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Will Poland’s former leaders face war crimes charges for hosting secret CIA prison?

Written by Andy Worthington Thursday, 05 August 2010
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The control tower at Szymany airport, site of the CIA's secret prison in Poland The control tower at Szymany airport, site of the CIA's secret prison in Poland

Andy Worthington asks: Could war crimes charges in Poland trigger full exposure of the CIA's secret prison programme?

The mainstream media in the United States (and in the UK) has ignored the release last week of documents in Poland confirming that planes chartered by the CIA flew to the site of a secret CIA prison in north eastern Poland in 2002 and 2003. The documents, released by the Polish Border Guard Office, confirm previously released flight information disclosed by the Polish Air Navigation Service Agency, and also confirm that three “high-value detainees” -- Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Ramzi bin al-Shibh -- were flown from Thailand to Poland on December 5, 2002, as I reported exclusively here.
 
The documents also provide the date for a flight into Poland -- March 7, 2003 -- that corresponds with the date cited for the arrival of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in an article in Der Spiegel last year, and also reveal the number of prisoners on seven separate flights between December 2002 and September 2003. In addition, they provide some tantalizing information about the exchange of prisoners between the Polish prison and another secret CIA facility in Romania.
 
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal took up the story. Although reporter Marcin Sobczyk also ignored the recent release of documents, he ran through the story of the prison’s existence, as disclosed in various documents between 2005 and 2009, and explained that the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza had just reported that former Prime Minister Leszek Miller and former President Aleksander Kwasniewski “may face war crime charges for agreeing to host the facility.”
 
As Sobczyk stated, “Kwasniewski and Miller may stand trial before the State Tribunal, a rarely-used special court designed to try Poland’s top officials.” He added, “The prosecutor on the case wants to ask the Speaker of Parliament to start the criminal procedure against the former leaders, according to the report. The case would first go to a parliamentary committee and then to the lower house of parliament, which has the power to decide whether or not to press charges.”
 
Adam Bodnar of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, who filed the Freedom of Information requests that secured the release of last week’s documents, provided me with further information, through an English translation of the article in Gazeta Wyborcza, in which it was explained that Jerzy Mierzejewski, the prosecutor responsible for the “top secret” investigation, which opened in 2008, began by “conduct[ing] an investigation about the government officials’ abuse of powers,” but now, according to the newspaper’s sources, “wants to charge them for participation in war crimes.”
 
As Gazeta Wyborcza also explained, “The starting point of the investigation was a secret note by the Polish Intelligence Agency confirming that a base controlled by the CIA existed on Polish territory,” and the prosecutor was initially investigating questions relating to “the consent of the Polish authorities for its creation.” The newspaper also reported that Mierzejewski “listened to the testimonies of tens of witnesses -- among them former Prime Ministers and bosses of intelligence agencies.”
 
Under Polish law, senior officials, including the President and the Prime Minister, cannot be tried before a regular court for alleged crimes committed while in office, and can only be tried via the State Tribunal, which, as Marcin Sobczyk explained, “has so far handled just a handful of cases since its creation in 1921.” Gazeta Wyborcza added that, in addition to former President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller, Krzysztof Janik, the former head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration, could also be charged, and today the newspaper Rzeczpospolita reported that the charges could also extend to Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, the former head of Polish Intelligence Agency.
 
Whether a trial will actually go ahead is another matter, of course. Aleksander Kwasniewski told Gazeta Wyborcza that the prosecutor had not spoken to him, and explained that “there was co-operation with the American intelligence, and that's the reason for the CIA flights to Szymany.” He insisted, however, that “there were no prisons.” The following exchange also took place:
Q: Could Poland as part of the co-operation give Americans consent for the prison and for torture?
A: The Americans never asked for such consent.
Q: Could they do it without our knowledge?
A: I have no information whatsoever about Americans torturing prisoners in Poland.
In addition, Leszek Miller responded to questions posed by the newspaper by stating, “I have nothing to say about this case,” and Krzysztof Janik said that “he had nothing to do with this case,” adding that the Polish intelligence centre in Kiejkuty “was not part of my responsibility as Minister of Internal Affairs”. Also asked to comment was Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, who stated bluntly, “When I'm objectively asked by entitled agencies, and when finally I'll be exempted from secrecy, then I'll answer.”
 
These responses may or may not reflect the truth, but in September 2008, when a Polish intelligence official confirmed that the CIA had held terror suspects in a military intelligence training base in Stare Kiejkuty between 2002 and 2005, he added that only the CIA had access to the prison, and that, although Prime Minister Miller and President Kwasniewski knew about it, “it was unlikely either man knew if the prisoners were being tortured because the Poles had no control over the Americans’ activities.”
 
Krzysztof Janik provided Gazeta Wyborcza with a similar version of events. After saying that he would be “astonished” if a State Tribunal were to proceed, and also stating his belief that the Polish government “had the right to sign a contract with the American government on the issue of the joint war on terrorism,” he added, “As far as I know, our government had no idea what the Americans are doing with the prisoners, and surely not that they were tortured.” When asked, “If the CIA tortured prisoners, could Kwasniewski and Miller have known about this?” he replied, “I can't answer for them. However, knowing the mechanisms of power, I doubt that they knew.”
 
For any trial to go ahead, “The prosecutor’s motion will require political support in parliament,” as Marcin Sobczyk explained. He added that generating majority support for “the concept that the country must reveal its secrets and prosecute its leaders for cooperating with their US ally may be difficult if not impossible to build.”
 
This is almost certainly correct, especially as the release of documents to date -- including last week’s startling disclosures, still do not contain names or other information that categorically include the elusive “smoking gun.” As MP Konstanty Miodowicz, who heads the Parliamentary Special Services Committee, told Rzeczpospolita last week, “There is still no evidence that these people were terrorist suspects, imprisoned by the CIA.” As The News added, Miodowicz pointed out that there was nothing in the documents “to suggest that the people on the aircrafts -- described in one document as being ‘businessmen’ -- were al-Qaeda suspects.”
 
Technically, this is true, but anyone who believes that the CIA was transporting “businessmen” into Stare Kiejkuty from December 2002 to September 2003, and was going to such extraordinary lengths to disguise its flights, as Council of Europe Rapporteur Dick Marty first revealed in a major report in June 2007 (PDF), must also be hoping that none of the “30 current and former members of the intelligence services in the United States and Europe” with whom Marty spoke, whose testimony enabled him to conclude that “secret detention facilities run by the CIA did exist in Europe from 2003 to 2005, in particular in Poland and Romania,” will be willing to speak openly about what they knew.
 
Andy Worthington is a Senior Researcher for Cageprisoners. He is also the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the new documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Visit his website here.
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