By Christian Lowe
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's government has asked the European Court of Human Rights to exclude the media and the public from a court hearing next month on whether Poland hosted a secret CIA prison on its territory.
The request for a private hearing was criticized by a Polish human rights group, which accuses the state of trying to conceal its involvement in the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program behind a veil of secrecy.
The Strasbourg-based court scheduled a public hearing for December 3 to hear arguments in the cases of two men who say they were held in a CIA-operated jail in Poland. It will be the first time the allegations have been tested in open court.
Since then, Poland's government has submitted a request to the court asking for the hearing to be held in private, a spokeswoman for the court told Reuters. "This request will be examined by the court shortly," she said.
The Polish Foreign Ministry, which oversees relations with the court, declined to comment. In a statement sent to Reuters, it referred inquiries to the court instead.
The government has in the past cited national security concerns to explain why it wanted parts of the court process to be kept confidential.
Adam Bodnar, vice-president of the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said much of the evidence about the alleged CIA jail was already in the public domain, so there was no point treating it as secret.
"We should have the right to review this case in public," said Bodnar, whose organization has uncovered evidence of Polish cooperation with the CIA. "I do not see a reason for confidentiality of proceedings."
The United States has acknowledged that, after the September 11 attacks in 2001, it had facilities around the world as part of a program of "extraordinary rendition" to detain and question suspected al Qaeda militants.
Keeping the detainees on foreign soil meant they were not entitled to the protection afforded under U.S. law.
Polish officials deny hosting any CIA jails, though they do say that in 2002 and 2003, aircraft used by the CIA landed, without border or customs controls, at a remote airfield in northern Poland, near the site of the alleged jail.
If Polish officials were complicit in the setting-up of a secret jail, that would be against Polish law and in violation of international treaties, rights campaigners say.
The case before the European Court was brought by lawyers for two men, Saudi-born Abu Zubaydah, and Saudi national Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
Both men, who are now in the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay jail on Cuba, say they were held by the CIA on the grounds of an intelligence training facility near the village of Stare Kiejkuty, in northeast Poland.
Polish prosecutors are working on an criminal investigation into the allegations of a CIA jail. The government says this investigation is independent and should run its course before the European court gets involved in the case.
Rights activists and lawyers for the alleged detainees say the Polish investigation, which began in March 2008, is being stalled because a trial will embarrass the Polish state. Prosecutors and the government deny that.
(Additional reporting by Marcin Goettig; Editing by Alison Williams)