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Timeline: the Council of Europe's investigation into CIA secret prisons in Europe

Dick Marty (Switzerland, ALDE)

In two PACE reports in 2006 and 2007, Swiss Senator Dick Marty revealed convincing evidence that terror suspects were being transported to and held in CIA-run “secret prisons” on European soil. This timeline charts the critical role played by the different bodies of the Council of Europe – most recently the European Court of Human Rights – in throwing light on this dark chapter in European history, and helping to ensure that European governments are never again complicit in torture.

4 March 2024: The European Court of Human Rights notifies the Lithuanian Government of a further case, again brought by Abd Al Rahim Al Nashiri, currently detained in Guantánamo Bay where he is facing charges of committing terror attacks. He alleges multiple complaints of torture, ill-treatment and unacknowledged detention when he was held for five months in 2005-2006 at a secret facility in Lithuania run by the CIA. The Court has already ruled in two other cases concerning Mr Al-Nashiri’s detention at CIA secret facilities, a 2014 judgment concerning Poland and a 2018 judgment concerning Romania (see below).

16 January 2024: The European Court of Human Rights, in its seventh ruling related to the CIA's secret detainee programme, al-Hawsawi v. Lithuania, finds that Lithuania was complicit in the programme by enabling the detention and ill-treatment on its territory of Saudi national Mustafa Al-Hawsawi, currently at Guantánamo Bay. Lithuania should undertake a full investigation, sanction any officials responsible and make representations to the US on Mr al-Hawsawi’s rights, the Court says.

31 May 2018
: In two more landmark rulings, the European Court of Human Rights finds that both Romania and Lithuania have taken part in the CIA's secret detention programme, and are thus complicit in torture. In Al Nashiri v. Romania, it finds that Romania hosted the CIA's detention site code-named "black" from September 2003 to November 2005, confirming the Assembly's revelation of 11 years earlier, and that Mr Al Nashiri was held hereIn Abu Zubaydah v. Lithuania, it finds that Lithuania hosted the site code-named "violet" from February 2005 to March 2006, where Mr Zubaydah was held. Both countries were aware that the CIA would subject detainees to treatment contrary to the Convention. The Court orders each country to pay the relevant applicant 100,000 euros in damages, complete investigations into what happened to them, and seek assurances from the US over their rights.

28-29 June 2016: The European Court of Human Rights holds hearings on the two remaining major cases that have come before it concerning allegations that European countries were involved in the CIA's secret "extraordinary rendition" programme - Abu Zubaydah v. Lithuania and Al Nashiri v. Romania. Videos of both the Abu Zubaydah hearing and the Al Nashiri hearing are posted online by the Court. The applicants in both cases remain in detention at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay to this day.

8 June 2016: The European Parliament, in a fresh resolution, voices serious concerns at the "apathy" shown by EU member states and institutions towards recognising "the multiple fundamental rights violations and torture" that took place during CIA rendition operations on European soil between 2001 and 2006.

23 February 2016: In its third major rendition-related ruling, the European Court of Human Rights finds that Italy failed to protect Egyptian cleric Abu Omar from torture and unlawful detention when he was abducted from a Milan street by CIA operatives in 2003 and taken to Egypt. The Court says the use by the Italian authorities of "state secrecy" laws to shield some of those responsible amounts to "impunity" and orders Italy to pay 70,000 euros in compensation to Abu Omar, and 15,000 euros to his wife.

11 February 2016: Seven of the Council of Europe's 47 member states provide updates on their efforts to look into allegations of secret prisons and rendition flights and bring to justice any persons responsible, responding to a final request for information from Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland using powers under the European Convention on Human Rights. He decides to close the ten-year-old inquiry, which was begun by his predecessor.

September 2015: Continuing the inquiry begun in 2005 using powers under the European Convention on Human Rights, Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland asks the governments of all 47 member states to provide supplementary information on “past or ongoing investigations, relevant cases before domestic courts, or other measures taken” concerning illegal CIA detentions and renditions.

23 June 2015: The European Court of Human Rights holds a public hearing in the case of Nasr and Ghali v. Italy, concerning the abduction in Rome of Egyptian imam Abu Omar by CIA agents, and his "extraordinary rendition" to Egypt, where he was detained in secret for several months. It posts the video online.

