In the long quest for accountability for those who ordered, authorized, or were complicit in the Bush administration’s torture program, every avenue has been shut down within the United States by the Obama administration, the Justice Department, and the courts. The only hope lies elsewhere in the world, and specifically Poland, one of three European countries that hosted secret CIA prisons where “high-value detainees” were subjected to torture.
The other two countries — Romania and Lithuania — either have refused to accept that a secret prison existed or have opened and then prematurely shut an investigation. But Poland has an ongoing official investigation that began four years ago and shows no sign of being dismissed, even if numerous obstacles to justice have been erected along the way.
Last week, two U.S. news outlets — the Los Angeles Times and ABC News — reported the latest claims of Senator Jozef Pinior. ABC News explained that he told the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that prosecutors “have a document that shows a local contractor was asked to build a cage at Stare Kiekuty.” That was the Polish army base used by the CIA as its main prison for “high-value detainees” from December 2002 (when the previous prison in Thailand was closed down) until September 2003, when, for six months, the main “high-value detainees” were held in a secret prison within Guantánamo before being transferred back to facilities in Europe and Morocco. Fourteen “high-value detainees” were eventually returned to Guantánamo as military prisoners in September 2006.
“In a state with rights,” Pinior said, “people in prison are not kept in cages.” He added that a cage was “nonstandard equipment” for a prison, but that it was standard “if torture was used there.” When he was asked “if he was sure the cage was for humans,” he replied, “What was it for? Exotic birds?”
Pinior said that he had not actually seen the order for the cage but had learned that the prosecutor’s office investigating the prison, which is based in Krakow, has a copy of it. He also explained that the prosecutor’s office has an order signed by Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, who was the head of Polish intelligence in 2002, authorizing the establishment of the prison. ABC News claimed that a source told Gazeta Wyborcza that the agreement “has a space intended for an American signature, but that the Americans did not sign the document ‘because they do not want to sign documents inconsistent with their own Constitution and international law.’” That is a rather risible conclusion, as it is the use of torture that is “inconsistent with their own Constitution and international law.” A more honest analysis would have been that the United States wanted plausible deniability; that, in other words, they did not want to leave any traces of their actions.
Pinior is a key player in the Polish investigation. He worked on the EU investigation into European complicity in rendition and torture that preceded the Polish investigation, when he was first told about documents proving the prison’s existence by a reliable source who explained that he had seen papers that dealt with the procedures to be followed in case any of the prisoners died. That, it should be noted, was not mentioned last week in the U.S. reports.
For his efforts, Pinior was ridiculed by an establishment that closed ranks to protect Alexander Kwasniewski and Leszek Miller, the president and the prime minister at the time of the prison’s existence, although with the passage of time Pinior and his source have come to be regarded as trustworthy, even though the official denials continue.
Pinior said that he presented his evidence “with regret,” because he “always valued” Kwasniewski’s presidency, but to date the only senior official to be charged is Zbigniew Siemiatkowski. As was reported in March this year, Siemiatkowski has been charged with allowing prisoners of war to be subjected to corporal punishment. He has publicly acknowledged that he is under investigation, but he has refused to say more. Asked about the existence of the agreement, he said, “If my signature is on it, it means it is secret and I cannot discuss it, nor even confirm or deny its existence.”
In the Los Angeles Times, there was speculation that the case might eventually “result in criminal charges” against the former political leaders, as well as Siemiatkowski. The paper noted that the story of the CIA’s secret torture prison on Polish soil “has deeply shaken many Poles’ faith in the United States and in Poland’s sense of itself as a successful democracy born from the ashes of the Cold War,” and has “damaged the reputation of the country that Poles thank for helping them to cast off Communist oppression.” It was also noted that many Poles “believe the U.S. took advantage of their gratitude, loyalty and eagerness to please by setting up a torture site that it would never have allowed within its own borders.”
Mikolaj Pietrzak, a lawyer who represents Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the men held in the “black site” in Poland, said, “It’s the kind of thing we expect from Soviet Russia. We remember the Soviet occupation; we remember the German occupation. The fact that this beacon of liberty which is America would allow this — it’s a great disappointment in the United States as the land of the free.”
