Judicial activism and the right to truth: al-Hawsawi and Lithuania
February 1, 2014 Leave a comment
Last month, an extremely important case hearing took place in Strasbourg, at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It detailed the collusion of the government of Poland with the CIA in creating a secret prison on its territory, in which prisoners were detained, interrogated, tortured, then shipped to the United States on unchartered flights before being detained again at the horrific naval base of Guantanamo Bay. The worst illustration of a lethal EU-US partnership in the so-called War on Terror was finally exposed, after much obstacles were removed. Lack of transparency, hyperclassification, judicial deference, protection of “vital foreign interests”, and the usual disdain for the basic fundamental rights of terror suspects have led to a considerable delay in trying the Guantanamo Bay inmates, but also to broadcast in a court of law the crimes committed by the nation states and their agents. In the fight against terrorism, counter-terrorism is also on trial.
The establishment of CIA black sites on European soil has been a profound source of shame, a delicate diplomatic issue. Yet a comprehensive document dating back to 2006, the Marty Report, commissioned by the European Parliament to investigate and assess the extent of member-states collaborating with the CIA , brought to light how massive the scale of cooperation has been. If the case of Poland has become a textbook situation for collusion – from paying airport employees in cash to hide departing flights to the US, to refusing access to classified documentation to defence lawyers – it is important to keep in mind it is not an isolated situation. This week, Lithuania has managed to score a victory in its judicial battle within its own domestic courts, without the help of Strasbourg, in a case that highlights two fundamental difficulties and hurdles in the prosecution of the CIA torture program: not only had the Lithuanian prosecutor refused, twice, to open an investigation into the prison located in the small village of Antaviliai, but all the information used to re-open the case was not governmental documentation at all – it was journalistic investigation made public that had allowed to provide new information.
Mustafa Al-Hawsawi is a Saudi national, currently detained in Guantanamo Bay as a high value detainee and faces trial by a military commission for his role as a financial backer of the 9/11 attack. He was captured in 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. According to him, he was then transferred to Lithuania where he was handed to US authorities, subjected to torture and disappeared – he would have remained in the secret prison for two whole years, between 2004 and 2006. It’s only then, in September 2006, that US officials formally acknowledged his detention at Guantanamo Bay. As a high-value detainee, Al-Hawsawi was at a much higher risk of torture than any other inmate, according to a report by the ICRC; later, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism – who filed as a third party in the Abu Zubaydah v Poland case – reported, in 2013, that the situation of CIA black sites and the practice of extraordinary rendition for terror suspects involved 54 nation states total, from Lithuania to Morocco and from Poland to Thailand.
Thanks to investigative journalist Jason Leopold, we know much more about the arrest, disappearance, detention and torture of Abu Zubaydah than we could have ever hope to find if we had followed the often blocked, often stonewalled round of a traditional legal investigation. In the case of Al-Hawsawi, the road was paved with ill-intentions, over a five-year period: in 2009, an initial investigation into the case was made thanks to a report by ABC news, yet charges were dropped seemingly due to lack of evidence. Back then, Defense Minister Rasa Junkeviciene had released this statement:
“Prosecutors need facts. This is how I understand their decision. One shouldn’t forget that this is not only a Lithuanian issue, and if other states fail to give necessary information, or people who know something also don’t want to give information, then in fact it’s pretty hard to say something.”
Although this sounds logical and a fair assessment of how charges could be dropped in a case of serious violations of international law, this highlights the difficulty to access information when so much redaction, red tape or complete classification of material can not be accessible through the classic and regular means of transfer of information in a transnational case. It was obvious that due to the lack of compliance displayed by the United States at the time, further investigation into the lost two years of Al-Hawsawi’s life would lead to empty boxes, unaccessible documentation, or even possibly a request not to look further into this case. However, thanks to the ABC News report, the Lithuanian Parliament created a committee tasked with investigating the alleged CIA black site. And they found one. In fact, they found two. But those were empty, and there was absolutely no written trace, documentation, or evidence made available to them that any prisoners under any authority had been brought to those sites.
Former president Valdus Adamkus and former prime minister Algirdas Brazauskas, the executive authority in place at the time, denied any allegations. The investigation, which came to a screeching halt in 2011, had however unearthed some pretty disturbing evidence, that, linked to other similar cases of detention and torture at CIA black sites, could determine a pretty serious pattern of corrupting local officials, building sites in remote rural areas, and circumventing airport rules for flights to depart and land unsuspected. According to the Prime Minister, who took part in the committee:
The committee also said that five airplanes “linked to the CIA” landed in Vilnius and Palanga airports from 2002-2005, and on at least two occasions border procedures were bypassed with the help of high-ranking Lithuanian State Security officials.
As I wrote in December following the Abu Zubaydah hearing, which I attended, the facts of the case soberly enunciated by the lead counsel, Ms. Singh, illustrated one thing – that it would have been impossible for the CIA to have operated in Poland without national officials knowing about the site. In fact, as it was said then – “not only should Poland know, but Poland did know.” Ms. Singh recounts the different steps taken into the detention and rendition of Abu Zubaydah:
Singh insisted that Poland was not only guilty of facilitating the detention of Al-Nashiri, but also to actively cover-up US rendition flights, and not act under the law when they knowingly assisted the torture of the applicants. Payment of fees to CIA officials, extra bonuses in cash granted to Polish officials and airport workers who assisted in the cover up and departure of rendition flights have all been documented by what the counsel asserted were credible sources, while Poland carried out claiming that bias from witnesses and anonymity of testimonies made them, apparently, unreceivable. Singh added, in a moment that sent a chill down the audience’s spine, that there had even been agreements between Polish and US officials as to the procedure to adopt should a prisoner die during the detention.
