Preview:  Lithuania to Face Questioning by UN Committee against Torture about “Black Sites”

On Monday, the UN Committee against Torture (“the Committee” or “the CAT Committee”) will review Lithuania’s third periodic report on its compliance with the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. High on the agenda will be questions about Lithuania’s role in the U.S. secret detention and rendition program and the steps it has taken to investigate potential crimes committed by Lithuanian officials.

Lithuania’s participation in the CIA program was exposed by the media in 2009, when a series of articles revealed that one or more facilities had been used by the CIA to house terrorism suspects on Lithuanian soil in 2004 and 2005. ABC News reported that one of the facilities was on the grounds of an elite equestrian academy. After the revelations, the Lithuanian Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defense opened an investigation into the existence of “black sites” on the country’s territory, but closed it a few months later, having found that the conditions for unlawful transfer of detainees existed but not finding conclusive evidence that such prisoners were in fact transferred or detained in Lithuania. The Committee nonetheless recommended that the Prosecutor General open a criminal investigation into possible abuse of power of Lithuanian officials in connection with the CIA program, and in early 2010 an investigation was opened.

In 2010, a UN study on secret detention stated that flight data and other evidence “appear to confirm” Lithuania’s role in the CIA program, and Reprieve made public allegations that Abu Zubaydah had been held in Lithuania. Despite these developments, the criminal investigation was closed in 2011 without bringing any charges. In October 2011, Interights filed a case on behalf of Abu Zubaydah against Lithuania at the European Court of Human Rights, though Zubaydah cannot participate in this case due to the restrictions on his communications at Guantánamo. In 2013, Redress and HRMI filed a complaint with the Lithuanian prosecutor on behalf of another “high-value detainee,” Mustafa a-Hawsawi, seeking an investigation into the abuses he says he experienced in Lithuania. After first refusing to open an investigation, the prosecutor was ordered to do so by a court in Vilnius. The investigation got underway in February 2014.

In its list of issues that will form the basis for the Committee’s review of Lithuania’s performance under the Torture Convention, the Committee asked Lithuania to report on the status of its investigations into Lithuanian officials’ role in the CIA program:

Please provide information on the status of investigations opened on 5 November 2009 by the Seimas National Security and Defense Committee into the role played by the country in this type of secret programme. Please provide information on any investigations, prosecution, conviction and sentencing of Lithuanian officials having worked with the CIA who may have broken applicable Lithuanian laws relating to lawless detention, assault, torture and, possibly, war crimes.

These questions focus on Article 2 of the Convention, which requires states to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction,” clarifying that “[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture,” and that an “order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.” These provisions are relevant since the CIA program entailed torture that was largely justified on the basis of national security.

In relation to Article 3, which sets out the non-refoulement norm—the rule that a state may not transfer individuals to countries where they are at risk of torture—the following questions were posed:

According to the information before the Committee, the investigation by the Seimas Committee on National Security and Defense concluded that Lithuanian officials cooperated in the construction of a CIA secret prison in Lithuania during the United States-led “war on terror”, in which up to eight terrorist suspects were held and questioned by the CIA in 2004 and 2005 in a detention facility in Antaviliai, near Vilnius. According to the joint study, the findings of the Seimas Committee “can in no way constitute the final word on the country’s role” (A/HRC/13/42, para. 122). Would the Lithuanian authorities be in a position to confirm these reports? If so, please provide information on the outcome of those investigations. Also, according to information before the Committee, the Seimas Committee on National Security and Defense concluded that CIA aircraft had landed without border checks and that security officials had failed to notify the President and Prime Minister, in violation of domestic law. Please provide information on the outcome of investigations in this connection, including on a direct flight on 20 September 2004 from Bagram Airbase near Kabul, Afghanistan, to Vilnius and a flight on 28 July 2005 from Kabul to Vilnius (A/HRC/13/42, para. 120), and on the results of any investigation regarding the submission of false flight plans and destinations to European aviation authorities.

These questions demonstrate the extent of the evidence on the record and underscore the fact that Article 3 of the Convention makes informal transfer in the context of the CIA’s secret detention and rendition program unlawful.

By including such extensive detail in their questions, the Committee may be able to penetrate Lithuania’s unsatisfactory answers to similar questions posed by European human rights bodies. In a joint submission to the Committee, Amnesty International, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, Interights, Redress, and Reprieve have recommended in-depth questions the Committee can use to probe Lithuania’s answers. Tune in on Monday for the live webcast at 10 am Geneva time. 

About the Author(s)

Meg Satterthwaite

Professor of Clinical Law at New York University School of Law, Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Director of the Global Justice Clinic Follow her on Twitter (@SatterthwaiteML).