In March, the current president of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski, declared, “The reputation of Poland is at stake. Certainly this is a sensitive and touchy issue and possibly painful for the Polish state, but it is the task of the legal apparatus to clarify this.”
Despite that, lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists have complained that, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “the investigation has been halting, opaque and prone to political meddling because of its potential repercussions for U.S.-Polish relations and for prominent public figures” involved in the establishment of the prison — most recently when, for reasons that have not been explained, the case was transferred from Warsaw to Krakow.
Mikolaj Pietrzak said that he was “frustrated by prosecutors’ refusal to give him access to classified files” beyond the brief access he was granted when the case began. His client, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, is accused of plotting the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, which killed 17 U.S. sailors. He is currently facing a trial by military commission at Guantánamo, where he faces the death penalty — a fact that makes Pietrzak even more frustrated with the glacial pace of the prosecutors’ case in Poland.
“It’s not a robust investigation if it takes you four years,” he said, adding, crucially, “This is the single worst case of human rights violations known in Eastern Europe in the last 20 years,” and that the public “has a right to know” what took place.
The exact contours of what took place do indeed need to be uncovered, to explain, for example, exactly who knew what. The Los Angeles Times noted that Polish reporters have suggested that Zbigniew Siemiatkowski “faces possible charges of exceeding his authority and abetting torture” by working with the CIA to establish the prison at Stare Kiejkuty. However, Adam Bodnar of the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said it was “hard to believe Siemiatkowski acted on his own authority in an operation requiring coordination among the intelligence service, the military and the border control agency,” although he understood that “chasing responsibility higher up the chain of command, perhaps all the way to the president’s and prime minister’s offices, could open a can of worms.”
He was also disturbed that some prominent Poles were defending the secret prison, including former president Lech Walesa, the former leader of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement, of which Josef Pinior was also a member. Unlike Pinior, however, Walesa, while declaring that he is “against torture,” has stated, “This is war, and war has its particular rules.” Bodnar lamented, “The same guys who helped create the constitution now seem to be approving the violation of the constitution.”
The Los Angeles Times also noted that some Polish commentators “fear negative repercussions for Poland’s relationship with its most valued ally, the U.S.,” which, predictably, has failed to cooperate with the Polish prosecutors. Even so, Mikolaj Pietrzak has vowed to continue to push for accountability, noting, as the paper put it, “If it turns out that senior Polish leaders are implicated in the end, causing political and social uproar, so be it.” As he explained, “The truth is going to come out sooner or later. The question is whether it’s going to come out thanks to Poland, thanks to the active role of the prosecutor, or whether it’s going to come out in spite of the prosecutor’s failure to act.” He added, “It is a hot potato, but I don’t care. This case isn’t going away.”
For now, the agreement about the establishment of the prison, which was handed over to prosecutors in April — and the information about the cage, which has just surfaced — demonstrates, not for the first time, that documents exist revealing what was supposed to remain hidden. My friend Anna Minkiewicz — who took me to Poland last February to promote the documentary film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which I co-directed with Polly Nash — explained further details that were not mentioned in the U.S. accounts and added her own interpretations.
Noting that the agreement that bore no U.S. signature — just that of Zbigniew Siemiatkowski — was written in both English and Polish, she suggested that someone in the service kept the document in spite of its having no ‘official’ value, either through bureaucratic zeal, for conscientious reasons, hoping that one day it would serve the purpose it is serving now, or out of a sense of self-preservation, pointing the blame on those who were culpable if the whole sordid scenario ever became public.
She also noted that the emergence of the latest documents suggested that someone was “regularly leaking documents in small doses.” She added that Josef Pinior said that “more and more people are contacting him with information, including people who live in the area” where the prison was established, as well as the insiders with whom he has, presumably, been in communication for many years.
In conclusion, she explained that the current situation is particularly interesting, because, as a senator, Pinior has parliamentary immunity and therefore cannot be stopped from speaking out. It is to be hoped that, as more information continues to leak out, Senator Pinior will continue to point out that too much of a paper trail exists for this shameful episode in Poland and America’s recent history to be suppressed.