Detainee in Guantanamo Bay.

Landmark Ruling Highlights Lithuanian Complicity in CIA Torture, Prompts Questions About UK Role

The European Court of Human Rights has found that Lithuania violated the rights of Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who was held in a US secret detention facility in its territory, for its complicity in his unlawful rendition, detention, and torture. The Court ordered Lithuania to conduct an effective investigation and to pay him compensation.

The judgment marks another milestone in challenging the secrecy that surrounded the existence of secret ‘black sites’ in Europe in the aftermath of 9/11 and in securing accountability for the grave human rights abuses suffered by detainees. It also underscores the ongoing impunity for European complicity with US CIA counter-terrorism abuses committed two decades ago.

Chris Esdaile, Senior Legal Advisor at REDRESS, said:

“Today, whilst EU States and the UK decry human rights abuses abroad in the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, their moral authority to demand that other countries curb such abuses is undermined because, after more than two decades, accountability is still lacking for the abuses committed as a result of US counterterrorism practices in the aftermath of 9/11.”

Esdaile added:

“The judgment follows previous rulings of the European Court of Human Rights against Italy, Poland, Romania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Lithuania for their involvement in the illegal rendition, enforced disappearance and torture of alleged suspects at the hands of the CIA. Despite the serious human rights abuses committed, and the string of European Court decisions, the limited investigations that have been undertaken into the abuses have largely failed to ensure the accountability of individual perpetrators, or those in senior political leadership who turned a blind eye in the US and Europe.”

As in the current case, in the prior six judgments concerning the CIA secret detention programme, the European Court of Human Rights held that the treatment of ‘high-value detainees’ such as Mr al-Hawsawi constituted torture within the meaning of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

A 2006 report from the European Parliament (the Marty report) pointed to the passive or active involvement of 14 European countries in the CIA’s programme and urged EU member States to conduct effective investigations into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, in line with their international legal obligations. A follow-up report in 2015 identified “significant obstacles to further accountability” in the five EU States they investigated (Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and the UK), notably “the lack of independent and effective official investigations and the use of the ‘state secrets doctrine’ to prevent disclosure of the facts, evade responsibility and hinder redress to the victims”.

Esdaile said:

“REDRESS remains gravely concerned at the failure of Lithuania and other European States to ensure justice and reparations for victims of the US-led secret detention programme. They remain in serious breach of their international legal obligations.”

Alleged UK complicity

The al-Hawsawi case is also particularly relevant to the UK, as last year the Investigatory Powers Tribunal – the judicial body which oversees the actions of the UK intelligence services – opened two separate investigations into allegations that UK agencies were involved in the ill-treatment of two prisoners detained by the US, al-Hawsawi and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. There is evidence to suggest that UK intelligence agencies facilitated or conspired with US authorities in the torture and ill-treatment of those 17 prisoners classed as ‘high-value detainees’ within the CIA programme (which included al-Hawsawi).

Allegations of the UK intelligence services’ collusion in torture have resurfaced in recent years in the case of Jagtar Singh Johal, a British national who has been arbitrarily detained in India since 2017. UK intelligence agencies are accused of tipping off Indian authorities about him before his abduction and torture by Indian police.

REDRESS brought the cases on behalf of Mr al-Hawsawi before both the European Court of Human Rights and the UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

The judgment

Mr al-Hawsawi’s case in the European Court of Human Rights concerns his allegations that Lithuania allowed the CIA to transport him onto its territory under the secret extraordinary rendition programme and allowed him to be subjected to ill-treatment and arbitrary detention in a CIA ‘black site’, code-named ‘Violet’, from either February or October 2005 until March 2006 and then allowed him to be transferred to the US military base at Guantánamo, where he suffered further torture, and where he currently faces capital charges before a US Military Commission.

A US Senate report confirmed in 2014 that Mr al-Hawsawi had been subjected to several forms of ill-treatment whilst in US detention, including water dousing (similar to water boarding), walling, attention grasps, facial holds, cramped confinement, psychological pressures and sleep deprivation. Such abuses – which amount to torture in international law – and the conditions of his confinement have caused him permanent harm, for which he has not received appropriate medical care, or any rehabilitation.

Esdaile added:

“Mr al-Hawsawi needs to be held in a humane environment where his long-term medical issues can be properly treated, where he can be rehabilitated from the effects of almost 20 years of detention, where he can have direct and unmonitored communications with his family, and where our contact with him is not subject to severe restrictions as it is now.”

Violations of the European Convention of Human Rights

In its judgment today, the European Court of Human Rights held that in Mr al-Hawsawi’s case there had been violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture) of the Convention, because of the Lithuanian government’s failure to effectively investigate his allegations, and its complicity in the CIA’s actions that had led to ill-treatment, as well as for having allowed Mr al-Hawsawi’s rendition out of the country which exposed him to further risk of ill-treatment.

The Court also held that there had been violations of Article 5 (right to liberty and security), Article 8 (right to respect for private life), and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) in conjunction with Articles 3, 5 and 8. Lastly, it held that there had been violations of Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair trial within a reasonable time) of the Convention, and Articles 2 (right to life) and 3 of the Convention taken together with Article 1 (abolition of the death penalty) of Protocol No. 6 to the Convention “because Lithuania had assisted in Mr al-Hawsawi’s transfer from its territory in spite of a real risk that he could face a flagrant denial of justice and the death penalty”.

The Court noted in particular that Lithuania had hosted a secret CIA prison, the one code-named Violet, between February 2005 to March 2006, that the applicant had been detained there for several months or over a year (from February or October 2005 to March 2006), and that the domestic authorities had to have been aware that the CIA would subject him to treatment contrary to the Convention. Lithuania had also permitted him to be moved to another CIA secret detention site, in Afghanistan, and then to Guantánamo, thus exposing Mr al-Hawsawi to further ill-treatment and to “the risk of a flagrant denial of justice and the death penalty”.

The Court ordered that Lithuania conclude a full investigation into Mr al Hawsawi’s case as quickly as possible to identify and, where appropriate, punish any officials responsible. The Court also ordered Lithuania to pay him 100,000 Euros in compensation and held that the State should also seek assurances from the United States that the applicant would not suffer the death penalty.

Read more about Mr al-Hawsawi’s case here.

REDRESS thanks Shaheed Fatima KC and Ravi Mehta, of Blackstone Chambers, for their pro bono support throughout this case.

For more information or for an interview, please contact Eva Sanchis, Head of Communications, on [email protected], +44 (0)20 7793 1777 (office) or +44 (0) 7857 110076 (mobile).

Photo credit: PO2-Kilho-Park