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Lithuania and Romania Complicit in CIA Prisons, European Court Says

Posted May 31, 2018 7:27 p.m. EDT

The European Court of Human Rights censured Lithuania and Romania on Thursday for their complicity in the CIA’s torture program, saying the two European nations had hosted secret prisons where the CIA held and interrogated terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The twin rulings by the court in Strasbourg, France, centered on two men — Abu Zubaydah, a stateless man of Palestinian heritage, and Abd al-Rahim Husseyn Muhammad al-Nashiri, a Saudi citizen of Yemeni descent — who since 2006 have been held at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Using similar language, the court rejected Lithuania’s and Romania’s arguments that insufficient evidence existed to prove that the two detainees had been held on their soil or that their governments knew about the matter.

The authorities in each country, the court ruled, “knew of the nature and purposes of the CIA’s activities on its territory” at the time; assisted by agreeing to host prisons and helping with rendition flights to transport detainees; and knew that “by enabling the CIA to detain terrorist suspects on its territory, it was exposing them to a serious risk of treatment contrary to” the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court ordered Lithuania to pay Abu Zubaydah, also known as Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, about $152,000 in damages and costs. It also ordered Romania to pay about $118,000 to Nashiri. But it is not clear whether or how those funds will be paid; the same court delivered a similar ruling against Poland on behalf of the two men in 2015, but a lawyer for Abu Zubaydah said Thursday that Poland had not paid the roughly $262,000 in court-ordered reparations from that ruling.

The cases shed light on the murky and once-hidden world of the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. The agency shuttled captives suspected of major terrorist acts between secret overseas prisons called black sites and tortured them with tactics like waterboarding, prolonged sleep deprivation, forced nudity, confinement in cramped boxes and shackling into painful stress positions.

The court’s findings came at a moment of renewed attention to the torture program because of President Donald Trump’s appointment of Gina Haspel as the new director of the CIA.

In late 2002, Haspel oversaw a secret facility in Thailand where al-Nashiri was subjected to waterboarding and other tactics. In 2005, as the chief of staff to the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, she was also involved in the agency’s destruction of videotapes of interrogation sessions.

During her confirmation hearing in mid-May, Haspel vowed never to restart such a detention and interrogation program, even if Trump ordered her to do so. She also said that in hindsight, the CIA should not have undertaken the program, saying it “did damage to our officers and our standing in the world.”

During the George W. Bush administration, the Justice Department issued secret memos blessing the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques as lawful despite anti-torture laws. The CIA’s inspector general and the Senate Intelligence Committee later found that the agency inflicted more severe abuses on captives than it had told the Justice Department or its overseers. The department declined to prosecute anyone for his or her involvement in the program.

In a statement after the rulings, Amrit Singh, a lead lawyer for the matter for the Open Society Justice Initiative, which filed a complaint with the court on behalf of al-Nashiri, said that the justice system’s acknowledgment of what happened was important.

“The European court’s ruling is critical for upholding standards of international law — including that torture is absolutely prohibited,” she said. “It stands in stark contrast to the United States’ decision to promote Gina Haspel to CIA director despite her role in my client’s torture.”

The CIA declined to comment.

Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan in March 2002, and later held in Thailand, Poland and Lithuania. He was initially considered an al-Qaida leader involved in planning terrorist attacks. But the Senate Intelligence Committee report found that CIA records did not support those claims, and the agency later concluded that while he was involved in jihadi training camps, he was not a member of al-Qaida.

Al-Nashiri was captured in Dubai in October 2002 and was held in Romania between 2004 and 2005, the court said. He is accused of helping orchestrate an attack in 2000 on a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, in the harbor of the Yemeni port of Aden, which killed 17 sailors, and an attack on a French oil tanker, the Limburg, in 2002.

On Thursday, in separate rulings issued simultaneously, the court said that Lithuania and Romania knew enough that hosting the CIA prisons — and failing to adequately investigate what happened inside them — violated their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court said it had been permitted no access to either man, and described their treatment based on documents like a Senate Intelligence Committee report about the program, as well as accounts the two men provided to the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2006 and to a U.S. military tribunal after their transfer to Guantánamo.

Although the locations of the black-site prisons have been widely reported, the U.S. government continues to treat them as classified secrets. The European court, sitting as a panel of seven judges, concluded that the prison where Abu Zubaydah was held in Lithuania was the one identified in the Senate report under the code name Violet, and the prison in Romania where Nashiri was held was identified as Black.

Lithuania did not immediately respond publicly to the court’s findings. The Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it was studying the ruling and that it was “firmly attached to the principle of respect for human rights,” including that the prohibition on torture must be obeyed “even under the most difficult of circumstances.”