Sunday

19th Jan 2020

Investigation

Polish airport used by CIA obtains millions in EU funds

  • At the end of a dirt road, a lone security guard keeps out unnanounced visitors (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

A small airport in north-eastern Poland used by the CIA to fly in kidnapped detainees for torture at a nearby intelligence training camp has received over €30 million in EU funds.

The EU money is part of a larger €48.5 million sum to turn the former military airstrip into an international commercial airport known as Szymany.

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  • The air traffic control tower appears to be used as a temporary housing unit for some of the workers (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The Brussels-executive has no oversight because the amounts taken from the European regional development fund are too small for it to have a direct stake.

It is instead administered and managed by regional authorities who diverted all the funds into a company they set up after obliging a local Polish-Israeli businessman, who had been instrumental in securing the EU grant, to hand over the airport’s lease.

The site is still part of a going seven-year criminal investigation that may implicate some of Poland’s high-ranking officials and other political figures.

Located in the sparsely populated and economically depressed Warminsko-Mazurskie region, the closest mid-sized city Olsztyn is 60 kilometres away.

The dense forest – the area’s biggest tourist attraction - surrounding the airport is a protected nature reserve under the EU’s Natura 2000 pact.

In addition to its dark history, the airport is set to be one of the those examples of how-not-to and where-not-to build infrastructure projects with EU money.

In 2005 the small airport recorded only one international takeoff and touchdown. Some 151 domestic flights takeoffs and 152 touchdowns were also registered.

The airport is supposed to be finished this year. As of February, the extended runway was nearly complete but only ten percent of the new terminal had so far been built.

But even if the end 2015 deadline is kept to – there is the question of economic feasibility. Developers say at least 100,000 passengers are expected in the first year of the airport’s operation with numbers to “exceed 1 million” after 2035.

In fact, the airport would need one million people a year to travel through it to balance the books.

This is seen a wildly optimistic.

Mariola Przewlocka, the airport’s former director, was more outspoken about the airport’s commercial potential.

“Szymany can balance the books only if one million passengers pass through it. It’s an impossible task,” she said.

Przewlocka left her job as airport director after giving evidence of the CIA rendition programme to the European Parliament in 2007.

She now spends her days living alone with a large Staffordshire bull terrier at a fenced-in home in the middle of the woods some eight kilometres away from the nearest town, Szczytno.

Her former boss Jerzy Kos chaired a managing board for the airport when the Americans were landing Gulfstream jets and Boeing 737s in the middle of the night back in 2003.

Around a year later, he was abducted by Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad and then saved in a dramatic rescue by a special US Delta force team.

Jacek Krawczyk, the former chairman of the board of directors of LOT Polish National Airlines, said the whole project makes no economic or operational sense.

“This is going to be a monument for the local authorities that they have been able to spend European funds,” he told EUobserver.

“Why on the earth do you want to insist to build your own airport in a region that has absolutely no capacity to generate any meaningful demand for air transportation, this I cannot comprehend,” he said.

Krawczyk, who is also a licensed airline pilot and rapporteur on aviation issues for the European Economic and Social Committee, said the airport in Gdansk further north already has good connectivity to Scandinavia and other parts of western and southern Europe.

Some eight kilometres away from the airport is a Szczytno, a 20,000-strong town. It benefits from the same EU regional funds used to co-finance the airport.

The money has helped renovate buildings, parks, and the ruins of a castle, with EU contribution signs posted in front of each.

The town’s only bus station, composed of a dirt field and a wooden bench, appears to have been overlooked.

Despite its direct stake in the project, the mayor declined to respond to questions about the airport’s economic feasibility, projected tourist forecasts, and possible impact on local employment.

The town is strategically placed between the airport and the Polish intelligence training centre, Stare Kiejkuty, where the Americans committed their alleged crimes.

EU funds

With €615.7 million in EU support for airports between 2007 and 2013, Poland has received more EU money to build airports than any other member state.

The EU’s structural aid rules were recently shaken up to ensure that projects are subjected to a more thorough review process before money is greenlighted. They are also meant to fit in with the EU’s jobs and growth goal for 2029.

Yet for this particular airport the amount provided from the European regional fund falls under a threshold for proper oversight.

“The project suffered from major delays due to organisational and formal difficulties encountered by the regional authority,” an EU commission spokesperson told this website.

Meanwhile, the military airport stands of the cloud of CIA renditions, the secret illegal transfers in 2002-2003 by US intelligence services as part of Washington’s war on terror.

The Polish government has always denied that it co-operated with the US on these renditions, where detainees were often subjected to torture. It is also the first EU member state found to be complicit in the US CIA renditions by European Court of Human Rights.

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