11 May 2015: Poland pays terror suspects Al Nashiri and Zubaydah each the 100,000 euros damages ordered by the Strasbourg Court, following their torture on Polish soil, and gives details of its other efforts to comply with the Court's rulings in these two cases.

22 April 2015: In remarks to German news magazine Der Spiegel, former Romanian President Ion Iliascu admits to the existence of a secret CIA "site" in Romania. PACE President Anne Brasseur responds: "it is now up to the Romanian prosecutorial authorities to conduct a serious investigation into the facts, and to hold to account the perpetrators of any crimes committed in this context."

20 April 2015: In light of the various cases concerning secret CIA detentions before the European Court of Human Rights, PACE parliamentarians invite Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland to seek further information from the states concerned using his powers under Article 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights, continuing the inquiry begun in 2005.

11-12 March 2015: The Council of Europe's ministerial body - which oversees the execution of Strasbourg Court judgments - says it is concerned Mr Al Nashiri and Mr Abu Zubaydah, now interned at Guantanamo Bay, could face "flagrant denials of justice" if tried by Military Commission and asks the Polish authorities to urgently seek assurances from the US that they will not be tried using torture evidence or subjected to the death penalty. Poland swiftly does so. The ministers' representatives continue to evaluate the response of the Polish authorities at each subsequent meeting.

9 December 2014: After much procedural wrangling, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence releases its 600-page study of the CIA's detention and interrogation programme, including heavy criticism of its actions. Many of the details unearthed by the Council of Europe appear to be confirmed.

24 July 2014: The European Court of Human Rights delivers landmark judgments in the Abu Zubaydah and Al Nashiri cases, finding that Poland was complicit in "CIA rendition, secret detention and interrogation operations on its territory" and that, by enabling the CIA to detain the applicants, it was exposing them to a serious risk of torture. After an appeal by the government is turned down on 16 February 2015, the rulings become final. The Court orders Poland to pay Zubaydah and Al Nashiri 100,000 euros each in damages.

3 December 2013: The European Court of Human Rights holds a joint Chamber hearing in the Abu Zubaydah and Al Nashiri cases against Poland, listening to submissions from all parties, and posts the video online. It also holds a confidential hearing with the parties the day before the public hearing.

10 October 2013: The European Parliament, in a fresh resolution, deeply deplores the failures to respond to its earlier demands, and renews the call for proper investigations in Lithuania, Romania and Poland. It suggests the “climate of impunity” surrounding the CIA’s rendition programme may have enabled the mass surveillance by the NSA, recently revealed.

9 July 2013: In addition to his case against Lithuania, Mr Zubaydah also brings a case before the Strasbourg Court against Poland, similar to the case already brought by Mr Al Nashiri.

14 December 2012: The European Court of Human Rights formally invites the Lithuanian Government to comment on the case of Abu Zubaydah v. Lithuania. Mr Zubaydah says he was illegally held and ill-treated in a secret prison in Lithuania run by the CIA.

13 December 2012: The European Court of Human Rights issues its first judgment in a case involving secret prisons on European soil when its Grand Chamber finds “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” in violation of the Convention for its part in the torture and rendition of German car-salesman Khaled El-Masri. The ruling is greeted by some media as a landmark judgment.

18 September 2012: The Strasbourg Court formally invites the Romanian Government to comment on the case of Al Nashiri v. Romania. Mr Al Nashiri – who also brought the earlier case against Poland – alleges Romania knowingly and intentionally enabled the CIA to detain him and has refused to date to properly acknowledge or investigate any wrongdoing.

11 September 2012: PACE President Jean-Claude Mignon welcomes the latest European Parliament resolution, adopted on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which calls on Lithuania, Poland and Romania to open or resume independent investigations into allegations that they colluded with the CIA to hold and interrogate terrorist suspects in secret prisons. National investigations so far have been “painfully inadequate”, he points out, but the process of accountability continues.

10 July 2012: The European Court of Human Rights formally invites the Polish Government to comment on the case of Al Nashiri v. Poland. Mr Al Nashiri, suspected of terrorist acts and now in Guantanamo, says he was tortured in Poland while in US custody following rendition, and that Poland “knowingly and intentionally” enabled his secret detention.

16 May 2012: The European Court of Human Rights holds its first hearing on a rendition-related case, in the El-Masri case, and posts the video online. This case is heard before the Grand Chamber, an indication of its significance.

