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Column: Poland Reluctantly Confronts Charges It Facilitated Torture

In the years following 9/11, as the White House accelerated efforts to strike back at al-Qaida, the CIA detained two high-ranking al-Qaida operatives, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah. Both those men are now being held at the Guantánamo Bay prison, but prior to being shipped off to Cuba, the two men allege that they were tortured at secret CIA prisons in Poland.

That’s a history that Polish authorities would rather forget, and last week government representatives went through the strained motions of trying to defend their country against allegations that Nashiri and Zubaydah had their human rights violated while on Polish soil. The two men have brought suit against the Polish government before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which is currently trying to establish the facts in a case that has already deeply embarrassed the Polish government.

The case goes to the heart of Poland’s political future. Since breaking off from the Soviet Union in 1989, Poland has established itself as a close ally of the United States. In the aftermath of 9/11, Poland was one of the few European countries to fully back the Bush administration’s wartime efforts in not only Afghanistan but also Iraq. Now, Poland is moving back toward Europe, having joined the European Union in 2004 and serving as a bulwark of European influence in the east.

The case in Strasbourg has become a litmus test for the Polish government’s allegiances and convictions. Torn between its ties to the United States and its role as a regional human rights champion — both of which have historically been a great source of pride for the country — Poland is facing a painful dilemma in which the imperatives of America’s war on terror have run headfirst into Poland’s, and Europe’s, human rights commitments.

“The fate of the consolidation of Polish liberal democracy is on the line,” Polish Senator Jozef Pinior, who was present at the Strasbourg hearing and has monitored the case for years, told Foreign Policy. “This is a deeper problem — is Poland a mature European democracy, rooted in the rule of law?”

Poland’s internal investigation into the allegations was set in motion in 2008, three years after The Washington Post’s Dana Priest first shed light on CIA black sites in the country. Because Polish law prohibits torture, officials complicit in the CIA program would likely face criminal charges. Unsurprisingly, officials in power at the time of the program and in subsequent years have kept mum on the subject or have denied all CIA operations on Polish soil. Since its launch, the case has been led by three different prosecution teams in two different cities and has produced no results — at least ones that have been made public.

“It appears to be convenient for the Polish state to keep the investigation going in a suspended state,” Mikolaj Pietrzak, the Polish counsel for Nashiri, said during the hearing in Strasbourg last week. With a public deeply opposed to the idea that their government sanctioned torture on Polish soil, Pietrzak argued that the Polish authorities are protecting themselves from the political fallout of such revelations by slow-rolling the investigation, which he called “not transparent,” “not independent,” and “not prompt.”

Nashiri became involved in the investigation when he was granted victim status under Polish law, allowing his lawyers to put a human face on the case. After exhausting efforts to hold the Polish government to account in the national courts, they brought the case before the Strasbourg court in 2011 for violating the European Convention on Human Rights. Two years later, Zubaydah joined the suit.

There is ample evidence — including falsified flight logs, documents and witness accounts uncovered by probes conducted by the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and several journalistic and human rights groups’ investigations — that during the height of the U.S.-led war on terror, al-Qaida suspects were detained at secret CIA “black sites” or secret detention facilities in several Eastern European locations, including in Romania, Lithuania, and Stare Kiejkuty, a military base in northern Poland. In these facilities, the detainees were tortured, or subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” According to his lawyers, Nashiri alleges that these techniques included mock executions, being forced to stand in “stress positions,” and having his captors threaten to sexually abuse his mother in front of him.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Pinior, the senator, said that he told the court during the closed hearing that he believes that the Polish authorities are in possession of a bill made out to a Polish manufacturer in the town of Pruszkow for a man-sized metal cage complete with a portable toilet. As they have throughout the investigation, Polish prosecutors have maintained a studious silence on issues they insist are classified.

Although no one expects the Polish government, which has refused to provide the European Court with any classified documentation, to admit its role in the CIA program, Pinior said he was shocked at the performance of the Polish government’s representatives. He called their tone toward the court “contemptuous” and said that their behavior reminded him of communist prosecutors when he was tried as an anti-regime activist in Poland. Nashiri’s lawyer claimed during the hearing that he was given only three hours to examine classified documents related to the case and wasn’t allowed to take notes. Pinior attributed the state officials’ “bizarre strategy” in Strasbourg to possible strong-arming from a certain Western partner. “I’m speculating that there was some pressure from the American ally,” he said.

But even as Polish prosecutors kept quiet on their government’s participation in the CIA program, the fact that the hearings were taking place at all is indicative of the competing impulses at play in today’s Poland. The only Eastern European country alleged to have participated in the secret detention program to have conducted a deeper investigation, Poland has taken a reluctant half-step toward coming clean about its collaboration with the CIA. “These sort of cases don’t happen in the United States,” said Adam Bodnar, vice president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, in an interview with Foreign Policy. “International justice and transparency are sought out in Europe, and not in the States.” Though the case may be inching forward in Europe at a very slow pace, in the United States it’s still very much under wraps — the massive Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture is still kept secret.

The problem for Polish officials is that as they stay silent on the issue of CIA detention centers, they continue to loudly preach the gospel of human rights, especially in Eastern Europe. “Polish politicians go to the Ukraine, act like wise guys there,” Pinior told Foreign Policy, referring to efforts by Polish officials to encourage Ukraine to sign a cooperation agreement with the EU. “But this becomes ludicrous when the Polish state itself has issues in this realm.”

For now, Poland looks to have avoided that reckoning with that Bush-era legacy.

Hanna Kozlowska writes a blog for Foreign Policy.