Romania, Lithuania Violated Human-Rights Laws by Hosting Secret Prisons

WARSAW, Poland—The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Romania and Lithuania violated the Continent’s primary human-rights treaty by secretly holding al Qaeda suspects and failing to investigate their treatment by CIA interrogators.

Thursday’s decision added to a rising number of judicial inquiries into the role European states played after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in helping the U.S. detain—and allegedly torture—accused terrorists in a network of undisclosed prisons outside the U.S.

From about 2005 to 2006, Romania and Lithuania hosted a pair of secret prisons known as Detention Site Black and Detention Site Violet. The Central Intelligence Agency classified prisoners there who were captured after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan as high-value detainees, the court said.

Zayn Al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn was held in Lithuania after the CIA accused him of helping plan the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Zayn Al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn was held in Lithuania after the CIA accused him of helping plan the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: Department Of Defense/ZUMA PRESS

They included Zayn Al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, held in Lithuania, and initially accused by the CIA of helping plan the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A Senate Intelligence Report later said CIA records no longer supported those claims. Romania held Abd Al Rahim Husseyn Muhammad Al Nashiri, accused of organizing the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.

Before they arrived at the prisons, the two men had been tortured at other secret prisons, their lawyers alleged to the court. One was locked in box, the other held upside down for nearly a month. Romania and Lithuania failed to take such accusations into account in allowing the CIA to continue to hold and interrogate him, the court found.

Abd Al Rahim Husseyn Muhammad Al Nashiri was accused of organizing the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Photo: FBI/Reuters

At the prisons, they were continuously shackled and hooded, treatment that violates the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, the court found. Both countries should have blocked the U.S. from flying the suspects to the CIA-run detention centers, where the two men faced a “foreseeable serious risk of further ill-treatment,” per the rulings. The court fined Lithuania €130,000 ($151,658) and Romania €100,000.

“The United States government does not comment on what are alleged to be activities of the intelligence community,” a State Department spokesperson said on Thursday after the ruling.

On Thursday, Lithuanian Justice Minister Elvinas Jankevicius told reporters that “we will take a decision after carefully examining” the court’s findings. The nation’s parliament previously conducted a probe based on limited information, such as flight records, that ended inconclusively.

Romania’s government has denied the existence of a CIA prison on its soil. In court, it called the evidence of such a site circumstantial. Officials there didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Neither country has conducted a credible investigation on the officials—local and American—who may have violated national, European and international law, the court said.

Lithuanian prosecutors possessed the passport details of Americans likely involved in the program, but have declined to identify or charge them, Thursday’s decision said. In Romania, flight data that would also allow prosecutors to identify such Americans has been erased.

“There hasn’t been a full reckoning and a full accounting of what exactly happened and what role European states played,” said Kartik Raj, Western Europe researcher for Human Rights watch. “You have a patchwork of facts emerging of a failure to hold people to account for giving the U.S. and the CIA this carte blanche.”

The world of secret CIA prisons opened after the Sept. 11 attacks was once shrouded in secrecy and unacknowledged by the governments that hosted them. Lately, a string of cases before the European Court of Human Rights has revealed some details. Poland and Macedonia have each been fined on similar charges at the European Court of Human Rights in the past few years.

“This whole program was designed and implemented in order to always be secret,” said Helen Duffy, lead lawyer for Mr. Husayn. “It’s not longer possible to keep this kind of program completely secret.”

Lawyers for Messrs. Husayn and Nashiri said they can’t say how the two men respond to the accusations against them. They aren’t in direct contact with their clients, who are held in the Guantanamo Bay detention center, where access is restricted and the content of discussions classified.

Mr. Husayn hasn’t been charged. Mr. Nashiri’s military trial, which began in 2011, is delayed after his lawyers found a microphone in their client meeting room last year and resigned. Prosecutors said the microphone wasn’t turned on.

The U.S. has long acknowledged the existence of its secret foreign prisons, as well as the tactics like waterboarding that took place there. The program “ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world,” CIA Director Gina Haspel said at her confirmation hearing in May.

Still, the work of detailing exactly where those prisons were—and the role of European states in facilitating them—is being conducted by a relatively small group of human-rights lawyers and nongovernmental organizations, piecing together information by scanning publicly available records like flight data and heavily redacted U.S. congressional reports.

The latter includes a 2014 Senate report—one of the key pieces of evidence in the European court case—that said governments like Lithuania and Romania were paid millions of dollars for hosting the CIA sites. The exact amounts were redacted.

Write to Drew Hinshaw at

Appeared in the June 1, 2018, print edition as ‘Romania, Lithuania Fined Over Secret Jails.’

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