8 December 2011: Reacting to reported confirmation of a secret CIA prison in Romania, Dick Marty says: “Five years ago we put forward substantial elements of proof of a secret CIA prison in Romania. There have been years of official denials since then. But the ‘dynamic of truth’ has run its course [...]. Those responsible for the crimes committed – and their cover-up – should now be held to account in a court of law.”

24 November 2011: Reporting on a September 2010 visit to Romania, the Council of Europe’s Anti- Torture Committee (CPT) questions the absence of a judicial inquiry into the allegations of a secret CIA prison in the country. In their response, the Romanian authorities repeat that there is no evidence of this, and that – in the absence of proof – for them the subject is closed.

22 November 2011: The European Court of Human Rights formally invites the Italian Government to comment on the case of Nasr and Ghali v. Italy, and asks the parties to answer a number of questions. Egyptian imam Abu Omar alleges he was kidnapped in Rome and transferred to Egypt with Italian involvement, and then detained in secret for several months in inhuman conditions.

6 October 2011: In his last report for PACE, Dick Marty evaluates the various judicial or parliamentary inquiries launched after his reports five years ago named European governments which had hosted CIA secret prisons or colluded in rendition and torture. Overall, he concludes that unjustified resort to the doctrine of “state secrets” is still too often shielding secret services from scrutiny of involvement in human rights violations.

5 September  2011: In two comments marking the tenth anniversary of the  9/11 attacks – addressing, in turn, renditions and secret detentions – Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg echoes Dick Marty's repeated calls for accountability on the part of European governments.

19 May 2011: Reporting on a June 2010 visit to Lithuania, the Council of Europe’s Anti-Torture Committee (CPT) questions both the promptness and thoroughness of the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s pre-trial investigation into abuse of office, then under way. In their response, the Lithuanian authorities report that “no objective data concerning the fact of abuse (or another criminal act) were collected during the pre-trial investigation” and therefore no charges will be brought.

28 September 2010: The European Court of Human Rights becomes involved in the first specific case involving rendition and secret prisons when it communicates the case of El-Masri v. “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” to the authorities, and asks the parties to answer a number of questions. Mr El-Masri, apparently mistaken by the CIA for another man of the same name, was kidnapped and interrogated in a Skopje hotel for 23 days before being transferred to US agents.

21 August 2009: Reacting to a news report that Lithuania was the site of a third secret CIA prison in Europe, Dick Marty says his own sources seem to confirm this information, and calls for "a full, independent and credible investigation" into what occurred on the outskirts of Vilnius: "Denial and evasion are no longer credible," he says.

6 November 2008: Testifying at the Milan trial of CIA and Italian secret service agents accused of kidnapping Abu Omar, Dick Marty says this is one of the few cases involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program to come to court. The invocation of 'state secrets' by the Italian government must not - as in other judicial or parliamentary procedures in the US and Germany - be allowed to block the trial: "Let justice take its course!" he declares.

23 April 2008: PACE member and former German Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin puts a written question to the Council of Europe's ministerial body over its "disappointing" reactions to the Assembly's conclusions that torture may have taken place in CIA secret prisons operating on European soil, as well as the Secretary General's proposals to ensure that the prohibition on torture in the European Convention on Human Rights is fully upheld in the future. In its reply, the Committee of Ministers reiterates governments' obligations under the Convention to "prevent human rights violations and, if they have occurred, to carry out independent and impartial investigations and to bring to justice those responsible for serious violations".

4 April 2008: In a statement, Dick Marty criticises the Committee of Ministers for its response and accuses European governments of "hypocrisy" for continuing to deny their involvement in secret detentions and illegal renditions, unless forced to do so. "The United States made a choice - which I think was a wrong choice - to fight the war on terror using illegal means, but they at least made it openly and defend it," he points out.

22 February 2008: In a statement, Dick Marty welcomes the revelation of the truth on the CIA's use of Britain's Diego Garcia airbase, mentioned in his 2007 report. "Truth is on the march," he declares.

16 January 2008: In a reply, the Committee of Ministers – representing the 47 Council of Europe governments – says only that it will “carefully consider” the Secretary General’s proposals to control the activities of foreign intelligence services in Europe, noting that they “reached deeply into sensitive areas of national security, law and practice”. To date, it has not yet implemented any of these proposals.

