For those seeking accountability for the senior Bush administration officials and lawyers who established a global torture program in the “War on Terror,” involving extraordinary rendition and torture in a variety of secret prisons, the news that the Polish Prosecutor has today accepted the claims of Abu Zubaydah, a former CIA “ghost prisoner,” that he was a victim of extraordinary rendition and secret detention in Poland is enormously significant.
Zubaydah, one of 14 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, was held for four and a half years in prisons whose existence has been routinely denied by the United States, and by the countries who hosted secret prisons on behalf of the CIA — Thailand, Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Morocco — which were used to hold Zubaydah, 27 other “high-value detainees,” and at least some of the other 66 “ghost prisoners” whose existence has been acknowledged by the US authorities.
The news from Poland provides hope following recent disappointments in the quest for accountability — revelations by WikiLeaks that the Bush administration put pressure on the German goverment to drop an investigation into the kidnap and torture of Khaled El-Masri (a case of mistaken identity) and that the Obama administration put pressure on the Spanish government to drop an investigation into the crimes committed by six Bush administration lawyers, as well as the recent decision by the Lithuanian government to drop its own investigation into a secret prison — or two secret prisons — near Vilnius.
Reassuringly, the Spanish probe is still ongoing, and I recently appeared on Democracy Now! and at an event in New York with Katie Gallagher of the Center for Constitutional Rights, just after CCR and the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) had filed two submissions in Spain in connection with the investigation into the “Bush Six,” and another investigation into Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of Guantánamo during the worst years of torture at the prison (2002 to 2004), who was later sent to “Gitmo-ize” faclities in Iraq, including, notoriously, Abu Ghraib.
However, the main focus for those seeking accountability remains Poland, where Abu Zubaydah is the second “victim” recognized by the Polish Prosecutor, following the recognition of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (another of the 14 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006) as a victim in October last year. This, as Prosecutor Jerzy Mierzewski told the Associated Press, “entails a number of rights for the injured party,” and as Reprieve and INTERIGHTS announced in a press release today (on behalf of their partners in the Zubaydah complaint, Polish lawyer Bartlomiej Jankowski and US lawyer Joe Margulies), victim status “allows Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers to participate fully in the criminal investigation, which includes introducing further evidence, calling witnesses and taking part in the questioning of witnesses and suspects.”
Although the secret prisons in Poland and Romania have been known about since November 2005, when the Washington Post first identified their existence, and Human Rights Watch then identified the countries involved, and their existence was then confirmed in a report for the Council of Europe in June 2007 (PDF) by CoE Rapporteur and Swiss Senator Dick Marty, based on two years’ research and interviews with over 30 current and former members of the intelligence services in the United States and Europe, it was not until March 23, 2009 that the first details of specific flights into Szymany were officially confirmed in Poland, by the Polish Air Navigation Service Agency. Moreover, it was not until August last year that further incriminating details were added by the the Polish Border Guard Office, who released a number of crucial documents to the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, as I explained in an article at the time, New Evidence About Prisoners Held in Secret CIA Prisons in Poland and Romania.
As a result of these revelations, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that former Prime Minister Leszek Miller and former President Aleksander Kwasniewski “may face war crime charges for agreeing to host the facility,” and I reported details of the ongoing investigation in my article, Will Poland’s Former Leaders Face War Crimes Charges for Hosting Secret CIA Prison?
Since then, the story has refused to go away, despite being largely ignored in the US mainstream media, with further damning reports about the torture program — and the moving of “high-value detainees” between Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Morocco — published by the Associated Press in August and September (Terrorist interrogation tapes found, Former FBI Man Implicated in CIA Abuse, and Poles Urged to Probe CIA Prison Acts), and the announcement about the “victim” status of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri on October 27.
The timing of the Polish Prosecutor’s announcement about Abu Zubaydah’s “victim” status is also useful in terms of a week-long Polish tour of the film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and myself), which former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg and I are undertaking in the first week of February (details to be announced soon). Moazzam and I are primarily undertaking this tour, with the support of organizations including Amnesty International and Le Monde Diplomatique, to raise awareness of the real stories of the men held at Guantánamo (most of whom had nothing to do with terrorism), and also to raise awareness of the need for new homes to be found for men who cannot be repatriated safely, but we are also keenly aware that the Polish government’s complicity in the establishment of a secret US torture prison on Polish soil needs to be discussed, and we are anticipating that experts involved in the cases of al-Nashiri and Zubaydah will be joining us for the tour.
Below is the press release issued today by Reprieve and INTERIGHTS:
Polish Prosecutor officially recognises Guantánamo prisoner Abu Zubaydah as a victim in Poland’s CIA secret prison investigation; decision will allow former ‘high-value detainee’ to testify against his US torturers and their allies.
WARSAW—Guantánamo prisoner Abu Zubaydah has been granted all-important ‘victim’ status in the pending criminal investigation into a CIA black site in Poland, following a complaint brought by Polish lawyer Bartlomiej Jankowski working with INTERIGHTS, Reprieve and Joe Margulies.
The Polish Prosecutor is the first state official to accept Abu Zubaydah’s claims that he was a victim of extraordinary rendition and secret detention in Poland. Until now both the Polish and US governments have repeatedly denied that he was illegally imprisoned and tortured in a secret prison near Szymany; the Prosecutor’s office has now accepted that Abu Zubaydah’s claims are not only credible but also extremely serious.
