WARSAW - For years, the idea seemed unthinkable, absurd. A secret U.S. detention center in a remote corner of Poland, where al-Qaida suspects were brutally interrogated by the CIA? About as likely as "the Loch Ness monster," is how one Pole described it recently.
That monster is now rearing its head.
Cloistered inside government offices, surrounded by classified documents, Polish prosecutors are building a case that could result in criminal charges against the nation's former spy chief and even, some say, against former senior political leaders. Evidence that a foreign power was allowed to conduct illicit activities on Polish soil has deeply shaken many Poles' faith in the United States and in Poland's sense of itself as a successful democracy born from the ashes of the Cold War.
The prosecutors' investigation centers on a Polish military garrison that allegedly hosted a CIA "black site" where foreign detainees were subjected to internationally condemned interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, during 2002 and 2003.
The allegations have already damaged the reputation of the country that Poles thank for helping them to cast off communist oppression. Many now angrily believe the United States took advantage of their gratitude, loyalty and eagerness to please by setting up a torture site that it would never have allowed within its own borders.
"It's the kind of thing we expect from Soviet Russia. We remember the Soviet occupation; we remember the German occupation," said attorney Mikolaj Pietrzak, who represents one of the Islamist men allegedly held and questioned in Poland. "The fact that this beacon of liberty which is America would allow this -- it's a great disappointment in the United States as the land of the free."
"The reputation of Poland is at stake," President Bronislaw Komorowski declared in March. "Certainly this is a sensitive and touchy issue, and possibly painful for the Polish state, but it is the task of the legal apparatus to clarify this."
Pietrzak is frustrated by prosecutors' refusal to give him access to classified files beyond the initial perusal he was granted.
His client, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, is accused of plotting the 2000 attack by al-Qaida on the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors. Captured in late 2002 in the United Arab Emirates, al-Nashiri, a Saudi national, is now an inmate at the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
During his interrogation at the suspected CIA black site in northern Poland in 2002 and 2003, at a military base in the northeastern town of Stare Kiejkuty, a gun and a power drill were allegedly pointed at al-Nashiri's head to make him talk. His lawyer says he was also subjected to waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique that the U.S. has since banned.
Al-Nashiri now awaits trial before a U.S. military tribunal and could face the death penalty, which makes Pietrzak chafe all the more at the pace of the prosecutors' effort in Poland.
"It's not a robust investigation if it takes you four years," Pietrzak said.
"This is the single worst case of human rights violations known in Eastern Europe in the last 20 years. The public has a right to know."
By 2008, the weight of evidence and public allegations was such that Polish prosecutors felt compelled to launch their own investigation. The country's president, prime minister and other senior officials at the time the secret prison is alleged to have been in operation have all denied knowledge of any black site on Polish soil.
Blame has focused on Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, the former head of Poland's intelligence service. Siemiatkowski several months ago acknowledged being officially named by prosecutors as the subject of their investigation (the prosecutors won't confirm or deny the fact). But he has refused to elaborate, saying only that he is disappointed that the nation he worked for has now turned against him.