For years, the notion that Poland could allow the CIA to operate a secret prison in a remote lake region was treated as a crackpot idea by the country’s politicians, journalists and the public.
A heated political debate last week revealed how dramatically the narrative has changed.
In a string of revelations and political statements, Polish leaders have come closer than ever to acknowledging that the US ran a secret interrogation facility for terror suspects in 2002 and 2003 in the eastern European country.
Some officials recall the fear that prevailed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and defend the tough stance that former US president George W. Bush took against terrorists.
However, the debate is sometimes tinged with a hint of disappointment with Washington, as if Poland’s young democracy had been led astray — ethically and legally — by the superpower that it counts as a key ally, and then left alone to deal with the fallout.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Thursday that Poland has become the “political victim” of leaks from US officials that brought to light aspects of the secret rendition program.
In his most forthcoming comments on the matter to date, Tusk said an ongoing investigation into the case is proof of Poland’s democratic credentials and that Poland cannot be counted on in the future in such clandestine enterprises.
“Poland will no longer be a country where politicians — even if they are working arm-in-arm with the world’s greatest superpower — could make some deal somewhere under the table and then it would never see daylight,” said Tusk, who took office four years after the site was shuttered.
“Poland is a democracy where national and international law must be observed,” Tusk said. “This issue must be explained. Let there be no doubt about it either in Poland or on the other side of the ocean.”
To some, it sounded like a long-delayed admission that Poland allowed the US to run the secret site, where terror suspects were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics that human rights advocates consider torture.
“This statement is quite different from any others,” said Adam Bodnar, a human rights lawyer with the Helsinki Foundation in Warsaw. “From the general context, he’s kind of admitting that something is in the air. You can feel that this is an indirect confirmation.”
YEARS OF DENIAL
For years Polish officials and the public treated the idea that the CIA ran a prison in Poland as absurd and highly unlikely — even after the UN and the Council of Europe said they had evidence of its existence. Polish officials repeatedly rebuffed international calls for serious investigations. The idea slowly only began to get serious consideration after Polish prosecutors opened an investigation into the matter in 2008.
A new breakthrough came on Tuesday when a leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, reported that prosecutors have charged a former spy chief, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, for his role in allowing the site. Siemiatkowski was reportedly charged with depriving prisoners of war of their freedom and allowing corporal punishment.
Siemiatkowski has refused to comment, saying he was bound by secrecy laws on the matter. However, he did not deny the report.
The issue is hugely sensitive because any Polish leaders who would have cooperated with the US program would have been violating Poland’s constitution, both by giving a foreign power control over part of Polish territory and allowing crimes to take place there.