Poland’s decision is a crucial step towards uncovering the truth about the CIA’s rendition and torture programme in Europe. Victim status allows Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers to participate fully in the criminal investigation, which includes introducing further evidence, calling witnesses and taking part in the questioning of witnesses and suspects.
The Polish Prosecutor’s leadership stands in contrast with the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s bizarre decision, announced this week, to close his investigation into the CIA black site in Lithuania in which Abu Zubaydah was also held and tortured. Like many other European states, Lithuania was instrumental in the operation of the CIA’s illegal rendition and torture programme, and has urgent legal obligations to provide robust and transparent investigations in order to uncover the facts.
Today’s decision follows weeks of urgent litigation by Abu Zubaydah’s international legal team. On 16 December 2010, Bartlomiej Jankowski filed applications with the Polish Prosecutor’s office showing his client was transferred from Thailand to Poland by the CIA on 5 December 2002, and held there for nine or ten months. The applications included extensive evidence of the roles played by CIA agents and Polish officials in the CIA programme in Poland, the rendition flights that transported Abu Zubaydah into and out of Poland, the private companies involved in those flights, and the operation of the CIA’s secret prison site at Stare Kiejkuty, near Szymany.
Joseph Margulies, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago and US counsel for Abu Zubaydah said: “To recognize Abu Zubaydah as a victim is to accept his humanity, which is the first essential step to recovering from the hysteria of 9/11. It is not surprising, that this step should be taken by the Poles before the Americans.”
Bartlomiej Jankowski, Polish cousel for Abu Zubaydah said: “Following the arrangements made with Mr Jerzy Mierzewski, the prosecutor in charge of the investigation, who personally informed me that Abu Zubaydah is recognized as a victim, I will now be able to review at least some of the unclassified documents in the investigation file. We also expect to be given access to the classified documents. Secrecy should not be used to shield gross human rights abuses from disclosure to the Polish public. The Polish criminal investigation should also receive full cooperation from the US government, which should promptly comply with Poland’s legal aid request. It is impossible to speak about justice in this case without hearing the victims as witnesses, whether directly in Poland or at least by video conference.”
INTERIGHTS Litigation Director Helen Duffy said: “The Prosecutor’s decision is a welcome first step, but the Polish government must do much more to vindicate Abu Zubaydah’s rights. As a recognised victim, he should now be entitled to take part in the investigation and to uncover information concerning his abuse. It remains to be seen whether the cloak of ‘state secrecy’ currently surrounding the investigation will be lifted and the Polish authorities will show their commitment to justice. Justice cannot be secret.”
Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith said: “We cannot expect to learn from history, and avoid repeating our mistakes, if we do not know what that history was. So it is vital that European complicity in the CIA renditions programme is brought into the light, and the prosecutor’s decision is an important step towards that goal. This investigation is not about the persecution of individual officials, but rather about establishing a clear picture of exactly what happened in order to ensure that it does not happen again. It is crucial that those who created the programme and gave the orders are not permitted to pretend it never happened.”
Background on Abu Zubaydah
Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, more commonly known as Abu Zubaydah, is a stateless Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia. He was held in secret detention by the CIA of the United States of America from the time of his abduction from a house in Faisalbad, Pakistan on 28 March 2002 until approximately 6 September 2006, when it was announced that he was transferred to the custody of the US Department of Defence (“DOD”) at Guantánamo Bay. He remains in indefinite detention in DOD custody at Guantánamo Bay. However, he has never been charged with any crime, neither in proceedings before a military commission nor in a civilian court.
Abu Zubaydah was the first so-called “high value detainee” to be captured, detained and interrogated by the CIA. For the purpose of his interrogation, the CIA devised a set of “enhanced interrogation techniques” intended to create a state of learned helplessness through the application of severe physical and psychological stress. According to former CIA Director George Tenet, once Abu Zubaydah was in custody, the CIA “got into holding and interrogating high-value detainees … in a serious way.” He is one of three detainees subjected to the waterboard, and US government documents show that he was waterboarded at least 83 times in one month.
Throughout the period of Abu Zubaydah’s secret detention, interrogation and torture by the CIA he was falsely alleged to be a member of al-Qaeda and a close associate and senior lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. He was also falsely alleged to have had a role in various al-Qaeda terrorist acts — including the attacks on 11 September 2001. After more than six years of incommunicado detention, Abu Zubaydah obtained access to US lawyers, who challenged his detention in US courts and forced the US Department of Justice to withdraw all such allegations. The United States no longer alleges Abu Zubaydah was ever a member of al-Qaeda or that he supported al Qaeda’s radical ideology. The United States no longer alleges that Abu Zubaydah was an associate of Osama bin Laden or that he was his senior lieutenant. The United States no longer alleges that Abu Zubaydah had any role in any terrorist attack planned or perpetrated by al-Qaeda, including the attacks of 11 September 2001 [although it now has a new ploy, as described in my articles, Abu Zubaydah: Tortured for Nothing, In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies and Algerian in Guantánamo Loses Habeas Petition for Being in a Guest House with Abu Zubaydah].
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at andyworthington.co.uk.