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A Romanian journalist walks past a building on the Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase, 250km (155 miles) east of Bucharest, cited as a possible location for the transfer of terrorist suspects by the CIA. December 19, 2005. © Reuters/Bogdan Cristel

(Paris) – The European Court of Human Rights on May 31, 2018, issued two key judgments that underscore the ongoing impunity for European complicity with US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counterterrorism abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

The court ruled that Lithuania and Romania had violated their human rights obligations for their part in the rendition, secret detention, and torture and ill-treatment of two terrorism suspects. The court also highlighted the serious deficiencies in the national investigations and urged both countries to conclude their investigations into their involvement in the rendition program without delay and to identify and punish relevant officials.

“The European Court’s rulings highlight that European officials have never faced the music for facilitating the CIA’s illegal torture and rendition program,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “The lack of accountability, mirrored in the US with the approval of an official involved in the rendition program as the new CIA director, leaves the door open for a return to these illegal practices.”

The rulings came in the cases of Abu Zubaydah v. Lithuania and Al-Nashiri v. Romania. The European Court found that both countries had hosted secret CIA prisons and that they knew the CIA was using their territory for renditions and secret detention and that “the extremely harsh [CIA] detention regime” on their territory violated the prohibition of torture. Both men are in US custody at Guantanamo Bay. Abu Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime while al-Nashiri faces charges for his alleged role in bombing a US warship off the coast of Yemen in 2000.

Following the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the CIA operated a global, state-sanctioned program in which it abducted scores of people throughout the world, held them in secret detention – sometimes for years – or “rendered” them to various countries, and tortured or otherwise ill-treated them. While the program officially ended in 2009, the cover-up and impunity for these crimes is ongoing.

Neither the US or any of the numerous countries that assisted in this illegal program have adequately accounted for these abuses. Gina Haspel, the new CIA director, reportedly ran a secret CIA “black site” in Thailand – where both al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah were held prior to being transferred to other CIA detention centers – and facilitated the destruction of 92 videotapes of torture that occurred there.

Romania and Lithuania are not the only European countries implicated in the CIA renditions program. The European Court has already condemned Poland for its role in the rendition, detention, and torture of both of these men, Macedonia for its involvement in the CIA’s abduction and illegal transfer of Khaled Al-Masri, a German citizen, and Italy for its role in the abduction of Hassan Mustapha Osama Nasr, an Egyptian cleric better known as Abu Omar, to Egypt.

There is also credible evidence from the United Nations, the European Parliament, and Council of Europe that many other European countries – including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, and the UK – were involved to various degrees. The UK recently made a formal apology to two Libyan nationals in whose rendition it was involved, and Sweden has apologized to and compensated two Egyptian nationals for its involvement in their rendition.

Of these, only Italy has prosecuted anyone in relation to the program – convicting two Italians and, in absentia, 23 US agents for abducting the Egyptian cleric.

The European Court gave short shrift to the investigations and related diplomatic efforts by Lithuania and Romania over its role in these cases. The Lithuanian prosecutor-general’s office opened a criminal investigation in January 2010 following a parliamentary inquiry that confirmed the existence of two black sites and that Lithuanian airports and airspace had been used for CIA-related flights. One year later, the case was abruptly closed for lack of evidence.

Following the release of the US Senate summary of the still classified 6,700-page report documenting the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, the prosecutor general’s office claims to have sent a formal request for legal assistance to US authorities. In April 2015, it announced it was reopening its investigation, which remains ongoing.

Romania opened a criminal investigation in 2012 following a complaint by al-Nashiri but it is still pending and no information has been made public. A parliamentary inquiry that began in December 2005 and concluded in March 2007, found no evidence of a secret CIA prison, illegal prisoner transfers, or Romanian involvement in the CIA’s program. The European Court raised concerns in paragraph 651 of its judgment that the delay in the investigation meant that crucial flight data had been erased.

The European Court found that the Lithuanian and Romanian investigations had been ineffective and urged both countries to conclude their investigations without delay and to hold to account any officials identified as responsible.

It also ordered Romania to seek assurances from the US government in al-Nashiri’s case that his trial in the US would not result in the death penalty. Each man was awarded 100,000 Euros in damages.

“With accountability efforts stalled in the US, it is more important than ever to have a renewed push for accountability on this side of the Atlantic,” Houry said. “Ignoring the abuses of the past or procrastinating their prosecution risks making them a reality of the present.”

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