Poland’s ‘war on terror’ shame

What does Poland’s CIA prison tell us about the state of democracy in the country?

The CIA ran a secret prison in Stare Kiejkuty village in northern Poland [Reugers]

On July 24, European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Poland has to pay 230,000 euros ($307,366) compensation to two individuals whose human rights had been violated. Guantanamo detainees Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn (also known as Abu Zubaydah), and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri won a case against Poland, which, according to the court, failed to prevent their detention and torture at the CIA-operated Stare Kiejkuty prison, and to prosecute those responsible for it.

The court’s ruling sheds light on the CIA’s rendition programmes in Central Europe and establishes beyond doubt that Poland was one of its locations. The Polish government has not yet decided whether it would lodge an appeal. But for the Polish public, the sentence is clear and final.

For the first time after the fall of the communist regime, it has become clear that Poland has been a host to grave human rights violations and secret political police operations (which is what the CIA really is). It has dawned on us that the fundamental liberties and rule of laws that we worked so hard to establish have been flagrantly violated behind our backs.

For the first time, democratically elected officials have lied to us so unabashedly about important matters of state, such as war, and have acted so blatantly against the public interest and will.

With the secret CIA prison affair revealed, we have lost face in front of the international community as a democratic country committed to the rule of law and respect for human rights.

The carnival of lies

On November 2, 2005, The Washington Post published an article alleging that the CIA ran secret prisons in Central European countries where terrorism suspects were tortured. A few days later Human Rights Watch released information that Poland was among those host states. The revelation provoked public outrage internationally.

Top Polish officials, including former Prime Minister Leszek Miller and former President Aleksander Kwasniewski vehemently denied those reports. On November 7 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe announced the formation of a commission to investigate the issue.

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A year later, the commission published its findings which confirmed public suspicions of the existence of CIA facilities in Central European countries, including Poland. The European Parliament immediately initiated its own investigation which confirmed the council’s report.

Under domestic and  international pressure, in 2008 Polish prosecutors launched an investigation into whether the government had breached the law by allowing the secret CIA prisons to operate and who and in what way should be held responsible. The investigation has not publicised any conclusions until now. Thus it is not surprising that the ECHR ruling accused Polish authorities of deliberate sluggishness in examining the case.

Consecutive Polish governments – the former communists under Miller’s leadership, rightists of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Donald Tusk’s centrists – have persistently denied existence of secret CIA prisons on the territory of Poland.

We had to wait until 2012 for a Polish official to have a different position and at least partially acknowledge the truth. In an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, ex-President Aleksander Kwasniewski acknowledged during the “war on terror” there was operational collaboration between the Polish and the US secret services and that Poland had temporarily lent the US some facilities on its territory. He claimed that Polish government had no knowledge of what the facilities were used for.

The reactions of Polish politicians at the ECHR ruling were  predictable but – still – shocking. Miller, who was acting prime minister when the CIA opened its prisons on Polish territory, commented that the sentence was “unjust and immoral”, repeating that there has never been any CIA prisons in Poland. He added that it was unimaginable for him that Polish tax-payers will have to support world terrorism by paying compensation to the victims and accused ECHR members of cowardice and “buying themselves security” from terrorists.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski claimed that Poles had not tortured prisoners in Stare Kiejkuty and that we should be given credit for being the only country which has launched an investigation into the matter. His conclusion was that “it’s unfair to put Poland in the pillory” when talking about CIA operations during the “war on terror”.

Kwasniewski noted that Poland has not been targeted by “terrorists” in the past decade, which was perhaps because we chose to collaborate with the Americans.

None of Poland’s top officials spoke of the human rights violation as a central issue in the debate.

The only voice of dissent in the choir of apologists was Jozef Pinior – European Parliament deputy, senator and one of the leaders of Solidarity movement in the 1980s. He argued forcefully from the moment the issue surfaced that Poland undoubtedly served as a territory for illegal CIA operations and holds responsibility for human rights violations of detainees.

‘War on terror’ against Poles

It should not come as a surprise that the Polish public is disappointed with the reactions of its political class to the secret CIA prison case.

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Although the Polish society – as many others – expressed complete solidarity with the Americans over the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it did not meet George W Bush’s “war on terror” initiative with much enthusiasm.

When in June 2003, the Polish parliament was debating whether to send Polish troops to Iraq for the fictitious “war on terror”, opinion polls clearly indicated the position of the Polish society against the move.

One poll showed that 63 percent were against sending Polish troops to Iraq, and approximately the same percent were in favour of sending doctors instead of soldiers. Some 40 percent thought it was permissible for American soldiers to be based on Polish territory; 44 percent were against their presence; and 45 percent thought Poland should remain neutral and not get involved in any way.

Recognising these strong public sentiments, various social organisations appealed for a referendum on Polish engagement in the war. Ignoring these calls, Miller’s government, with the support of all political factions in parliament, provided full political and military support for the US’ war in Iraq.

The “war on terror” not only violated the lives of those who suffered at the hands of US and its allies’ troops. It violated the democratic will of the Polish society which still has fresh memories of its own suffering under foreign military intervention, colonialism and human rights violations.

There is a sense of disappointment with our young democracy which has not managed to fulfil our hopes for a different kind of politics after years of communist dictatorship and repression. There is an atmosphere of growing mistrust towards our political leaders who we find difficult to believe any more.

Igor Stokfiszewski is a journalist and activist of Political Critique, an independent socio-political organization operating within Poland and Ukraine.