How a CIA prison was hushed up a stone's throw from Vilnius

  • 2024-06-18
  • Lucas Bolt

It is the topic that Lithuania, a beautiful and democratic Baltic country, wishes had never made any headline. A prison operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States of America clandestinely in Antaviliai, a stone’s throw from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, is a disgrace and embarrassment. However, the Baltic country has assumed the posture of denial throughout, yet, after rulings by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) agreed to pay hefty compensations for two inmates allegedly kept in the CIA’s secret site near Vilnius. 

What does it take to keep mouth shut?

“I cannot rule out that we will see more inmates from the CIA prison in Lithuania, as well as those kept in the similar facilities in Poland and Romania, lodging their complaints against the respective countries with the ECHR. So far, no government has ever won litigation of the kind,” Julia Hall, Expert on counter-terrorism and human rights in Europe at Amnesty International, an international human rights organization, told The Baltic Times Magazine.

Remigijus Zemaitaitis, an ex-Member of the Lithuanian Parliament Seimas, who pulled out a stunt in the presidential election in May notching up a whopping 9.21 percent of the votes ending up 4th in the race, admitted to The Baltic Times Magazine that he knows a man well who was among the people who built the CIA prison and provided it maintenance and surveillance. 

“Afterwards, he was given an extremely well-paid job with vast social guarantees to hold his tongue,” R. Zemaitaitis said.

Lithuania paid 260 thousand in compensations already

As a reminder, in January, 2024, the ECHR awarded 100,000 euros to Saudi national Mustafa al-Hawsawi for his unlawful detention two decades ago at a suspected secret facility in Lithuania run by the CIA. His lawyer was rewarded 30,000 euro from the Lithuanian coffers. Reportedly, Al-Hawsawi had been held in the ill-famed Guantanamo Bay. 

This was the second case before the Strasbourg Court concerning the alleged CIA prison in Lithuania. In 2018, the ECHR found that the CIA had secretly held Abu Zubaydah, another Saudi national, in Lithuania. The ECHR also awarded him 100,000 euros from Lithuania as the compensation and 30,000 euro for his attorney.

Horrible CIA torture methods 

His lawyers submitted to ECHR that the CIA interrogators, among other things, chained  Zubaydah to a chair for a period of weeks; slammed him by the neck into concrete walls; forced him into a small black box for two hours and in a somewhat larger black box for up to eighteen hours; hung him naked from the ceiling; and kept him awake for eleven consecutive days, spraying him with cold water if he fell asleep; blasted rock music at him at top volume; stripped him naked; made his room so cold that he turned blue; denied him pain medication for his injuries; subjected him to “waterboarding” simulated drowning, doing so eighty-three times in one month.

US President Bush has acknowledged in his memoir that, acting on the advice of lawyers and others, he had personally authorised the CIA to use waterboarding or simulated drowning on Abu Zubaydah, a practice condemned by all human rights groups.

Even President Barrack Obama admitted that torture techniques have been used in CIA-operated facilities. Although Obama vowed to close the US’s Guantanamo Bay detention centre, which Amnesty International calls a “a symbol of torture”, it has not been done yet.

A third CIA-prison-related ECHR case against Lithuania

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has recently taken up a third case against Lithuania over the alleged operation of the US CIA prison in the country and the human rights violations committed there.

The Lithuanian government has received a petition from Abd Al Rahim Hussein Al Nashiri, a Saudi national, complaining of torture, deprivation of liberty, and restrictions on his privacy and family life, when he was transferred to the secret CIA facility in Lithuania.

CIA expected Lithuania’s unhesitant approval and got it

“It is very possible that Lithuania will see more inmates from the CIA prison in Lithuania coming forward and filing cases with the ECHR for compensations,” J. Hall underscored to The Baltic Times Magazine.

She insists the existence of the CIA prisons in Lithuania, Poland and Romania is “an established undeniable fact”, thence the governments’ hefty payments for the CIA prisoners.

“The CIA secret sites required the US allies’ support in many ways, including logistics, funding, allegiance and so on, and they provided all of that knowingly. Notably, the CIA chose emerging democracies (Lithuania, Poland and Romania – TBT) for operation of such facilities, expecting their unhesitant approval. It is sad that the countries’ governments went into a denial mode or insisted that only the American government knew of the full dimensions of what occurred on their soil – about torturing, too, which is just incredible,” J. Hall emphasised.

Lithuanian government was notified

Neil Connolly, Press Officer of the ECHR, opted out of providing more details about the CIA prison for The Baltic Times Magazine and referred to the detailed publicly available cases of al-Hawsawi and Zubaydah. He also added he can confirm that the Lithuanian government was notified of the cases and were able to make submissions.

As early as late 2009, ABC News broke a story that the CIA operated a black site in Lithuania where it transported several  alleged suspects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

A 2014 US Senate report also mentioned “Site Violet” which operated in 2005-2006. Although the redacted report does not situate the prison in Lithuania, human rights organisations believe that “Site Violet” operated in Antaviliai near Vilnius in a State Security Department (VSD) training centre.

The Lithuanian government has vehemently denied that the Antaviliai facility was used by the CIA to detain people. It argued at the ECHR that the facility was used for intelligence activities, while suspicious flights from the US carried communications equipment, not people.

