Europeans Shame US on Secret Prisons

Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, former Head of Polish Intelligence

Last week was a good week for accountability — in Europe. The government of Poland and the European Parliament both took major steps towards holding European officials responsible for supporting the CIA’s illegal rendition to torture program.

In Poland the former Head of Polish Intelligence, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, revealed that he had been charged with “unlawfully depriving prisoners of the their liberty” because of the alleged role he played in helping to establish a CIA secret prison in Stare Klejkuty, north-eastern Poland, in 2002-2003.

Meanwhile across the continent in Brussels the European Parliament announced that two parliamentary committees would come together to issue a new report on EU complicity in the US-led secret detentions and renditions program. You can read Amnesty’s testimony before last week’s joint committee hearing here.

The European Parliament last reported on this issue in 2007 and in the intervening period there has been a cascade of new information regarding covert CIA operations in Italy, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland and Romania, amongst many other states.

The new report will be co-authored by the Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) and Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). As is often the case in Europe, the EU’s parliamentarians are likely to find themselves at odds with the governments of member states who will be keen to escape detailed scrutiny.

Amnesty will be campaigning hard through the summer to ensure that the publication of the parliamentary report, scheduled for September 2012, leads to meaningful accountability for human rights abusers.

In Poland this already seems to be happening, albeit with rather less transparency than we would prefer. Siemiatkowski was apparently charged by the state prosecutor’s office in Krakow as long ago as January, but the case had been kept secret until Siemiatkowski himself broke the story.

Poland is of course a country with a troubled past which has experienced the instruments of torture applied to its citizens in living memory by both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, so it is hardly any wonder that the CIA’s secret detention program with its brutal interrogation tactics, waterboarding and enforced disappearances has struck a chord with the Polish people.

According to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, it is not even inconceivable that former Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller will find himself charged for his role before Poland’s State Tribunal.

The passage of time can be both a blessing and curse for investigators – and for those under investigation. Typically, as time passes, memories fade and evidence degrades, but human rights abuses are a little unusual in this regard. In some respects the passage of time can enable rather than hinder accountability.

Government officials across Europe are discovering that, as the immediate threat from Al Qaeda recedes and their own political patrons retire, the public appetite for a full accounting for what happened during the ‘War on Terror’ is increasing. Previously secret documents are now being published and tongues are a little looser than before.

Many of the victims of the abuses under investigation have now been freed and are able to talk openly about their experiences and to demand justice. Cases of mistaken identity and flawed intelligence have discredited official claims of infallibility.

The more we learn, the more appalled we become.

There is a growing sense that the people of Europe do not want just to, in the weasel words of appeasers everywhere, “look forwards, not backwards.”

There seems to be a growing understanding both in the mature democracies of western Europe and the young democracies of eastern Europe that accountability is essential to good governance, that governments cannot be trusted on their own to do the right thing, even in countries with a traditionally strong commitment to human rights like Denmark and Finland.

Adam Bodnar, vice president of the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, cut to the essence of why accountability matters when he commented on the Siemiatkowski story to the New York Times:

“This case is a huge threat to any Polish official that he will know in the future that such things cannot happen.”

Bodnar went on to reflect on how far Poland had come, and just how far the United States had lost touch with its values, with an observation which echoes former Guantanamo inmate Murat Kurnaz’s account of German officials educating US officials on the lessons of Nuremburg as they removed the shackles in which he had been repatriated in:

“I remember the lessons of constitutionality given by the Americans in the early ’90s, always saying to us, you have to create a new constitution and every action by state authorities must have limits. Poland has just learned this lesson well.”

It seems the pupil has become the master.

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2 thoughts on “Europeans Shame US on Secret Prisons

  1. The modern sense of human rights can be traced to Renaissance Europe and the Protestant Reformation, alongside the disappearance of the feudal authoritarianism and religious conservativism that dominated the Middle Ages. Human rights were defined as a result of European scholars attempting to form a "secularized version of Judeo-Christian ethics".