VILNIUS - A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Lithuania. Lithuanians are haunted by the ghost of the alleged CIA prison for al Qaeda members. Those passions over the prison were fueled by statements by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
On Oct. 15, Grybauskaite rejected the idea of taking prisoners from Guantanamo. "There will be no decision on this issue until the shadow of the alleged CIA prison [for al Qaeda suspects] remains over Lithuania because it would be an additional risk for Lithuania," Grybauskaite said at her briefing.
On the same day, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas, talking to Lithuanian public TV on the phone from Afghanistan, expressed a different view. "We need to respond to the request of the Obama administration," Usackas said suggesting that Lithuania can take one Guantanamo prisoner. Talking about the alleged CIA prison, he said that facts, not shadows, should be important. Usackas emphasized that there are no facts about the alleged existence of a CIA prison in Lithuania.
Usackas was considered to be the most powerful potential rival of Grybauskaite during the last presidential election. Then he decided not to run, while taking into account his love for public relations; he could decide to run during the next presidential election, according to political analysts. This fact makes relations between Grybauskaite and Usackas quite ambiguous. In Lithuania, presidents are elected in a nation-wide election, not by parliament as in Estonia and Latvia, and it requires the constant wish of politicians to be loved by their nation. On Oct. 20, celebrating her 100 days in office and enjoying an all-time-record-high 90 percent positive approval rating in social surveys, Grybauskaite decided to make it clear that she is right about the prison issue.
She spoke a lot about the alleged CIA prison during her press conference in the presidential palace. Grybauskaite used an interesting linguistic formula. "The West has no doubts that the prison could be in Lithuania," she said. While "no doubts" sounds gloomy, "could be" somehow smoothes her words. Grybauskaite said that she has "indirect suspicions" about the alleged prison.
"If this is true, Lithuania has to clean up, accept responsibility, apologize, and promise that it will never happen again. We cannot place Lithuania in a position, for whatever interests, where it may become a target for international terrorists. Therefore, both Lithuania and the United States must provide answers to these questions," Grybauskaite said emphasizing that she worked in the European Commission in Brussels, not Lithuania, when the alleged CIA prison could have functioned in Lithuania.
On the same day after her press conference, during her meeting with Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Grybauskaite said that Lithuania is ready to actively cooperate with the Council of Europe in the search for an answer to the allegations that it had hosted a secret U.S. detention center for terror suspects.
"The issue is extremely serious. We know torture was committed in these centers. There is enough basis for a very serious investigation. I haven't seen information which makes me convinced that absolutely, without doubt, it was in Lithuania," Hammarberg said at his press conference after the meeting.
In August, U.S. TV station ABC News, citing unnamed ex-CIA officials, claimed Lithuania hosted a prison for "high-value" al Qaeda suspects, near Vilnius, from Sept. 2004 through Nov. 2005.
Immediately after Grybauskaite's press conference, on Oct. 21, ABC News wrote another article on its site mentioning the press conference by the Lithuanian president.
"The Lithuanian prison was the last 'black' site opened in Europe, after the CIA's secret prison in Poland was closed down in late 2003. In Sept. 2004, European and American flight records examined by ABC News reveal CIA-contracted flights directly from Afghanistan to Lithuania. On Sept. 20th, 2004, a Boeing 707 with tail number N88ZL flew directly from Bagram Airbase to Vilnius. According to several former CIA officials, the flight carried an al Qaeda detainee, who was being moved from one CIA detention facility to another. Additionally, in July 2005, a CIA-chartered Gulfstream IV, tail number N63MU, flew direct from Kabul to Vilnius. Several former intelligence officials involved in the CIA's prison program confirmed the flight as a prisoner transfer to Lithuania. The Vilnius prison was closed, however, after news of other CIA prisons in Poland and Romania were reported in the press in Nov. 2005," wrote Matthew Cole, who was also the author of the first sensational article by ABC News on the alleged prison back in August, on the ABC News site.
Arvydas Anusauskas, MP of the now ruling Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats and chairman of the parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defense, said at a briefing that his committee has information about the flights mentioned in Cole's article. There is just one difference in his information - these planes were not landing in Lithuania, Anusauskas said. According to him, the first plane, mentioned by Cole, landed in Finland and the second plane landed in Poland.
Earlier, Anusauskas wrote to Cole asking him to give a source for the ABC News information, but Cole in his written answer refused to do so.
"The Lithuanian government denies all rumors and interpretations about the alleged secret prison that supposedly functioned on Lithuanian soil," Lithuania's Foreign Ministry replied in August.
Lithuania is a signatory to the United Nations' Convention Against Torture, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. The Lithuanian legal system prohibits torture, assault, and extrajudicial detention. From July 2001 until June 1 2006, Algirdas Brazauskas, patriarch of the Social Democrat Party, was Lithuania's prime minister. From July 2004 to July 2009, Valdas Adamkus was Lithuania's president. Both men are pensioners now. Both men categorically deny their country has ever hosted a CIA prison.
On Oct. 23, Lithuanian LNK TV showed a sensational report on its evening news. LNK TV announced that it found a former American-built (allegedly in 2004) and American-managed (until 2006) secret building some 20 kilometers from Vilnius. People living in the neighborhood were filmed with hidden cameras. They spoke of Americans constructing this building and managing it. They also said that no Lithuanian was allowed to enter the site until 2006, when they saw Gediminas Kirkilas, one of the Social Democrats' leaders and defense minister in 2004 - 2006 and prime minister in 2006 - 2008, at the site. LNK TV speculated that the building could be the secret CIA prison. Now the building, officially, is a riding hall with a residence and cafe under the control of the State Security Department. The latter did not confirm the speculation of LNK TV. Talking about the LNK TV report, Kirkilas said that there was no CIA prison in Lithuania.
The analysts are guessing about the never ending prison story, though nobody is rejecting the possibility of the prison's existence. The most popular guesses are as follows: domestic intrigues in Washington, Russia-initiated propaganda seeking to divide Lithuania and the U.S., unprofessional work by an ABC News journalist. Anyway, all analysts agree that it is a shame that Lithuania can not give a clear answer about the mysterious CIA prison issue.