In what has been described as a watershed moment, a European court ruled Thursday that Poland enabled rendition and torture carried out by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights marks the first court judgement on the CIA's so-called "black sites," secret offshore prisons where detainees are tortured.
The damning finding comes as a result of cases brought forth regarding two men currently held at the Guantanamo prison, Abd Al Rahim Hussayn Muhammad al-Nashiri and Zayn Al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, who were captured by the U.S. and sent to a secret black site in Poland where they were tortured in 2002 and 2003.
The Court found that rights of the men as set out under the European Convention on Human Rights, including their right to “effective remedy” and to not be tortured, were violated.
Testimony heard by the Court included an account as it appeared in the 2007 ICRC Report by Abu Zubaydah of his detention:
I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.
A description of detention at CIA black sites given to the ICRC by 14 "high-value detainees," including al-Nashiri, which was also seen by the Court stated:
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Throughout the entire period during which they were held in the CIA detention program – which ranged from sixteen months up to almost four and a half years and which, for eleven of the fourteen was over three years – the detainees were kept in continuous solitary confinement and incommunicado detention. They had no knowledge of where they were being held, no contact with persons other than their interrogators or guards. Even their guards were usually masked and, other than the absolute minimum, did not communicate in any way with the detainees. None had any real – let alone regular – contact with other persons detained, other than occasionally for the purposes of inquiry when they were confronted with another detainee. None had any contact with legal representation. The fourteen had no access to news from the outside world, apart from in the later stages of their detention when some of them occasionally received printouts of sports news from the internet and one reported receiving newspapers.
Though it is unlikely that Polish officials witnessed the torture of the two men or knew of the specific actions that took place at the black site, the Court stated that "[f]or 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 found that Poland had cooperated in the preparation and execution of the CIA rendition, secret detention and interrogation operations on its territory and it ought to have known that by enabling the CIA to detain the applicants on its territory, it was exposing them to a serious risk of treatment contrary to the Convention," the Court states.
The Court also ordered Poland to pay the men each 100,000 euros, and for Abu Zubaydah to be paid an additional 30,000 euros for costs and expenses.
"This ruling is of landmark significance for ending impunity with respect to the abuses associated with the rendition program," stated Amrit Singh of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which brought froth the case on behalf of al-Nashiri.
"In stark contrast to U.S. courts that have closed their doors to victims of CIA torture, this ruling sends an unmistakable signal that these kinds of abuses will not be tolerated in Europe, and those who participated in these abuses will be held accountable," Singh stated.