Saudi 9/11 suspect treated inhumanly at secret CIA base in Europe, court says

European judges rule Lithuania breached human rights laws over detention of Mustafa Ahmed Al Hawsawi

A courtroom sketch of Mustafa Ahmed Al Hawsawi during a 2012 hearing at Guantanamo Bay. Getty Images
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An alleged 9/11 plotter from Saudi Arabia faced “inhuman treatment” at a secret CIA base in Europe, a court has ruled.

Mustafa Ahmed Al Hawsawi was blindfolded, shackled and kept in solitary confinement in Lithuania, before being deported to the US military base at Guantanamo Bay in 2006, European judges heard.

Evidence gathered by the European Court of Human Rights revealed Lithuania was home to a CIA prison code-named Detention Site Violet, the location of which had been classified in US intelligence documents.

A seven-judge panel on Tuesday said Lithuania had breached a series of European human rights laws.

The court said Lithuania, a US ally which joined Nato in 2004, “had to have known” of the nature of CIA activities on its territory and failed to investigate claims of degrading treatment.

Mr Al Hawsawi remains in Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial by a US military commission, along with four other suspects – including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Prosecutors allege Mr Al Hawsawi acted on his instructions to help the hijackers travel to the US before they attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, killing almost 3,000 people.

Previously a part of Al Qaeda’s propaganda team, he used false names such as Hashim Abdourahman to wire money to the plotters before emptying his account on the day of the attack, a US indictment claims.

It says Mr Al Hawsawi received dozens of calls from the hijackers between July and September 2001, as they made their final preparations for the attack.

Mr Al Hawsawi subsequently met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, it is alleged, and was eventually traced to an Al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan where he was captured in 2003 with materials linked to the 9/11 plot.

He told lawyers he was transferred to Lithuania in 2005 and the court said it was “clear, based on all the material” that the Baltic country did indeed host a CIA prison.

Mr Al Hawsawi “had to have experienced blindfolding or hooding, solitary confinement, the continuous use of leg shackles, and exposure to noise and light”, which were standard CIA practice at the time, the court said.

While he may not have suffered the “harshest interrogation techniques” in Lithuania, he had previously been subject to “water dousing” and would have lived in “constant fear” of similarly cruel treatment, judges said.

Secret site

Detention Site Violet is believed to have operated between February 2005 and March 2006 at the height of the US-led “war on terror”, before it was closed due to a lack of medical provision.

At the time it was one of two overseas CIA bases holding a total of 28 “high-value detainees”, with a second known as Detention Site Orange widely reported to have been in Afghanistan.

Mr Al Hawsawi needed medical treatment while in Lithuania, but authorities refused to admit him to a local hospital. He was transferred to Afghanistan, then eventually to the US base in Guantanamo Bay, on the coast of Cuba.

His “extremely harsh” detention amounted to inhuman treatment that the Lithuanian authorities “enabled by co-operating with the CIA”, the court ruled in a finding against the EU member state.

The judges said Lithuania had breached a series of European human rights laws – including by allowing Mr Al Hawsawi’s transfer to the US where he could face the death penalty.

“The rationale behind the CIA secret detainee programme had been specifically to remove terrorist suspects from any legal protection against torture and enforced disappearance,” the court said.

“The whole scheme had to operate in absolute secrecy outside the jurisdiction of the US courts and in co-operation with the host countries.”

Judges told Lithuania to pay €100,000 ($108,890) to Mr Al Hawsawi and pursue criminal inquiries against those responsible for his detention and transport.

Mr Al Hawsawi awaits trial at Guantanamo Bay on charges including terrorism, conspiracy, hijacking and attacking civilians.

The indictment describes Mr Mohammed as the “operational leader” of the 9/11 plot and a close associate of bin Laden, along with Walid bin Attash, who allegedly carried out reconnaissance on aircraft security.

Prosecutors allege a fellow defendant, Ramzi Bin Al Shibh, had hoped to pilot one of the hijacked planes but was denied a US visa and instead helped to manage the plot.

The fifth defendant, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, is accused of helping to finance the hijackers and was allegedly involved in the failed “shoe bomb” plot of December 2001.

Updated: January 16, 2024, 2:33 PM