WARSAW, Poland - Europe's top human rights court ruled Thursday that Poland violated the rights of two terror suspects by allowing the CIA to secretly imprison them on Polish soil from 2002-2003 and facilitating the conditions under which they were subjected to torture.
The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights marked the first time any court has passed judgment on the so-called "renditions program" that U.S. President George W. Bush launched after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Even though the rendition program has been abolished, lawyers for the suspects believe that the U.S. and other governments continue to operate in too much secrecy, using national security as a pretext for intrusive surveillance and other practices which violate individual liberties. They welcomed the ruling, hoping it will encourage limits on that kind of secrecy.
"Governments still engage in abusive practices and try to hide the facts," said Amrit Singh, a lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative who represented al-Nashiri before the European court. "The broad message from today's ruling is to end the impunity of national governments."
The court, based in Strasbourg, France, said Poland violated the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to stop the "torture and inhuman or degrading treatment" of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, who were transported to Poland in 2002.
It ordered Poland to pay 130,000 euros ($175,000) to Zubaydah, a Palestinian terror suspect, and 100,000 euros ($135,000) to al-Nashiri, a Saudi national charged with orchestrating the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
Both suspects are now imprisoned at Guantanamo.
Leszek Miller, the Polish prime minister at the time, slammed the court's decision as "unjust and immoral" and said it would be absurd for Poland to pay a fine to "murderers."
"It's unjust because it is based on rumours, speculation and slander. Material that Polish authorities sent to the court was rejected and not considered by the court," Miller said. "It's immoral because the tribunal put the rights of murderers above the rights of victims."
Asked if he knew at the time that the CIA was operating a site where it tortured suspects, he said: "I have said many times that such a prison did not exist and I have nothing more to say on the matter."
Poland's Foreign Ministry said it could not immediately comment because its legal experts still needed to examine the more than 400-page ruling. It also said it had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling to the Grand Chamber of the Court.
But the office of President Bronislaw Komorowski called the judgment "embarrassing" to Poland, and damaging both financially and to its image.
In a statement explaining its ruling, the court said the interrogations and ill-treatment of the suspects at the facility in Stare Kiekuty, a remote village in northern Poland, were "the exclusive responsibility of the CIA and it was unlikely that the Polish officials had witnessed or known exactly what happened inside the facility."
It argued, however, that Poland should have ensured that individuals held in its jurisdiction would not be subjected to degrading treatment. It also faulted Poland for failing to conduct an effective investigation into the matter.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski said the ruling was premature and that Poland should have been given the chance to make its own ruling first.
However, the human rights lawyers who brought the case to Strasbourg did so "after it became clear that Polish domestic investigations were turning into a coverup," said Reprieve, a U.K-based legal group that represented Zubaydah in the case.
Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this story.