Lithuania has paid more than $110,000 to Abu Zubaydah, the Guantánamo detainee known as the “forever prisoner”, in compensation for having allowed the CIA to hold him at a secret site outside Vilnius where he was subjected to forms of torture.
The €100,000 ($113,500) payment comes more than three years after the European court of human rights ordered the Lithuanian government to pay compensation for violating European laws banning the use of torture.
It marks a significant shift in the treatment of Zubaydah, who has been detained by the US without charge for more than 20 years.
Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan six months after 9/11. The CIA and lawyers for the Bush administration attempted to justify his torture by claiming he was a very senior figure in al-Qaida. It emerged that he was not a member of the organisation and he has never been charged with involvement in 9/11.
For much of the time since his arrest, Zubaydah has been held incommunicado, at the insistence of the CIA as part of its efforts to prevent details of his torture from becoming public.
Lawyers for Zubaydah believe it is highly unlikely that Lithuania would have made the compensation payment without approval from Washington.
“The situation is a lot less incommunicado when you pay €100,000 to someone and the whole world knows about it,” Mark Denbeaux, one of Zubaydah’s legal team based in the US, told the Guardian.
A photo provided by US Central Command shows Abu Zubaydah. Photograph: AP
“This move is consistent with the idea that the US is softening its position on the detention of the forever prisoners. The US could clearly have kept Lithuania from handing over this money and the question is, why didn’t they?”
News of the Lithuanian payment comes just days before the 20th anniversary of the military prison at Guantánamo, which received its first detainees on 11 January 2002. In recent months there have been other signs of a shifting attitude towards Zubaydah and the torture that was inflicted upon him by CIA agents and contractors.
In October, the US supreme court heard arguments in a case in which the US government is seeking to block two CIA contractors from testifying in Poland about torture Zubaydah suffered in 2002 and 2003 at a secret or “black” site in that country. In the course of the hearing, several of the justices, including conservatives, broke a legal taboo by openly using the word “torture”.
In Zubaydah’s case against Lithuania, which was led on the European side by his lawyer Helen Duffy, the European court of human rights heard that Zubaydah was held at a CIA black site in that country from February 2005 to March 2006. The site, codenamed Violet, was on the outskirts of Vilnius.
The most brutal forms of torture endured by Zubaydah occurred in 2002 when he was held at a CIA black site in Thailand. An entire program of torture, euphemistically referred to by the CIA as “enhanced interrogation techniques”, was devised for the prisoner by two psychologists under contract to the agency.
Zubaydah was waterboarded – a type of controlled drowning – at least 83 times in August 2002, as well as being placed in a coffin-sized box for days on end.
European judges heard that Zubaydah was unlikely to have suffered from the harshest forms of torture while in Lithuania. But he was subjected to techniques that still amounted to torture, lawyers argued, including sensory and sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, loud noise and harsh light.
The money transferred by Lithuania is now in a bank account. Zubaydah is unable to receive the sum given his detention in Guantánamo and because his assets have been frozen by the US treasury.
A similar freezing of his assets by the United Nations security council was reversed two years ago, after a petition by his lawyers.