In 2005, when the Washington Post caught the scent of CIA secret flights and “black site” prisons for terrorism suspects in Eastern Europe, the Bush Administration managed to intimidate the paper into keeping the names of the host countries out of its stories. Now, thanks to a report from the Council of Europe, we know why: not national security but sordid criminality.
In exchange for increased influence in NATO, Washington persuaded the “highest state authorities” in Poland and Romania to turn over detention facilities to US operatives who established what can only be described as torture shops: Prisoners were kept naked for weeks, chained to walls and often kept in “solitary confinement and extreme sensory deprivation in cramped cells, shackled and handcuffed at all times,” sometimes at temperature extremes “so hot one would gasp for breath, sometimes freezing cold.” The report confirms the CIA’s reliance on “enhanced interrogation techniques”–a k a waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other tactics condemned as torture by human rights organizations as well as the United Nations.
The report, compiled by Swiss lawyer Dick Marty for the council, was condemned by the Polish and Romanian governments, which denied the existence of the prisons. But Marty brings a wealth of evidence to bear: He interviewed intelligence officers and military officials, prisoners, attorneys and guards. He tracked flight records. His report adds substance and detail to a growing body of evidence documenting US illegalities.
The report only deepens the crisis in US relations with human rights-conscious Europe over the “war on terror” and further roils European governments and political parties already rent by official collaboration with illegal acts. That bitter debate is center stage in Italy, where the prosecution of CIA operatives accused of kidnapping imam Hassan Osama Nasr and turning him over to Egyptian torturers pits a prosecutor dedicated to the rule of law against Italian and US intelligence officials. Europe–where thousands are still haunted by memories of Gestapo, Stasi, KGB and Fascist prisons and decades of abuses in Northern Ireland–has struggled over the past twenty-five years to raise human rights standards throughout the continent, setting a high bar for membership in the EU and the Council of Europe. Officially endorsed rendition and torture chambers in the heart of Europe not only abuse the rights of suspects; they erode the continent’s hard-won leadership of the global human rights movement.
If there is any glimmer of hope in all this, it is that Europe and the United States retain institutions and jurists with the integrity and good sense to stand against the authoritarian tide. A few days after the Council of Europe released the Marty report, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, handed the Bush Administration a stunning rebuke in the military detention of Ali Saleh al-Marri, a Qatar national living in the United States, whom the White House considers an “enemy combatant.” Like the secret prisoners in Poland and Romania, Marri, in a brig in South Carolina, spent months in isolation without contact with family or lawyers and may have been tortured. The Richmond appellate circuit is famously one of the most conservative courts in the country. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz made it clear that by detaining Marri the President has violated every democratic norm. “To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians,” she wrote, “even if the president calls them ‘enemy combatants,’ would have disastrous consequences for the Constitution–and the country.”