Soon to debut on the Lithuanian real estate market: A steel barn that once functioned as a CIA “black site.”
Rather than horse stalls and hay lofts, the riding stable outside of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius consists of long corridors leading to windowless and soundproof rooms where “one could do whatever one wanted,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas, who led a parliamentary investigation into the facility in 2010, told Reuters.
The site was part of the United States’ secretive rendition program in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, under which the Central Intelligence Agency held suspected Islamist militants in prisons outside of U.S. jurisdiction, where they could interrogate foreign suspects without charging them with any crimes. There, the prisoners were subjected to brutal interrogation tactics condemned by human rights groups and U.S. judges as torture, including sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and waterboarding.
The Lithuanian parliament’s investigation into the barn concluded that it had been used by the CIA, but that there was no proof the facility had held prisoners.
“What exactly was going on there, we did not determine,” Anusauskas told Reuters, describing the building as “heavily guarded” at the time.
Amrit Singh, a lawyer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, a human rights organization, who has litigated cases on European governments’ roles in hosting CIA detention sites, said that the European Court ruling required the Lithuanian government to conduct an “effective investigation" but that it had failed to do so.
“The fact that this site where detainees were tortured and abused is simply going to be sold without any acknowledgment of the truth, without any meaningful investigation, is testament to the fact that impunity has reigned supreme with respect to the CIA’s torture program and the European governments’ complicity,” she said.
Anusauskas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. government still treats the locations of the detention facilities as classified information, and a Senate report in 2014 that published damning details about the program referred to the sites using only code names.
But the European Court of Human Rights confirmed in recent years that the 10-room barn in a Lithuanian forest was the prison referred to as Violet in the Senate report — and that Lithuanian authorities knew about and had cooperated with the CIA’s activities.
In 2018, the court heard that prisoners there were shaved when they arrived, blindfolded, hooded and shackled. They were held in solitary confinement and bombarded with constant light and noise.
The court ruled that Lithuania had violated its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to pay Abu Zubaida — known as the “forever prisoner” — more than $113,000 in damages for the treatment he suffered there. Lithuania has recently forked over that payment, the Guardian reported earlier this month.
Zubaydah said he was detained and tortured by the CIA in Lithuania from February 2005 to March 2006. Captured in Pakistan in 2002, he was accused of being a senior al-Qaeda member. It later came out that he was not involved in the organization. He has been held without charge by the United States ever since.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was also reportedly detained at the Lithuanian prison.
The 2014 Senate report concluded that the harsh interrogation measures employed at CIA “black sites” were “brutal” and ineffective.
Concerns over inadequate access to medical care for detainees, media exposure, legal challenges, disputes with foreign governments and CIA officials “mission fatigue” eroded the controversial program. It had largely been dismantled by September 2006, when then-president George W. Bush acknowledged its existence publicly for the first time and declared the black sites empty.
The Lithuania site was among the last to close. The CIA shuttered the facility in 2006, after a hospital refused to admit CIA detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who was suffering a “medical emergency.” The Pentagon declined to help, so the CIA ended up paying millions of dollars to get aid from “third-party countries,” according to a Washington Post report from 2014.
The Lithuanian government then took over the barn and the country’s intelligence service used it as a training facility from 2007 to 2018.
Unlike the former Russian KGB jail in Vilnius that serves as the Eastern European country’s main tourist attraction, this prison won’t see school groups and history buffs roaming its halls.
As the real estate fund readies it for sale for an unknown price, the government allowed reporters to tour the former rendition facility.
“We don’t push any buttons, so as not to turn anything on by accident,” an unnamed real estate fund employee told Reuters.
Singh raised concerns that the property’s sale would render it even less likely that European and U.S. officials would be held to account for the abuses that occurred there.
“The significance of that failure is that until there is genuine accountability for engaging in torture and/or being complicit in that torture, there is no meaningful way to ensure that this torture will not happen again,” she said.