For the first time, a court has ruled on the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prison network in Europe. The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday found “beyond reasonable doubt” that two current prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were transferred from Thailand to Poland by the CIA and tortured there.
The language in the judgment is damning. Evidence of the prisoners’ rendition and treatment is “coherent, clear and categorical.” The facts presented by their legal teams “demonstrate” that the Polish authorities knew at that time that the CIA was using Szymany airport and, as a secret detention site, the Stare Kiejkuty military base. The court judged it “inconceivable” that rendition aircraft landed in and departed from Poland, or that the CIA occupied the premises in the Polish base, without Poland being “informed of and involved in the preparation and execution of the [CIA’s High Value Detainee] Programme.” It concluded that “Poland, for all practical purposes, facilitated the whole process, created the conditions for it to happen and made no attempt to prevent it from occurring.” In short, through its “acquiescence and connivance,” Poland “must be regarded as responsible” for secret imprisonment, torture and transfer onward to further secret imprisonment.
The judgment is remarkable and unprecedented, but the facts underlying it have long been in the public domain. Since 2005, when the existence of the “black site” network — top-secret locations where the CIA imprisoned and tortured terrorist suspects — was first revealed, there has been a steady drumbeat of disclosure, and the veil of secrecy woven by the world’s pre-eminent intelligence agency has been reduced to a collection of tattered rags. There is nothing astonishing about this. Planes are readily tracked and difficult to hide. A breach of contract case that concluded in 2011, Richmor Aviation v. Sportsflight, introduced into the public domain a plethora of contractual material showing how the logistics of prisoner transfer were organized and where prisoners were taken. Numerous tortured suspects, released after the CIA belatedly determined their lack of involvement in terrorist activity, gave firsthand accounts of their treatment to lawyers and NGOs. Investigative journalists, legal teams, NGOs such as Reprieve and national and international parliaments all played a role in gathering these facts. Eventually, the U.S. Senate, too, has recognized that the events constitute “a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen.”