By Christian Lowe and Pawel Sobczak
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland has given information to European judges investigating allegations that the United States held al Qaeda suspects in secret jails on Polish soil, the government said on Wednesday, potentially easing official secrecy surrounding the practice.
Rights activists say that after the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, the CIA used "black sites" in friendly countries including Poland to interrogate and sometimes torture suspected militants beyond the reach of normal legal protections. But the program's existence has never been officially acknowledged.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg had given the Polish government a deadline of September 5 to supply answers to a series of questions about whether the CIA operated secret jails in Poland and how much Polish officials knew about it.
The Polish foreign ministry's press office said in a statement sent to Reuters that it had "submitted its observation" to the court on the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national who has complained to the court that he was held illegally in a CIA jail in Poland.
The statement said the Polish government had also asked the court to limit public access to the documents it submitted, saying that if they were made public it could harm a parallel judicial investigation under way in Poland.
Campaigners who have been pressing governments to admit the secret jails existed said that since the material submitted to Strasbourg was confidential, it was hard to judge if the Polish government was really being open about the detentions.
"As long as there is no public information from the Polish government, we cannot be sure about the political will to resolve the situation," Draginja Nadazdin, director of rights group Amnesty International in Poland, told Reuters.
The request for information from the court forced Warsaw to make an awkward choice between loyalty to the United States, one of its closest allies, and its stated commitment to respecting international justice.
Rights activists, using information pieced together from flight records, witness testimony and heavily-redacted U.S. government documents, say the CIA ran secret prisons in Poland and other friendly states after the September 11 attacks.
The suspects were flown to the sites in secret, held without any court orders, denied access to lawyers and subjected to aggressive interrogation which included techniques such as water boarding and sleep deprivation, the activists say.
Defenders of the U.S. tactics say they were justified because the detentions and interrogations of suspects allowed them to prevent al Qaeda attacks that, if they had gone ahead, could have killed many people.
The United States has never publicly acknowledged the existence of the sites. Prosecutors in Poland are investigating the allegations, but officials there have denied that the CIA carried out any illegal activities on Polish soil.
Al-Nashiri, whose allegation of illegal detention triggered the European court's investigation, is now being held in the U.S. military jail in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. investigators believe he was one of the most senior figures in al Qaeda and that he masterminded a suicide attack in 2000 on the U.S. navy warship USS Cole when it was moored in the port of Aden, Yemen.
Al-Nashiri's lawyers say that after his arrest in Dubai in 2002 he was flown to a secret CIA prison in Stare Kiejkuty, a Polish intelligence training site in a forest about 200 km (125 miles) north of the capital.
There, his lawyers say, he was held without any legal process, without communication to the outside world and was subjected to torture and inhuman treatment.
His legal team alleges that this included interrogators cocking a handgun close to al-Nashiri while he was handcuffed and hooded, and forcing him to spend long periods with his body in painful positions.
(Additional reporting by Anna Namiotko; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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