27 June 2007: The plenary Assembly – bringing together over 300 legislators from 47 European countries – debates Mr Marty's second report, backs its conclusions and, in a resolution and a recommendation to governments, urges better oversight of foreign intelligence services operating in Europe. The use of “state secrecy” laws to protect wrongful acts by secret services should be limited, the parliamentarians say.

8 June 2007: Presenting a second report and addendum at a packed press conference in Paris following several months of additional inquiry, Swiss Senator Dick Marty reveals evidence that US “high-value detainees”, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were held in secret CIA prisons in Poland and Romania. Based on extensive, cross-referenced testimony from serving and former intelligence agents, he also alleges a series of partly secret decisions among NATO allies in 2001 which enabled the CIA to carry out illegal activities in Europe.

14 February 2007: In a report, the European Parliament comes to similar conclusions to Mr Marty, saying EU countries “turned  a blind  eye” to extraordinary renditions across their territory and airspace.

6 September 2006: The Committee of Ministers – representing the 47 governments of the Council of Europe – decides only to “take note” of the Secretary General’s proposals for greater control over the activities of security services operating in Europe, declining any immediate follow-up. The decision comes on the very same day that US President George Bush admits the existence of secret CIA prisons. On the other hand, PACE President René van der Linden reacts by declaring that kidnapping people and torturing them in secret “is what criminals do, not democratic governments”. Such activities will not make citizens safer in the long run, he says. The admission is a vindication of Senator Marty’s work, he adds.

30 June 2006: Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis makes concrete proposals to European governments for ways to control the activities of foreign intelligence services in Europe, reviewing state immunity, and making better use of existing controls on over-flights, including requiring landing and search of civil flights engaged in state functions.

27 June 2006: The Assembly debates Mr Marty's first report at its summer plenary session and - in a resolution - calls for the dismantling of the system of secret prisons, greater oversight of foreign intelligence services operating in Europe and a common strategy for fighting terrorism which does not undermine human rights. In a separate recommendation to Council of Europe governments, it urges them to work with the US to develop a "common, truly global strategy to address the terrorist threat" that is in line with shared human rights principles.

21 June 2006: The Council of Europe's ministerial body, the Committee of Ministers, chooses this moment to reply to an earlier Assembly recommendation on "democratic oversight of the security sector in member states". It transmits an opinion from the Council’s legal expert body, the Venice Commission, which sets out “the principles which should inspire governments in respect of intelligence services” and which recommends a comparative analysis of how the 47 member states oversee their intelligence services.

14 June 2006: Analysing a second round of replies from governments to his inquiry, Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis concludes in a supplementary report that laws to protect Europeans against human rights violations by foreign intelligence agents are “the exception rather than the rule”. Confirming his earlier conclusions, he says current controls on civil air traffic are inadequate, while State aircraft in transit are rarely checked.

7 June 2006: Presenting his first report, Dick Marty says he has exposed a global "spider's web" of illegal US detentions and transfers, and alleges collusion in this system by 14 Council of Europe member states, 7 of whom may have violated the rights of named individuals.

17 March 2006: In an opinion, legal experts from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission say that, under the European Convention on Human Rights and other international laws, member states should refuse to allow transit of prisoners where there is a risk of torture. If this is suspected, they should search civil planes or refuse overflight to state planes.

28 February 2006: Analysing governments' replies to a separate inquiry using powers under the European Convention on Human Rights, Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis says Europe appears to be "a happy hunting-ground for foreign security services". Presenting a first report, he says that the rules governing activities of secret services – especially foreign ones – appear inadequate in many member states, and that current air traffic regulations do not safeguard against abuse. Immunity for foreign agents who commit crimes in Europe should not extend to serious human rights violations.

24 January 2006: PACE's Dick Marty, presenting an interim assessment, declares it is "highly unlikely" that European governments - or at least their intelligence services - were unaware of secret renditions affecting Europe. He says a great deal of coherent, convergent evidence points to the existence of a system of "outsourcing" of torture. He also welcomes the arrival of detailed information he had requested from Eurocontrol, Europe's air traffic management agency, and the EU's Satellite Agency.

7 November 2005: Following reports in the Washington Post and other US media, and a motion from some of its members, the Parliamentary Assembly appoints Senator Dick Marty, a Swiss former prosecutor, to conduct a parliamentary inquiry into "alleged secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states". PACE President René van der Linden declares: “This issue goes to the very heart of the Council of Europe’s human rights mandate.”

Other relevant Assembly documents: