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A C.I.A. Black Site Remains a Touchy Subject for Lithuania

WorldEuropeA C.I.A. Black Site Remains a Touchy Subject for Lithuania


First came containers loaded with equipment for a secluded property under renovation on the edge of the forest. It had housed a horseback riding academy and a cafe, but was being reconfigured for a mysterious enterprise.

Then muscular young men appeared, jogging through the trees at strange hours and speaking to one another in English.

Juozas Banevicius, who watched the comings and goings in the tiny settlement of Antaviliai, Lithuania, nearly 20 years ago, recalled thinking it a bit odd that the newcomers would shoo away anyone who came close to the security fence they had put up around their property, which was previously open to the public.

“Nobody knew what they were doing inside,” recalled Mr. Banevicius, 66.

The answer has been subjected to intense news media and judicial scrutiny in the years since. It has all pointed to the same conclusion: The village of Antaviliai was home to a secret C.I.A. detention and torture center, one of three so-called black sites that the agency set up in Eastern Europe after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In January, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a secret prison code-named Site Violet had “beyond reasonable doubt” been located in Lithuania. It did not name Antaviliai, which is near the capital, Vilnius, but the village is the only place in the country that Lithuanian officials have acknowledged as a site of a former C.I.A. facility — although they insist it was not a prison.

Site Violet featured in a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014 after an investigation on the C.I.A.’s use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” According to the report, the site operated from February 2005 until October 2006, when it closed because of unspecified “medical issues.”

The court ruling in January concluded that Lithuania had violated the European Convention on Human Rights “because of its complicity in the C.I.A. secret detainee program.”

Poland, which initially denied hosting a secret American jail known as Site Blue, acknowledged after the Senate investigation that it had let the C.I.A. hold terrorism suspects on its territory. The Polish president at the time, Aleksander Kwasniewski, insisted he was unaware of the harsh techniques used by American interrogators.

By contrast, multiple court cases and investigations have only reinforced in Lithuania a carapace of official secrecy — and displays of loyalty to the United States by a vulnerable Baltic country fearful of an increasingly aggressive Russia.

Lithuania’s well-documented complicity in C.I.A. torture, said Kestutis Girnius, a historian at Vilnius University, “is not something anyone here wants to talk about. They buried the whole issue at the start and have continued to bury it.”

A big reason for that, he said, was the dependence of his country, a NATO member sandwiched between Belarus and the heavily militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, on the United States for its security. But, he asked: “Do we really have to be so obsequious? When America says jump, we only ask, ‘How high?’”

Also exasperated is Egidijus Kuris, a Lithuanian judge on the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France. “The evidence that there was a prison is obvious. The evidence that there were people there is obvious. There’s no pretending here that it wasn’t,” he said after a ruling against his country in 2018. “And yet we still ask, ‘Do you think there was a prison?’”

Part of the explanation for this, he suggested, was that nobody in power wanted to dig into what happened to a portion of the millions of dollars provided by the C.I.A. to finance a secret prison in Lithuania that the country’s Parliament found was not properly accounted for. “Whoever pocketed the money in Lithuania must be identified,” Mr. Kuris said.

In 2009, when ABC News identified Antaviliai as a former C.I.A. black site, the Lithuanian Parliament formed a committee to investigate. It concluded that the country’s State Security Department, or V.S.D., had received money for unspecified “joint actions” and that its accounting had been “inappropriate.”

V.S.D. denied this, saying that it had “strictly” accounted for all funds and that “there were no millions leaked anywhere.”

The parliamentary investigation did not reach a conclusion on whether the secret prison had existed. While flight data and other circumstantial evidence indicated that detainees could have been brought into Lithuania secretly, it found, whether this had happened could not be determined.

The closest Lithuania has come to acknowledging that the C.I.A. ran a detention center on its territory was in 2009, when President Dalia Grybauskaite, who took office three years after the Americans had left, said she had “indirect suspicions” of a secret prison.

If those suspicions were true, she said, “Lithuania must cleanse itself, take responsibility and apologize.” It was also time, she added, for the United States “to give answers.”

Her comments dismayed the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania, which had been working successfully for years to keep the issue out of the public eye. It wrote in a cable that was later posted online by WikiLeaks that the president had “inexplicably given new life to an unsubstantiated story, reflecting a lack of political seasoning.”

“Rather than help quiet a story that does not reflect favorably on Lithuania, her comments instead have suggested that there may be a kernel of truth to the allegations,” the cable said.

Since then, officials have stayed silent. Talking about Site Violet would raise questions about the missing money and give material for propaganda to Russia, which delights in pointing out American sins while flaunting its own use of torture, as it did last month with the release of video footage showing the brutal treatment of suspects detained in connection with the terrorist attack near Moscow last month.

In its ruling in January, the European Court in Strasbourg ordered Lithuania to pay 100,000 euros, or about $108,000, to a Saudi citizen who judges determined had been held in the Baltic country. Lithuania’s Justice Ministry said last week that it would comply with the order, saying it was obliged to do so “regardless of whether it agrees or disagrees with the court’s reasoning.”

The European Court notified Lithuania in March that it had accepted a third case relating to Site Violet. This was brought by a suspected Qaeda terrorist, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is now detained in the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay and claims he was held and tortured for five months by the C.I.A. in Lithuania. He won previous cases against Poland and Romania for illegal detention in those countries.

The Justice Ministry said it planned to challenge the new claims and argue, as it has previously without success, “that all the evidence regarding the applicant’s detention in Lithuania is indirect and that the standards of proof should be different.”

Site Violet in Lithuania was shut down in late 2006 after local security officers, wary of attracting attention, refused to admit to a hospital a C.I.A. detainee, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who needed treatment for a medical emergency, according to the Senate report.

After the C.I.A. left, the property — free of potentially prying neighbors except for Mr. Banevicius and residents of a nearby old people’s home — was taken over for a time by the Lithuanian security service, which handed it over to the state property agency. That agency announced in 2022 that it would put the site — a long, two-story office and living area with a big barn attached at the back — up for auction.

It sits on what has become valuable real estate. Once empty land across a dirt road from the compound is now dotted with recently built homes for wealthy Lithuanians seeking country air and forest calm.

Instead of selling the site for redevelopment, however, the property agency decided last year to turn it over to Lithuania’s prison service for use as a training center.

Windows have been added to the barn, where, according to former detainees cited in European court rulings, prisoners were kept shackled in the dark and subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings and waterboarding.

A squall of complaints from Poland and other host countries meant that by 2006, the C.I.A. had been forced to close all but two of its eight black sites overseas — Site Violet and a second prison in an unnamed country, according to the Senate report, which redacted locations. It put the total number of prisoners at that time at 28.

Mr. Banevicius, the neighbor, who was working at the time for the utility company and saw how much water the former equestrian center consumed, said he never saw or heard any evidence of abuse of prisoners. But he always suspected there were more people in the building than the joggers and a handful of others he saw entering.

“They used a lot of water for so few people,” he recalled.

Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania.



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