STRASBOURG, France — Europe’s human rights court shone a rare public light Tuesday on the secret network of European prisons that the CIA used to interrogate terrorism suspects, reviving questions about the “extraordinary renditions” that angered many on this continent.
At Tuesday’s hearing, attorneys for two terrorism suspects currently held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, accused Poland of human rights abuses. The lawyers say the suspects fell victim to the CIA’s rendition program, in which terrorism suspects were kidnapped and transferred to third countries; they allege that the two were tortured in a remote Polish prison.
The case marks the first time that Europe’s role in the CIA’s controversial rendition program, which was in operation at the height of then-President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, has reached the European Court of Human Rights.
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 terrorism suspects and questioning them without access to lawyers.
One of the cases heard Tuesday concerns 48-year-old Saudi national Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who faces U.S. terrorism charges 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.
The second case involves 42-year-old Abu Zubaida, a Palestinian also held in Guantanamo who has never been charged with a crime.
A declassified report released in 2009 showed the CIA deemed Nashiri and Abu Zubaida to be “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 in December 2002 to Poland, where they were detained and subjected to harsh questioning at a Polish military installation in Stare Kiejkuty, a village 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 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.
Polish prosecutor Janusz Sliwa said Poland should be allowed to complete its own investigation into the claims before having them taken up by the European court. Sliwa is leading the Polish investigation, which has gone on for five years.
Former CIA officials have said a prison in Poland operated from December 2002 until fall 2003.