Striking village building thought to have been secret CIA prison


LITHUANIA LETTER:Just 20km from Vilnius, suspicions of a special building for al-Qaeda interrogations by the US have led Amnesty to request more inquiries, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

WHERE THE village of Antaviliai meets the snowy Lithuanian forest stands a striking building, a wedge of grey brick and red timber with a very strange history.

It is remarkable not for being sinister, but for being modern and pristine – ringed by a gleaming metal fence and strafed by security cameras – in a village where many houses are crumbling due to lack of attention since Lithuania broke from the Soviet Union in March 1990.

The building on Antaviliu Street has not wanted for attention either – from the US workers who allegedly turned it into a secret CIA jail for interrogating al-Qaeda suspects, or from investigators who believe it was part of a global network of clandestine “black sites”.

Attention fell on this village 20km outside the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, when US media revealed a former riding school had been bought in March 2004 – the month Lithuania and six other central European countries joined Nato – by Washington-registered firm Elite LLC, allegedly a front company for the CIA.

Locals remembered English-speaking workers doing major construction here, creating what one Lithuanian government source described to US television as a “building within a building” in the enclosed riding area and barn behind the main house.

This was where as many as eight senior al-Qaeda suspects were allegedly detained and interrogated for more than a year after September 2004. During that time, aircraft linked to the CIA flew several times from Afghanistan to Vilnius.

The suspected secret jail at Antaviliai was shut down in late 2005, after Romania and Poland were accused of hosting similar facilities, and CIA-run planes were shown to have made hundreds of flights through Europe on covert missions, possibly carrying terror suspects.

Former US president George W Bush admitted in 2006 that the CIA had held top terror suspects in jails on foreign soil but failed to disclose where they were or how they operated. He and his allies insisted that such facilities gleaned information that helped prevent terror attacks.

Poland and Romania have refused to admit involvement in the US “extraordinary rendition” programme, under which suspected militants were abducted and moved from one country to another for interrogation without judicial oversight.

Lithuania’s parliamentary inquiry, however, declared that two secret prisons had been built in the country. One – believed to be Antaviliai – was designed and run in such a way as to allow “actions by officers of the partners without the control of and use of the infrastructure at their discretion”. In other words, parts of the facility could be operated solely by Lithuania’s “partners” – US agents.

Sceptics found it hard to swallow two of the inquiry’s conclusions, however: that it had been impossible to establish whether prisoners were actually held in Lithuania; and that the country’s leaders had not known about the sites.

President Dalia Grybauskaite, a prime mover behind the inquiry, said the issue was a key test for a political elite used to making key decisions without public scrutiny.

“From our side I think this is at an end,” she told The Irish Times.“If there is additional information that can only come from the United States then that is another matter.” That is not enough to satisfy human rights groups in Lithuania and abroad.

“Confirmation of the existence of a secret prison in Lithuania marks a modern low point for human rights protection in Europe,” said Julia Hall of Amnesty International. “But the Lithuanian inquiry signals a turning point in the quest for the truth about what role European states played in helping the USA in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001, attacks. Other European governments should take note and commit to full investigations of similar serious allegations. The investigation in Lithuania should continue and those persons responsible for any involvement in the secret site must be identified and prosecuted.”

That seems unlikely to happen. Only the head of Lithuania’s domestic intelligence service resigned over the issue and, on the international stage, opposition from Islamic states, African nations and Russia forced UN experts to postpone a planned discussion of their comprehensive and damning report on secret detention at this month’s meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.

And all is quiet again in Antaviliai, where the former riding school, and alleged secret CIA jail, is now owned by the Lithuanian state and serves as a training academy for its security services. “I knew nothing about the ‘prison’ and couldn’t believe it when I heard,” said one local man. “I don’t know what to think – but I haven’t seen any sign of bin Laden around here.”