WARSAW (Reuters) - The disclosure of details about the CIA’s brutal interrogation program could provide new leads for Polish prosecutors investigating how much Poland’s leaders at the time knew about a secret jail the agency was running in a Polish forest.
Prompted by a U.S. Senate report on the CIA’s “black sites” for interrogating al Qaeda suspects, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, at a joint news conference with former Prime Minister Leszek Miller, said on Wednesday he knew about the facility in Poland.
He said the CIA had denied Polish officials access to the site, a villa on the grounds of a Polish intelligence training academy, so they did not know people inside were being tortured. He said that while he and Miller knew people were detained there, they were told the detainees were cooperating willingly with U.S. intelligence and would be treated as prisoners of war.
Lawyers for former detainees say however that even if the detainees were treated as prisoners of war - which the lawyers dispute - it is illegal to detain anyone in secret, and Poland had a legal obligation to prevent this happening.
The report’s publication is giving rise to uncomfortable questions in countries that hosted the “black sites” and may complicate future security cooperation with the United States.
“Based on information in the media, the public statements from Mr. Kwasniewski and Mr. Miller suggest the prosecutors certainly have reason to interview them,” said Mikolaj Pietrzak, a lawyer whose client, Adb al-Rahim al-Nashiri was held at the site.
“Statements they made recently indicate for the first time that they knew people were being held at the site,” Pietrzak said.
Reuters sent questions to Miller and Kwasniewski, via their staffs, asking if they knew the people being detained at the CIA site did not have the protections they were entitled to by law. Aides to both men said they had no comment.
The CIA declined all comment, including on Kwasniewski’s assertion that the agency had given assurances that detainees were cooperating willingly with U.S. intelligence and would be treated as prisoners of war.
The Polish investigation, launched in 2008, is into allegations by three men - al-Nashiri, Abu Zubaydah and Walid Bin Attash - that they were held illegally and abused at the CIA facility. Prosecutors have never revealed who was under investigation. A source close to the investigation has told Reuters it is aimed at Polish officials without elaborating further.
Asked whether prosecutors would take into account the statements this week by Kwasniewski and Miller, Piotr Kosmaty, spokesman for the Appellate Prosecutor’s office in the Polish city of Krakow, which is handling the case, declined to comment.
The United States itself has not launched any prosecutions of CIA operatives or others who were involved in the agency’s now-defunct interrogation program over their role.
Kwasniewski, at his joint news conference with Miller on Wednesday, said they did what they believed was necessary to protect Poland’s national security. He said they sought assurances from the U.S. authorities the detainees would be treated in accordance with the law, and asked Washington to close the facility when they became worried that this was not the case.
The release of the Senate report has also raised questions in Romania and Lithuania. Names of countries that hosted “black sites” were redacted in the report, but details in the report were consistent with other information relating to CIA detention sites in those countries.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius said on Wednesday he hoped parliament would re-open an investigation, and called on Washington to share relevant information.
A spokesman for Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said in an email: ”The events mentioned in the US Senate Report about CIA had taken place approx. 10 years ago, under another leadership of Romania, the only one in the position to make comments/statement about these events.”
Kosmaty, the prosecution spokesman, said Polish prosecutors planned to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to provide them with the full version of the report.
“This report has a dual significance for us because it will allow us to acquaint ourselves with what has been established and also what evidence could be useful in terms of the investigation that we are conducting,” he said.
Kosmaty added that because of the time it takes to get answers from the U.S. authorities, prosecutors may have to apply for permission to prolong their investigation when it expires in April next year. It has already been extended multiple times.
In addition to the Polish investigation, lawyers for Zubaydah and al-Nashiri brought a case against Poland to the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled Poland failed to meet its obligations under European law in the case, and ordered it to pay compensation of 100,000 euros ($124,520) to al-Nashiri and 130,000 euros to Zubaydah.
The Polish government is challenging the judgment, on the grounds that the court had not put in place procedures that would have allowed it to present confidential evidence to the court.
Adam Bodnar, vice-president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights who helped bring the case against Poland to the Strasbourg court, said of the Polish prosecutors: “They should finish the investigation and file indictments.”
But he also said the investigation, now in its sixth year, could be dragged out even longer without a conclusion, using the Senate report as a pretext.
“My feeling is that they will do whatever is possible in order not to finish the investigation,” before parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of 2015, he said.
Kosmaty declined to comment on assertions that prosecutors are stalling the case, but said seeking information from the U.S. authorities was essential. In the past, Washington has delayed passing on information, or refused to provide it.
Tomasz Siemoniak, Poland’s defense minister, told Polish television on Thursday there was a moral in the affair for Poland, one of Washington’s staunchest European allies: “Sometimes you have to say no, even to your best friend.”
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Additonal reporting by Wojciech Zurawski in KRAKOW, Marcin Goclowski and Adrian Krajewski in WARSAW and Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Janet McBride