WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s former President Aleksander Kwasniewski acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that he allowed the CIA to operate a secret interrogation centre in his country, but denied that he knew prisoners were being tortured there.
A U.S. Senate report that revealed torture by the CIA at sites around the world has exposed allies that assisted the U.S. spy agency and potentially could have legal consequences for governments and officials involved.
Kwasniewski, a loyal U.S. ally as president from 1995-2005, broke on Wednesday with years of blanket denials by Polish officials to acknowledge that he had agreed to let U.S. spies use a secret site, codenamed “Quartz”, near the village of Stare Kiejkuty in a forest in north-eastern Poland.
He authorised the site to be used to question “people who had expressed willingness to cooperate with the Americans,” he told a news conference in the Polish parliament.
Asked if he knew what was happening inside, he said: “About what the CIA was doing? No. Inside the site, no.”
The redacted U.S. Senate report released on Tuesday did not name the countries where CIA agents carried out torture, which included sleep deprivation, water boarding, mock executions and other abuse.
But it contained information that, when cross-checked with publicly available sources like flight data, makes clear one of the sites was in Poland. The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled that abuses took place in Poland and has ordered the Polish government to compensate detainees.
Standing alongside Leszek Miller, who was Polish prime minister at the time the secret site was operating, Kwasniewski said Poland had asked the U.S. government to sign a document asserting the people at the facility would be treated in accordance with Polish law and humanitarian norms.
“The memorandum was not signed by the American side,” said Kwasniewski. He said the CIA’s secrecy about what it was doing at the site caused concern among Polish officials, prompting him to ask the U.S. government to close it down by the end of 2003.
According to the Senate report, the CIA paid a large sum of money for the site, which brought a more flexible approach from initially sceptical host country officials. Kwasniewski said that if cash was received from the CIA, it was not related to the site.
Adam Bodnar, vice-president of the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights who helped bring the case against Poland to the European Court of Human Rights, said ignorance about what the CIA was doing was not a defence.
“I think President Kwasniewski was wise enough at the time to know that the Americans would probably use some additional techniques” on the detainees, Bodnar told Reuters.
“It does not really matter whether they knew or didn’t know about what the CIA were doing there. In Poland, you cannot deprive anyone of their liberty without the authorisation of a court. It’s as simple as that.”
At his news conference, Kwasniewski said the decision by the U.S. authorities to allow publication of the Senate report this week was a breach of trust because Poland had believed details of its partnership with the CIA would remain a secret.
“The report shows that one needs to work with this most important, biggest ally on the basis of limited trust, but trust nonetheless,” he said.
He nevertheless defended the decision to cooperate with the CIA in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, saying his administration had calculated that Washington would return the favour if Poland’s national security was ever threatened.
That was an even more important consideration now, when Russia’s intervention in neighbouring Ukraine has left Poland itself feeling vulnerable to attack, he added.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” Kwasniewski said, explaining why he agreed to work closely with the CIA.
Additional reporting by Wiktor Szary and Marcin Goettig; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by