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Justices Take Up Terrorism Suspect’s Bid for Details on CIA Torture

The high court agreed to decide whether the CIA must release more information about the capture, detention and torture of an Osama bin Laden associate apprehended in the 2000s.

WASHINGTON (CN) —  The Supreme Court said Monday it will take up a case over the federal government's objection to an appeals court ruling that says it must declassify additional information surrounding the CIA’s torture of a terrorism suspect linked to Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani national Abu Zubaydah, 50, is currently detained at the United States Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but initially was detained abroad. He seeks to compel discovery from two former CIA contractors for use in criminal proceedings currently underway in Poland. That case will determine whether the CIA operated a detention facility in Poland in the early 2000s and assess Zubaydah’s treatment there.

The solicitor general’s office appealed to the Supreme Court last December after the Ninth Circuit ordered the U.S. to declassify the requested information.

“The United States has declassified a significant amount of information regarding the former CIA program, including the details of Abu Zubaydah’s treatment while in CIA custody, which included the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. The United States, however, determined that certain categories of information—including the identities of its foreign intelligence partners and the location of former CIA detention facilities in their countries— could not be declassified without risking undue harm to national security,” the 42-page petition states. “The United States has protected that information even as news outlets and other sources outside the government have commented and speculated on the same topic.”

The government argues that its state-secrets privilege protects the information in question and that releasing it could potentially harm U.S. national security.

Joseph Margulies, a Cornell University law professor who serves as Zubaydah’s attorney, described in his client’s February response brief the conditions Zubaydah was subjected to post-capture while being held in various CIA “black sites” in foreign countries for interrogation.

“On 83 different occasions in a single month of 2002, he was strapped to an inclined board with his head lower than his feet while CIA contractors poured water up his nose and down his throat, bringing him within sight of death. He was handcuffed and repeatedly slammed into walls, and suspended naked from hooks in the ceiling for hours at a time,” the 37-page brief states. “He was forced to remain awake for eleven consecutive days, and doused again and again with cold water when he collapsed into sleep. He was forced into a tall, narrow box the size of a coffin, and crammed into another box that would nearly fit under a chair, where he was left for hours.”

Zubaydah holds the distinction of being the first man waterboarded after 9/11. Although U.S. prosecutors have walked back allegations that he was a high-level leader of al-Qaida— as former President George W. Bush said in 2002 — the government has maintained Zubaydah had “advanced knowledge” of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

It also claims Zubaydah helped build a mujahidin network in the early 1990s, and that he “possibly coordinated” the training of two of the 9/11 hijackers. Additionally, an unclassified profile of the detainee insists that he “played a key role in al-Qaida’s communications with supporters and operatives abroad and closely interacted with al-Qaida’s second-in-command at the time, Abu Hafs al-Masri.” 

Zubaydah has previously applied for and was denied release from Guantanamo. He was captured in Pakistan in March 2002 and was detained overseas before being transferred to the Cuban prison camp in 2006. A picture of Zubaydah upon his transfer shows the “forever prisoner” wearing an eye patch. The attorneys who argued for Zubaydah’s release have been quoted as saying Zubaydah lost his left eye in CIA custody.

The detainee is also a central figure of a study carried out by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence of the CIA detention and interrogation program. While only a 524-page page summary of the Senate report is publicly available, Zubaydah’s name appears in it 1,001 times.

The case abroad stems from the CIA’s detention of Zubaydah in Stare Kiejkuty, Poland, between 2002 and 2003. In 2010, Margulies and other attorneys for Zubaydah filed papers in the country that sought to hold Polish officials accountable for their alleged complicity in Zubaydah’s unlawful detention and torture. 

After several years without movement, Zubaydah’s attorneys filed suit with the European Court of Human Rights, saying their client was the victim of crimes in Poland and that Poland had failed to investigate them. 

In 2014, the human rights court agreed and ordered the Polish government to pay 100,000 euros ($120,831) in damages to the prisoner – a sum his attorney has said will be donated to victims of torture.

Marguiles declined to comment Monday afternoon. Department of Justice representatives did not immediately return a request for comment on the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case.

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