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It's time to pay more attention to Europe's role in torture

CIA secret prisons in Poland. Reuters

When a Polish MP first announced that mysterious planes were landing in the night in a forest, eyebrows were raised, eyeballs swung upwards, and some MPs even broke out laughing. This was the stuff of conspiracy theories.

What the MP had actually uncovered was Poland's participation in the CIA torture programme. The planes landing were carrying suspected terrorists, some of whom may well have been entirely innocent, on behalf of the American government. Many years later, the European Court of Human Rights would condemn Poland for their role in the moral abcess that became the CIA's extraordinary rendition and torture programme. The MP had been correct.

Was the CIA the only one culpable then? Poland was not the only European country to be covertly taking part. Last week, Romania and Lithuania lost court cases confirming their culpability in two cases of "rendition, secret detention, torture and ill-treatment". In a press release, a Human Rights Watch terrorism expert said that "The European Court's rulings highlight that European officials have never faced the music for facilitating the CIA's illegal torture and rendition programme".

Last month, Britain apologised to Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a leading member of the allegedly Al-Qaeda affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group LIFG. LIFG was the same organisation MI6 had ironically once paid, in secret, to assassinate Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the nineties.

In a panic after 9/11, the Tony Blair government had turned on LIFG and delivered Belhaj and his wife to Gaddafi's torturers as a reward for Gaddafi participating in the war on terror, rather than sponsoring it.

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In an ironic twist, Salman Abedi – the Manchester bomber – had travelled to Libya in 2011 because he too hailed from an LIFG family, led by his father. The British government at that stage wanted Gaddafi out, and so LIFG members – mainly living in exile in Manchester under close surveillance – allegedly had their passports returned to them and were urged to return to Libya.

Abedi eventually joined Daesh and returned to Britain scarred by what he had seen, and lacking any moral compass, restraint or conscience. Then he blew up dozens of schoolchildren, and himself.

Nobody is saying that the specific individuals targeted in the torture programme were always innocent or always guilty. Each circumstance differed greatly. In the recent European court case Lithuania was found guilty of hosting a CIA prison where Abu Zubaydah was detained. He is now in Guantanamo Bay, in detention and has never been charged with any crime. Romania was accused of detaining Abd Al-Nashiri on a similar programme. Al-Nashiri is facing more credible charges over his alleged role in bombing an American warship off the coast of Yemen in 2000. There are grey areas on the other side too.


The problem begins not with innocence or guilt, but with humanity and the way the powerful – in this case the state – treats the weak, in this case the detained alleged terrorist while he is in his prison cell.

It is clearly correct first to bring charges – the principle of habeas corpus seems to have been forgotten entirely. The second would be to be especially sceptical of Middle Eastern, central Asian or sub-Saharan African governments offering to help with evidence. Many despots used the War on Terror as a way to settle grievances with their political opponents. Thirdly, the myth that 'enhanced interrogation' – torture – gleans useful intelligence should have been discarded immediately. Although the British government was far from blemish free in the whole affair, one former intelligence officer who had served in Iraq once told me, "You'd be amazed what a cup of green tea, a smile, and a reassurance you don't work for the CIA can do".

Remember that there was an enormous split in the way the American intelligence establishment wanted to deal with the massive influx of terror suspects. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in particular was highly cautious of using torture. The Central Intelligence Agency, egged on by certain immoral actors in the White House, had other ideas, and drafted in a series of despicable private sector psychiatrists to design a bespoke 'enhanced interrogation' programme.

Read: European court: Lithuania, Romania assisted US torture

What seemed to be agreed on all sides was that the renditions must take place overseas, in so-called 'black sites,' so that there would be plausible deniability.

Enter the Europeans. Many saw it as their duty to play a role in the newly formed War on Terror. Others wanted to curry favour, and build up political capital for the future. Those same governments kept their people and their politicians in the dark – a sure sign that something was wrong in what they were doing.

Hence why our Polish MP was not believed when they raised concerns. In fact they were correct – they were not UFOs landing in the middle of the night, but Boeing 737s. Off the jets trundled at least two suspects, maybe more, and what was done to them in the special centres the Polish intelligence services set up to help the Americans was more reminiscent of the days of what Josef Stalin had imposed on the country, than a new, free Poland. Waterboarding was the main technique – one suspect is supposed to have been subjected to this over 80 times in one month.

Despite the European Court rulings, few European officials have been held to account. Only in Italy were two agents convicted, while American agents were prosecuted in absentia.

If the European Union project was founded to uphold the rule of law, rather than resorting to violence to settle disagreements, extending that courtesy even to the most despicable of terrorists would be a mighty show of force.

Standing up to America at a time when she is led by a monstrous buffoon, would also be timely. Gina Haspel, the new CIA director appointed by Trump, has been criticised for her cold-hearted role in running a Thailand torture centre. Less attention has been paid to how European governments were involved too – perhaps it is time it was.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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