FRAME Fostering Human Rights Among European Policies

Europe must finally reveal its role in the CIA-torture program

On 17 September 2001, only a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush authorized the CIA to detain terrorists and set up detention facilities outside the US. On 2 November 2005, Dana Priest reported in the Washington Post that the CIA held terror suspects in secret prisons. Only five days later, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe appointed Senator Dick Marty, a former Swiss prosecutor, to conduct a parliamentary inquiry into “alleged secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states”. Presenting his first report in June 2006, Dick Marty concluded that he had exposed a global “spider’s web” of illegal US detentions and transfers, and alleged collusion in this system by 14 Council of Europe member states.[1] Despite similar appeals for urgent investigations addressed to European Governments by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Terry Davies, and the European Parliament under the lead of Claudio Fava, no serious investigations were conducted. Following several months of additional inquiry, Dick Marty published a second report in June 2007 in which he revealed evidence that US “high-value detainees”, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaykh Mohammad, were held in secret CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.[2] Again, the investigations initiated in these two and other European countries did not lead to any meaningful results.

After extensive research, four independent experts of the United Nations Human Rights Council published in February 2010 a “Joint study on global practices in relation to secret detention in the context of countering terrorism”, in which we identified a total of 66 countries which had resorted to secret detention in their fight against terrorism.[3] Many of these States had closely collaborated with the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme. On the basis of many interviews with former detainees, investigation of complex aeronautical data, including “data strings” of privately chartered CIA-rendition aircrafts, and other information we described in detail which detainees were held at which period in the secret detention CIA detention facilities in the village of Stare Kiejkuty in Poland, in the centre of Bucharest and in a riding academy in Antaviliai in Lithuania.[4] We also provided the biographical details of 24 individuals, including Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese origin, who was arrested by Macedonian officials, detained and interrogated by the CIA for about three weeks in a hotel in Skopje before being transferred in a CIA rendition plane to the infamous detention centre “Salt Pit” in Afghanistan, where he was severely tortured.

On 13 December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights issued its first judgment in a case involving secret prisons on European soil when its Grand Chamber found Macedonia in violation of the ECHR for its part in the torture and rendition of Khaled El-Masri.[5] On 24 July 2014, two further judgments followed in the cases of Abu Zubayda and Al Nashiri against Poland, in which the Court found that Poland was complicit in “CIA rendition, secret detention and interrogation operations on its territory” and that, by enabling the CIA to detain the applicants, it was exposing them to a serious risk of torture.[6] Similar cases are pending before the Court against Italy, Romania and Lithuania.

In contrast to their European allies, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had in 2009 started to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, in which more than six million internal agency documents were reviewed for more than five years. The entire report, which was approved on 13 December 2012, is more than 6,000 pages long. In April 2014, the Committee decided to publish only its 524-page executive summary, which in addition has been heavily redacted before being finally released on 3 December 2014.[7] Despite these shortcomings, the US report provides a fairly dark picture of the CIA torture methods, rendition flights and secret detention. Although the report does not provide much new evidence of the torture methods applied, it is extremely important that the US Congress formally investigated and acknowledged these severe human rights violations committed by the Bush Administration. In addition, the report proves that the information extracted from “high-value detainees” through torture “was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” and that the “CIA’s justification for the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness”.[8] In other words, the arguments of Dick Cheney and others that these “enhanced interrogation methods” were necessary in order to prevent future terrorist attacks and to make the US a safer place were finally refuted by the Senate Intelligence Committee. According to various cases studies based upon internal records of the CIA, even the most extreme interrogation methods played no role in disrupting terrorist plots and capturing terrorist leaders, including Osama Bin Laden.

In her foreword, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, emphasized that “it is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured. I also believe that the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading. I believe the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible”.[9] She also speaks about “one of the lowest points in our nation’s history”. These are strong words from one of the leading politicians in the United States. When I interviewed her in 2009 in the context of our joint UN global study, she still seemed much less outspoken.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report lists in great detail the detention and interrogation of some of the “high-value detainees”, including Abu Zubayda, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad. But all references to the location of the secret CIA detention facilities have been redacted before the release of the report. However, if one reads the US Senate report in combination with the Dick Marty reports, our UN global study and the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, it is not difficult to conclude that the “Detention Site Cobalt” in the US report was the notorious “Salt Pit” in Afghanistan, the “Detention Site Green” the well-known “Cat’s Eye” facility in Thailand, or the “Detention Site Blue” the CIA black site in the Polish village Stare Kiejkuty where Abu Zubayda and al-Nashiri were kept after the closure of the “Cat’s Eye” in December 2002. Similar conclusions can be drawn for the CIA black sites in Romania, Lithuania and other countries.

Since the US Senate Intelligence Report at least indirectly confirmed that many European States closely collaborated in the illegal detention, rendition and torture program of the CIA, it is high time that European Governments now take the initiative of finally conducting serious investigations about their involvement in these gross and systematic human rights violations. After all, torture is one of the most serious crimes, and all 156 States parties to the UN Convention against Torture have an obligation to promptly and impartially investigate all allegations and suspicions of torture with the aim of identifying the individual perpetrators (including those who facilitated and assisted in torture practices) and bringing them to justice, as well as providing the victims of torture with a remedy and adequate reparation. The release of the US report provides European Governments with a perfect excuse to now start investigations because they can no longer use the argument that they had promised absolute confidentiality to their American counterparts.


Author: Manfred Nowak, Professor of International Law and Human Rights, University of Vienna, Head, Research Centre Human Rights, University of Vienna, Director, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights and Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture

Media credits: Flickr/ Mr.Kitsasakron Pongha

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FRAME or the European Commission.


[1] Dick Marty, CoE PACE Doc 10957 of 12 June 2006.

[2] Dick Marty, CoE PACE Doc 11302 of 11 June 2007.

[3] Martin Scheinin/Manfred Nowak/Shaheen Sardar Ali/Jeremy Sarkin, UN Doc A/HRC/13/42, re-issued on 20 May 2010.

[4] Ibid, §§ 103 ff.

[5] European Court of Human Rights, Appl No 39630/09, judgment of 13/12/12.

[6] European Court of Human Rights, Appl Nos 7511/13 and 28761/11, judgments of 24/07/14.

[7] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program”, Executive Summary, Declassification Revisions December 3, 2014.

[8] Ibid, Conclusions 1 and 2.

[9] Ibid, Foreword, 4.

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