Tag Archives: law

1584: Samuel Zborowski, dangerous precedent

On this date in 1584, Samuel Zborowski was beheaded at Krakow’s Wawel Hill for treason and murder committed ten years before.

A monument to the timeless abuse of the prosecutor’s discretion, Zborowski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) was a powerful nobleman who got into a snit when nobody of equal stature would enter the lists with him at a tournament.

Instead, his challenge was answered by a common trooper in the retinue of the castellan of Wojnice,* one Jan Teczynski. Pissed at the affront, and doubly so when his own retainer was defeated by Teczynski’s, Zborowski went right after Teczynski right there in the presence of the newly elected Polish king, Henry de Valois.** The affront of lese-majeste was compounded when Zborowski’s flailing mace mortally wounded another castellan who attempted to intervene.

The outlawed Zborowski fled to the protection of Stephen Bathory,† Voivode of Transylvania.

That might have been that, and left Zborowski to join Europe’s forgettable ranks of exiles, adventurers, and pretenders playing out the string under the patronage of some foreign prince.

But when the elective throne of mighty Poland came open soon thereafter, Zborowski’s patron decided that he liked the look of it — and he obtained the result, with the help of a dynastic marriage into Poland’s Jagiellon dynasty of illustrious memory.

Since the Zborowskis had been big supporters of Stephen Bathory, Samuel returned as well, justifiably anticipating not merely pardon but elevation. To their dismay, they found themselves frozen out … and they responded with a series of insubordinations: plotting with the invading Russians, fomenting an unwanted diplomatic crisis with freelance attacks upon the Ottomans.

In the end, our man was undone by the same violent highhandedness that had forced his flight from Poland in the first place. Zborowski’s ill treatment of the young lute composer Wojciech Dlugoraj left the latter so desperate to escape Zborowski’s court that Dlugoraj stole some treasonable correspondence between Zborowski and his brothers and sent it to Zborowski’s enemy, Jan Zamoyski.‡ Those letters indicated that Samuel was contemplating assassinating the king.

Zamoyski found, and Bathory agreed, that the most expedient way to remove this troublemaker was simply to execute the 1574 sentence, from that bludgeoned castellan. The new regime had conveniently never bothered to lift it.

Although legal, Zborowski’s execution was obviously quite irregular and it outraged many in the nobility who perceived it a potential precedent for absolutism; recrimination over the action tore apart the 1585 meeting of the Polish Sejm. (In later years, this body formally endorsed Zamoyski’s actions but only after enacting a Lex Zborowski to better govern the handling of treason cases.)


Jan Matejko‘s 19th century rendering of Samuel Zborowski en route to beheading.

* At the time an important fortified city, Wojnice or Wojnicz was ravaged by a Swedish army in the 1650s and never recovered; today, it’s a town — having only re-promoted itself from “village” status in 2007 — of fewer than four thousand souls.

** This youngest son in the French royal house had seemed to the Valois safe to make available on the transfer market for foreign sovereigns. However, his brothers’ uncanny talent for dying young without issue very soon required his return to his homeland to take up the throne of France as Henri III during that country’s Wars of Religion. There Henri proved not to be exempt from the family curse: we have previously explored the circumstances of his own violent death — which was also the end of the House of Valois — during the War of the Three Henrys.

† A legendary surname in the annals of horror. This Stephen Bathory was the maternal uncle of the infamous “Countess of Blood”.

‡ The gambit did indeed get the scared lutenist free from Zborowski’s control, but he had to flee to Germany for fear of Zborowski kinsmen’s vengeance.

2000: Ahmad Ismail Uthman Saleh and Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Naggar, renditioned

On this date in 2000, Egypt hanged two Islamic militants whom it had been torturing for months. They were signal early victims of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s program — more (in)famous after the September 11 freakout but in fact long predating it — of “extraordinary rendition”.

