Sunday

21st Jan 2018

Poland's CIA probe: road to nowhere

  • The CIA is said to have tortured detainees in buildings hidden behind the treeline of the lake at this Polish intelligence training site (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Poland is probing human rights abuses committed by the CIA on its territory, but politics and hostile public opinion have turned what was once a proper criminal investigation into a farce.

The eastern European country, along with Lithuania and Romania, has long been accused of having an on-site camp that the CIA could use to interrogate people it suspected of terrorism.

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  • Stare Kiejkuty is a short drive from the local airport (Photo: EUobserver)

First disclosed by Human Rights Watch in 2005, the CIA is said to have executed simulated drowning known as waterboarding, mock executions with power drills, and other techniques on kidnapped detainees held at Poland's intelligence training centre.

The findings, published in a report by the Strasbourg-based watchdog Council of Europe, spoke of a cover-up by Polish authorities and said politicians "knew about and authorised Poland's role in the CIA's operation of secret detention facilities."

They noted Polish military officials and documents confirmed that "high value detainees" had disembarked from planes on a runway at Szcytno-Symany airport.

The CIA rendition flights – in which up to 17 member states were implicated often by allowing flights to stop over on their territory – started after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, when George W. Bush, US president at the time, declared a ‘war on terror’.

For the past seven years Polish prosecutors have been investigating what the CIA did at the Polish intelligence training camp next to the remote village of Stare Kiejkuty, some 150km east of Warsaw.

With some of the alleged crimes under a statute of limitations and carrying prison sentences, the delays have led to suspicions about the independence of Poland's public prosecutors.

Jerzy Mierzewski was the first Warsaw-based prosecutor to be put on the case. He was also the first to be dismissed on 20 May 2011, a few days before a visit by US president Barack Obama.

Poland's daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza at the time said he was taken off the case after it emerged he was about to file charges three years into the probe.

Mikolaj Pietrzak, a lawyer of one of the victims, appears to corroborate this.

“It was his openness and his co-operation with me that led to him being dismissed from the case,” Pietrzak told this website.

Pietrzak said he had been invited by Mierzewski to look through a stack of secret CIA files. As Pietrzak sat down at the table, Mierzewski’s phone rang. When Mierzewski returned two minutes later, he grabbed the stack and walked out.

“He said ‘that’s it, I’ve just been taken off the case and I’m not allowed to talk to you about this anymore,” says Pietrzak.

The case was then given to another prosecutor who later filed charges against Poland's former head of the intelligence agency.

Pietrzak was also allowed to review confidential files under the second prosecutor but not allowed to take any notes. After one three-hour session, they convened for another viewing a few days later but when Pietrzak returned the second prosecutor had been dismissed as well.

The investigation was then given to a third team of appellate prosecutors but this time based in the city of Krakow.

“These guys are not push overs, they have dealt with political pressure in their lives before. That having been said, I was never given access to the classified files again, even though I have a statutory right to have access,” says Pietrzak.

The Krakow team then refused to confirm if the charges brought by their predecessor against the former intelligence head had been filed.

One Polish senator said the lack of transparency was reminiscent of Poland's Soviet past.

“We have here a kind of so-called a ‘deep state’ and in my opinion a lack of democratic control of institutions,” senator Jozef Pinior of the centre-right Civic Platform party told this website.

But Pinior is alone among Poland’s political class to speak out, says the chief of Poland’s Amnesty International bureau, Draginja Nadazdin.

“With the politicians, it’s a disaster, aside from senator Pinior, there is no other political figure that has been vocal and speaking about human rights. But unfortunately Pinior is seen as a kind of idealist or marginal figure,” she said.

Most political heads instead either label the victims as terrorists or deserving of their fates in the larger war against Islamic militants.

Leszek Miller, who was PM while the renditions took place, admitted to the secret detentions 24 hours after the US senate intelligence released its redacted report in December last year.

The US senate report was followed by a European Court of Human Rights ruling earlier this year that fined Poland €230,000 for two of the victims.

Neither victim is likely to see the money after the US government at the Guantanamo hearings said acquittals would in no way influence their decision to ever release the men from captivity.

Instead, Miller described the Strasbourg court’s decision as one that forces the Polish government to "finance terrorists", says Amnesty's Nadazdin. Miller was elected for a four-year term in 2012 as chairman of the Democratic Left Alliance.

Amnesty’s Nadazdin says the former PM’s labelling of the detainees as terrorists – even though they have never been convicted of a crime – is an easy sell for a population that has little sympathy for them.

Only one of the Polish renditions victims has been charged - nine years after he was kidnapped from Dubai in 2002 - in a trial described by his lawyer Pietrzak as a mockery of justice.

But Pietrzak said the truth will eventually come out.

“Something happened along the way that made a democratic liberal, rule of law state, fail to abide by its most basic obligations. And we have a right as a society, in Poland and internationally, to find out what failed, what happened, so that we can avoid that in the future,” he said.

Poland's government, for its part, declined to comment on why the investigation is taking so long.

The prime minister's office noted that the investigation is being led by an independent judiciary and not the government.

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