If Poland appeared to have maintained a political facade since the case was first brought to its attention in 2008, things were not sailing smooth with Lithuania: the Foreign Minister resigned in 2010 over the black site investigation. Back then, President Grybauskaite had publicly acknowledged she knew about the presence of CIA black sites in the country, but following the Parliament report lacking information regarding prisoners, their identity, and travel dates to the prison, Usackas, then Foreign Minister, strongly dismissed all allegations that any torture site, CIA-operated or otherwise, had detained prisoners. Grybauskaite said she had lost trust in the members of her government at the time, and asked her Prime Minister to dismiss Usackas. Usackas, in turn, resigned from his position.
In 2011, Amnesty International obtained information that was relevant to the case and urged Lithuania to re-open an investigation into the secret prison. The claim made during the Abu Zubaydah hearing that an investigation into collaboration with the CIA was “politically inconvenient” echoes the case of Lithuania. It appears that the Parliament report should have consisted in enough evidence to either admit or dismiss the case in court. Since the report could neither assess the presence of prisoners nor the knowledge of executive officials at the time, counsel for Al-Hawsawi relied on investigative missions and victims’ testimonies to provide new information to the Court. The admissibility of this evidence was contested by the Prosecutor. In Poland, lawyers for the government alleged that media publicity and “interference” (sic) with the investigation had made it difficult to carry on in what they believe would be a consistent and objective manner; that NGOs were pressing an agenda on Poland to prosecute human rights violations they weren’t sure existed. The issue of transparency and the obtention of material outside the realm of the legislative inquiry or the executive’s agreement to disclosure is yet another pattern in the prosecution of CIA crimes. Disclosures, both prosecutors argued, are premature, and affect the course of the inquiry by being influential.
They’re influential because they expose the failure of the authority to comply with the judicial inquiry.
In the case of Lithuania, however, the prosecution failed short of upholding the important role of journalistic investigation and obtention of victims in the care of human rights-focused organisations. Says Joe Margulies, a professor of law at Northwestern and counsel for one of the victims, said in 2011:
“[t]he Prosecutor is trying to deflect blame for the failure of his investigation onto NGOs and the media. It’s ironic that an official investigation into a secret torture facility should claim to be thwarted because the media is insufficiently transparent.”
In September of last year, things moved at an incredibly fast pace. Basing their evidence on publicly available information such as EU Parliament reports, flight data gathered by NGOs Reprieve and REDRESS, the counsels submitted a new complaint calling for a new investigation into the detention of Al-Hawsawi. The complaint explained that a thorough and effective investigation had to be made to “secure evidence, seek clarification, seek urgent preservation and disclosure of all relevant evidence, and identify all officials involved in the alleged violations with a view of ensuring they are prosecuted.”
The importance and effect of publicly available information and thorough disclosure could not be stressed enough in this case. The similar that has emerged against Poland will pave the way for those that will surely follow. Ben Emmerson had re-affirmed his commitment to the right to truth as a universal human right and a cornerstone of the legal commitments binding on all member-states not just at the Council of Europe, but at the United Nations. From our piece on Abu-Zubaydah, again:
“the right to truth is collective. Information is essential to a democratic system – in the context of human rights violations, there needs to be a clarification of the circumstances, of context, of policies, and of the institutional failures that let those happen in order to restore confidence in the system. The right to know what happened is fundamental for participatory decision-making in society.” It may appear counter-intuitive, Emmerson continued, “to conventional lawyers – but once it is recognized, every individual is entitled to invoke that right.”
The month following the filing, the Prosecutor informed both NGOs that he refused to launch an investigation. They immediately appealed his decision. The EU Parliament in Strasbourg adopted a resolution on October 10, 2013 urging Lithuania to re-open an investigation into CIA black sites, in regards to 4 cases already pending at the ECtHR, and a fifth application made in a domestic court in Italy:
whereas Parliament has condemned the US-led CIA rendition and secret detention programmes involving multiple human rights violations, including unlawful and arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, violations of the non-refoulement principle, and enforced disappearance through the use of European airspace and territory by the CIA; whereas Parliament has repeatedly called for full investigations into the collaboration of national governments and agencies with the CIA programmes;
whereas the Lithuanian authorities have reiterated their commitment to reopening the criminal investigation into Lithuania’s involvement in the CIA programme if new elements emerge, but still have not done so;
Reiterates its call on those Member States which have not fulfilled their positive obligation to conduct independent and effective inquiries to investigate human rights violations, taking into account all the new evidence that has come to light, and to disclose all necessary information on all suspect planes associated with the CIA and their territory; calls in particular on the Member States to investigate whether operations have taken place whereby people have been held under the CIA programme in secret facilities on their territory; calls on the Member States concerned (France, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Sweden) to respond to the letters sent by the UN Special Procedures;
“The Lithuanian government and Prosecutor General must now open a full and effective investigation into Mustafa al-Hawsawi’s claims and ensure that any other individuals who have alleged that they were held in secret CIA detention there are afforded the same right.”
Al-Hawsawi is still detained in Guantanamo. NGO REDRESS, represented pro-bono in the case, filed a motion on October 17, 2013 to submit against the classification regime blocking them from accepting complaints to third countries, hindering the investigations in the case, which amounts to a violation of his right to a fair trial. On November 27, 2013, the military judge denied the motion.