The Persistent Shadow of a Secret Prison

About a 20 minute drive outside the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, a legacy of the CIA that helped usher in a new era sits at the end of a dirt road shrouded in miles of dark forest. Close to a river and beside a lake, a front company for the CIA1 is reported to have acquired the former horseback riding facility2 in a suburb called Antaviliai that’s situated near high-end gated communities and distinguished inhabitants including the official residences of the president and prime minister. Little did they know –or did they?– but as they took their kids to sports practice and hosted cocktail parties, between 2005 and 20063 their neighbors included at least one future inmate of Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay.

While the legacy of the George W. Bush-era extraordinary rendition program might seem like recent history in the United States, countries who hosted CIA black site prisons are still dealing with the repercussions to the present.

Lithuania and Poland are distinguished as the two EU, NATO-member states who cooperated with the CIA in the early years of the War on Terror to host what can be surmised as the colorfully-named CIA detention sites Violet, and Black, respectively; NATO-member Romania hosted detention site Blue and became an EU member in 2007.

Though today Lithuania’s former CIA prison is surrounded by a metal-pole fence with a sign that warns you’re under video surveillance –most recently it’s been used as a State Security Department training facility– there’s not much that stands out about the two-building complex that you could otherwise mistake for a suburban rec center adjacent to a large barn. It was reportedly operational from 2005 to 20064, and had the capacity for up to eight inmates5.

The CIA’s operation of secret prisons in foreign host countries housing detainees captured in yet third countries was controversial on many levels, starting within the CIA itself. Holding prisoners indefinitely without charge or access to an attorney is problematic on US soil so it had to be done abroad, went the argument. However it similarly violated principles in Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, European Union, and United Nations law. And those issues were further compounded firstly by the secret transportation of captives into a country from abroad, and even more so by the use of treatment that has variously been described as torture and enhanced interrogation. In Lithuania this is reported by the New York Times to have included, “blindfolding or hooding, solitary confinement, the continuous use of leg shackles and exposure to noise and light.”6

But in the years immediately after the 9/11 attacks the CIA’s view prevailed: the value of having these black sites for enhanced interrogation against high value targets outweighed the potential cost to the credibility of institutions like the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations –never mind that to the US– should their existence come to light. As Dick Cheney is reported to have said at the time upon hearing a White House lawyer voice doubts on the legality of extraordinary rendition: “Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action.”7

Perhaps even more noteworthy for the citizens of their host countries, for the CIA’s calculus, implementing extraordinary rendition outweighed the potential damage to the credibility of their relatively new democracies where secret prisons were a fact of life behind the Iron Curtain, which had fallen just 14 years prior to the disclosure of the CIA program.

That sets up a stark contrast between wanting to, “look forward as opposed to looking backwards,”8 depending on who you ask. Those were the words used by president-elect Obama in early 2009 to market the idea to his Democratic base of not investigating the past legal advisers and policy makers responsible for bringing extraordinary renditions and enhanced interrogations to fruition.

For the citizens of Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, looking forward and not backwards means not regressing to an era of secret prisons. The CIA black site in Lithuania –the first country to successfully fight-for-and-win independence from the Soviet Union– was less than nine miles from Parliament.

The road through Vilnius to Antaviliai passes by the Lithuanian Central State Archives, a building complex exhibiting the brutalist architectural style as well as a KGB document archive, but nearby modern glass high rises make a clear statement about looking forward.

In a similar way that the CIA has been reluctant to admit the existence of its black prison sites, successive Lithuanian government administrations maintain to this day that they were ignorant of what was happening on their own sovereign soil. As more details emerged that Lithuania likely hosted a secret prison following the Washington Post’s 2005 reporting on the existence of the program in Eastern Europe, the then-president of Lithuania called for an investigation. But the few investigations that have taken place have yet to even establish a CIA prison was on Lithuanian soil.

This stands in stark contrast to findings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2018 and the foundational 2014 US Select Committee on Intelligence report –known informally as the Feinstein Report– about Detention Site Violet that has widely been surmised to refer to the Lithuanian site.

A lawsuit and petition before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by current Guantanamo Bay inmates who say they were imprisoned in the Antaviliai CIA prison have added further details to the public record.

