports of covert CIA flights carrying prisoners from Afghanistan to Lithuania, as well as the revelation that U.S. contractors built a high-security complex at the edge of a forest near Vilnius, have added to the suspicions.
Many Lithuanian officials said they remain unconvinced that their country's secret services allowed the CIA to detain international terrorists. A few legislators blame Russia and other outside interests for inventing the allegations in an attempt to besmirch Lithuania's reputation.
But increasingly, after years of issuing denials, Lithuania's leaders are no longer ruling out the possibility that the CIA operated a secret prison in this northern European country of 3.5 million people, and that its government will have to deal with the fallout.
Last month, newly elected President Dalia Grybauskaite said she had "indirect suspicions" that the CIA reports might be true, and urged Parliament to investigate more thoroughly.
The Washington Post first revealed the CIA's overseas prison network's existence in 2005. At the time, it withheld the names of Eastern European countries involved in the covert program at the request of White House officials, who argued that disclosure could subject those countries to retaliation from al-Qaeda.
Valdas Adamkus, who was president when the CIA prison was reportedly in operation, from 2004 until 2005, said he had no personal knowledge of the covert program. But he raised the possibility that Lithuanian security officials could face prosecution if the reports are confirmed.
"If this actually did occur, and it is grounded with proof, we have to apologize to the international community that something like this went down in Lithuania," he told the Baltic News Service. "And those who did it," he added, "in my eyes are criminals."
In neighboring Poland, prosecutors in the capital of Warsaw have opened a criminal probe into reports that the CIA operated a prison for al-Qaeda suspects near a former military air base. No charges have yet been filed.
Dainius Zalimas, a legal adviser to the Lithuanian Defense Ministry, said the existence of a covert prison would violate both Lithuanian statutes and international human rights conventions that the government signed. If firm evidence is gathered by the Parliament, he said, prosecutors would be obliged to open a case and could target both Lithuanian and U.S. officials.
"From a legal point of view, it would mean that Lithuania, along with the United States, was contributing to quite serious violations of human rights," said Zalimas, who is also a law professor at the University of Vilnius.
Legal experts said the odds of a successful prosecution are remote, given the secret nature of the CIA's overseas prison network.
But there is precedent. On Nov. 4, after a long-running trial, an Italian judge convicted 22 CIA operatives and a U.S. Air Force colonel of kidnapping a Muslim cleric in Milan and flying him to Egypt, where he said he was tortured.
Kestutis Girnius, a Lithuanian political analyst, questioned whether the parliamentary committee that is leading the current investigation can get to the bottom of things.
He noted that the committee lacks subpoena power. And although witnesses have a legal obligation to testify truthfully before Parliament, there is no law that would enable them to be charged with perjury if they lie.
"I don't think they have the tools and know-how to do a proper probe," he said.
Audronius Azubalis is chairman of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, which held exploratory hearings in 2006 but found no evidence that the CIA had operated illegally in Lithuania. He urged patience.
"Right now, we can just say, 'Maybe yes, maybe no,' " he said when asked if he gives credence to the CIA allegations. If necessary, he added, "we have the will to clean up the stable."