Europe’s top human rights court ruled Thursday that Poland allowed the CIA to detain two terrorism suspects at a secret prison on its territory where they were exposed to “torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.”
In a 400-page ruling, the European Court of Human Rights said Poland violated the European Convention on Human Rights and failed to properly investigate what had happened to Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national, and Abu Zubaida, a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia, while they were in CIA custody.
The CIA brought a number of suspected al-Qaeda members to the prison, including Abu Zubaida, Nashiri and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-admitted mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While imprisoned on a military base in northern Poland, Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times by a pair of CIA contractors. A CIA operative subjected Nashiri to a mock execution and put a drill to the head of the blindfolded man, according to several former CIA officials and a report by the agency’s inspector general.
“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 in the first judicial ruling on the rendition and interrogation
program created by President George W. Bush’s administration after the 9/11 attacks.
The decision is a victory for human rights advocates who petitioned the court in Strasbourg, France, to hold Poland accountable for its role in helping the CIA establish the secret prison — code-named “Quartz” — on the military base in December 2002.
The court’s decision rested on declassified U.S. documents, media reports and other sources of information about CIA activities in Poland.
The court’s decision comes as the CIA braces for the release by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence of an exhaustive study of the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. Lawmakers have said the CIA misled them about the program’s effectiveness.
The prison in Poland was closed in September 2003, and the CIA sent the remaining detainees to sites in Morocco and Romania. In September 2006, the agency moved Abu Zubaida, Nashiri, Mohammed and 13 other high-value detainees to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mohammed and Nashiri are facing military commission trials for their alleged roles, respectively, in the 9/11 attacks and the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen.
Abu Zubaida, also known as Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, continues to be held without charge in a top-secret Guantanamo facility with other high-value detainees. U.S. officials have backed away from allegations that he was a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda but say he was a facilitator for militants going to camps in Afghanistan.
The court ordered Poland to pay $175,000 to Abu Zubaida and $135,000 to Nashiri.
“We are still studying the decision, but it is obviously an historic judgment that vindicates what we have said for years and now can no longer be denied,” said Joseph Margulies, Abu Zubaida’s attorney. “The CIA ran a black site prison in Poland, with the full knowledge and complicity of the Polish government, where Abu Zubaida was brutally tortured.”
Amrit Singh, a lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, who represented Nashiri before the court, also praised the decision. “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,” she said.
The CIA declined to comment, as did the State Department.
Poland’s Foreign Ministry said it could not immediately comment because its legal experts still needed to examine the ruling, according to the Associated Press. Officials in Warsaw said the government had not decided whether to appeal the ruling to the Grand Chamber of the court.
But the office of President Bronislaw Komorowski called the judgment “embarrassing” to Poland, the AP reported.
The CIA paid Poland’s intelligence officials $15 million in winter 2002 after they agreed to host the facility, according to former intelligence officials, who previously spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing a classified program. The prison was in a cramped dacha on the base and had space only for several prisoners.
The prison was under CIA control, and Polish officials didn’t have access to the prisoners or the ability to question them, the officials have said.
The court said it was “unlikely that the Polish officials had witnessed or known exactly what happened inside the facility.”