The pretrial investigation lasts nearly 15 years

Lithuanian prosecutors opened their investigation into the suspected CIA prison back in 2010, but closed it a year later.

“The pre-trial investigation is still ongoing. It has been terminated and renewed several times throughout the year. It is tasked with establishing the fact whether such a prison existed or not,” Elena Martinoniene, head of the Communications Department of Lithuania’s Prosecutor General's Office, told The Baltic Times Magazine.

In a written reply, the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice told The Baltic Times Magazine that the Ministry of Justice did not appeal the ECHR's decision in the first case, Abu Zubaydah versus Lithuania, and does not plan to appeal the decision in the second case, Al-Hawsawi versus Lithuania. 

“Currently, law enforcement authorities are conducting a pre-trial investigation (it has been ongoing, off and on, for over 15 years now – TBT), the results of which are awaited. Without these conclusions, the ministry does not have sufficient and objective data or evidence to challenge the conclusions of the ECHR. There are similar cases against other states. Poland and Romania and their experience, for example, Husayn v. Poland, Al-Hawsawi versus Poland, Al-Nashiri versus Poland, Al-Nashiri versus Poland, were evaluated. It is important to note that the ECHR process and the evidentiary standards it applies are different from, for example, national court processes. In these cases, the ECHR draws conclusions based on the findings of the US parliamentary investigation, encrypted certificates and the insights of some experts,” the ministry’s reply says.

There were several CIA prisons?

Dainius Kepenis, a Member of Lithuanian Parliament Seimas, and deputy chair of the parliamentary Committee on Human rights, pondered to The Baltic Times Magazine that several other CIA prisons, not only the one in Antaviliai, may have operated in Lithuania.

“This is what was mentioned behind tightly closed doors,” the MP revealed, adding: “However, I cannot corroborate if it is the case.”

“The whole truth still needs to be found out, but the fragments of it that we saw make me sad – are we not living in a free democratic country? Obviously, telling the whole truth, we would risk ending in the crosshair of America, our key ally – perhaps the main reason why our authorities chose to cover it up, but the freedom we’ve fought hard for is much more important,” D. Kepenis said.

Another possibly CIA-related case – Psychic C?

In another possibly CIA-related case, it is rumoured, that the CIA has been for years spying on a Lithuanian man, dubbed by the agency “a theological man”, also known as Crippler, Psychic C, God’s chosen man, via radio waves in Lithuania, allegedly, in a terrorising way, inflicting him emotional, psychological and physiological distress. The authenticity of the person and the allegation, however, could not be verified by the author of the article.

“I’ve heard about that. It has emerged in various formats, and most recently, when the topic of the CIA prison was brought up. I’m not sure if we are speaking about the same person though. Just imagining that a Lithuanian citizen, an EU citizen, could be subject to such treatment, grossly violating human rights, makes me feel sick. But knowing how low our authorities can bow down to the country (America – TBT), it would not be a surprise, if this were true,” R. Zemaitaitis said.

Russian media says the man, who, reportedly, has long lived in the United States, is the “product” of the American intelligence, while some, taking the matter more seriously, ponder that he may have prophesied a weak and godless America and the West.

“What if the CIA is trying to muddle through an Antichrist that way? Did the CIA interrogate God on his plans? Did the CIA handcuff God or cajole him, get him high or low in attempting to get a glimpse in his Majesty’s plan? What if America itself has fallen out of God’s grace? Why is the CIA not admitting its blunder and is persecuting an innocent man?" faith-related persons say. The Lithuanian is said to be a man of big faith who enjoys his quiet life in Lithuania, a beautiful Baltic country.

A former VSD head: “I really knew nothing!”

Yet, going back to the main topic, how could the CIA prison in Lithuania operate so clandestinely?  

Lithuania’s VSD, the State Security Department, like the country’s government, has been in the denial mode, too. A former VSD head, who agreed to speak with The Baltic Times Magazine anonymously, said he knew “absolutely nothing” about the CIA prison.

“I cannot rule out that the VSD was bypassed in the matter. There are other state intelligence units capable of arranging things,” he said, expressing a caveat that such an article shows Lithuania and its biggest ally, the US, in a “bad light.”

It is akin to decision to classify information about KGB collaborators

Calling the CIA prison a “disgrace”, political scientist Kestutis Girnius of American descent has called Lithuania's conduct “shameful.”

“Lithuania has brought disgrace upon itself because it lacked the dignity to reject the CIA's demands. It is notable that these prisons were in Eastern – and not in Western – European countries, because the CIA didn't dare ask the developed democracies to comply with such wishes. Lithuania must finally clear up this affair,” he has said.

Yet R. Zemaitaitis doubts if the truth about the CIA prison (s) will be ever found out.

“Our top leaders are deeply wary and aware of the political context – not to exasperate the United States, which, until now, prevented us from knowing the truth…For a free democratic country like Lithuania, to act servilely and bury its head in the sand, pretending that nothing bad happened, is shameful. To me, it is akin to Lithuania’s decision to classify information about KGB (Soviet Intelligence) collaborators, among whom can be very high-profile persons of an independent post-1990 Lithuania, for 75 years,” R. Zemaitaitis said.