In the lawsuit Abu Zubaydah v. Lithuania, Zubaydah claimed he was tortured at Antaviliai in violation of his human rights. In 2018 the ECHR agreed with Zubaydah and ordered the Lithuanian government to pay him 130,000 euros.9 As part of its findings it said Lithuania knew it was hosting a CIA prison and failed to adequately investigate what was happening inside; a failure of Lithuania’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.10

Evidence presented by experts to the ECHR cited the 2014 Feinstein Report concluding through a careful reading of it combined with other publicly-available documents that, “Detention Site Violet was in Lithuania”11. The ECHR was so confident in its ruling in favor of Zubaydah that it rejected Lithuania’s appeal against its finding as baseless12. In January 2019 the Lithuanian government confirmed it had awarded Zubaydah’s compensation, according to a report by the International Commission of Jurists.13

The second case before the ECHR is a petition involving Mustafa al-Hawsawi. It also alleges human rights violations, and is still ongoing. The defense team for Lithuania is making similar arguments against reaching a settlement with al-Hawsawi as it did with Zubaydah, claiming it cannot establish whether or not a secret CIA prison existed within the country, and by extension cannot establish whether or not al-Hawsawi was ever present in Lithuania. It also blames the US for not being cooperative in sharing information about either litigant or the CIA black site. After gaining an extension the Lithuanian government is preparing its response to the petition that must be submitted to the ECHR by October 31 of this year.

Meanwhile the ignorance defense has left the Lithuanian public scratching their heads in the face of the damning evidence presented at the ECHR, including notably the Feinstein Report but also testimony from high-ranking officers from the Lithuanian State Security Department and flight logs.14 A sentiment of cynicism and perhaps even scorn will likely be reinforced when the Ministry of Justice once again argues the existence of the Antaviliai complex has not been definitively proven –it’s likely defense that will be filed by the end of next month– which can only be viewed as Quixotic in light of the established precedent set by the Zubaydah case.

Meanwhile those Lithuanians in power during the CIA’s presence in Antaviliai –and to a lesser extent those covering for them today– will continue to face nagging questions that have hitherto been swept under the rug with the thinnest veneers of plausible deniability: who allowed the CIA to violate Lithuania’s national sovereignty and operate a secret prison in a new democracy that had just emerged from the Soviet Union less than a generation earlier, ironically around the time it was joining NATO and the European Union? And how much about the CIA black site did they know?

According to the Feinstein Report information about al-Hawsawi provides a strong indication some people in Lithuania knew what was going on:

In [redacted] Country [redacted] officers refused to admit CIA detainee Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi to a local hospital despite earlier discussions with country representatives about how a detainee’s medical emergency would be handled. While the CIA understood the [redacted] officers’ reluctance to place a CIA detainee in a local hospital given media reports, CIA headquarters also questioned the ‘willingness of [redacted] to participate as originally agreed/planned with regard to provision of emergency medical care.’ After failing to gain assistance from the Department of Defense, the CIA was forced to seek assistance from three third-party countries in providing medical care to al-Hawsawi and four other CIA detainees with acute ailments. Ultimately, the CIA paid the [redacted] more than $[redacted] million for the treatment of [redacted] and [redacted]; and made arrangements for [redacted] and [redacted] to be treated in [redacted]. The medical issues resulted in the closing of DETENTION SITE VIOLET in Country [redacted] in [redacted] 2006.15

A different section of the Feinstein Report reveals potentially even more damning information that seems to confirm some in Lithuania knew about the program, and were paid handsomely.

The passage above about medical treatment and the following are also both cited as evidence in the Zubaydah case before the ECHR. Furthermore, the following passage is identified before the ECHR as regarding Detention Site Violet:

By mid-2003 the CIA had concluded that its completed, but still unused ‘holding cell’ in Country [redacted] was insufficient, given the growing number of CIA detainees in the program and the CIA’s interest in interrogating multiple detainees at the same detention site. The CIA thus sought to build a new, expanded detention center in the country. The CIA also offered $[redacted] million to the [redacted] to ‘show appreciation’ for the [redacted] support for the program. According to a CIA cable, however, the [redacted].” While the plan to construct the expanded facility was approved by the [redacted] of Country [redacted], the CIA and [redacted] developed complex mechanisms to [redacted] in order to provide the $[redacted] million to the [redacted].”16

If irony had a dark sense of humor this case could serve as a good example: perhaps some of that CIA money made it to Lithuanian government officials who bought upscale real estate in the high-end suburbs that neighbor the former CIA black site in Antaviliai.

September 27 2019

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