“Rendering” — chill word — involves kidnapping a target and transferring him to some other country, and it enables the state(s) in question to sidestep strictures at both ends of the pipe. When first authorized by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1993, the proposed kidnapping of a militant was endorsed by Vice President Al Gore in these words:

That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.

Over the course of the 1990s, quibbles about international law would fade from the discussion, and “renderings” became routine, albeit still secretive.

“The fact is,” wrote former National Security Council counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, “President Clinton approved every snatch that he was asked to review. Every snatch CIA, Justice, or Defense proposed during my tenure as [Counterterrorism Security Group] chairman, from 1992 to 2001, was approved.”

Nor did they remain merely tools to make an extra-legal “arrest” for the benefit of American courts — as was the case when Gore purposed to “grab his ass.”

According to Stephen Grey’s history of the rendition program, Ghost Plane, the CIA by by the mid-1990s had a growing presence in Europe, particularly the Balkans as Islamic militants began congregating. With the 1998 onset of the Kosovo War, Langley moved from watching to … rendering.

And in this case, that meant grabbing asses for Egypt, where those asses would certainly be tortured.

Members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, including the two men whose hangings occasion this post, Ahmad Ismail Uthman Saleh and Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Naggar, were kidnapped from Tirana, Albania in June 1998. They were then blindfolded, loaded onto a private plane, and flown to Egypt where they vanished for many months into the rough hands of its state security organ. Naggar, according to a lengthy November 20, 2001 Wall Street Journal story by Andrew Higgins and Christopher Cooper,*

was nabbed in July 1998 by SHIK on a road outside of town. He, too, was blindfolded and spirited home on a CIA plane. In complaints in his confession and to his defense lawyer, Mr. Abu-Saada, Mr. Naggar said his Egyptian interrogators regularly applied electrical shocks to his nipples and penis.

Mr. Naggar’s brother, Mohamed, said in an interview that he and his relatives also were — and continue to be — harassed and tortured by Egyptian police. He said he had suffered broken ribs and fractured cheekbones. “They changed my features,” Mohamed Naggar said, touching his face.

Naggar also complained of being hung from his limbs and locked in a cell knee-deep in filthy water. One of four Tirana militants captured in this operation, Naggar’s torture would yield crucial evidence for the 1999 “Returnees from Albania” mass trial,** and indeed his confessions still remain an essential primary text on the movement of Islamic extremists in the 1990s.

As for Saleh,

in August [1998], Albanian security agents grabbed him outside the children’s park. During two months of detention in Egypt, he was suspended from the ceiling of his cell and given electrical shocks, he told his lawyer.

Both these men were executed on February 23, 2000, in connection with terrorism-related death sentences that had been handed down in absentia prior to their kidnappings in Albania. All of the nine death sentences issued by the Returnees from Albania trial were applied to absent defendants, notably including Al Qaeda bigwig Ayman al-Zawahiri — a man who himself perhaps owes a large measure of his radicalization to Egyptian torturers.

CIA Director George Tenet testified in 2002 that his agency “had rendered 70 terrorists to justice” all told prior to September 11, 2001 (source). Most of the known third-country renditions of that period went to Egypt.

* As an index of the historical moment, it’s editorially interesting that this 3,600-word investigation ten weeks after 9/11 chooses to give its last word to an Egyptian state spokesman.

Egyptian presidential spokesman Nabil Osman said of such mass prosecutions: “Justice is swift there, and it provides a better deterrent. The alternative is to have cases of terrorism in this country dangling between heaven and earth for years.”

Mr. Osman brushed off torture claims by members of the Tirana cell, without commenting directly on their validity. Egypt permits alleged torture victims to seek remedies in civil court, he said. Members of the Tirana cell, however, have been held incommunicado with no way to file suit.

“Forget about human rights for a while,” Mr. Osman said. “You have to safeguard the security of the majority.”

This article was published right around the time the CIA captured Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was himself soon rendered into Egyptian hands so that he could be tortured into “confessing” a spurious link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; the “safeguarders” then shamelessly cited this absurd product of the rendition program as justification for the approaching Iraq debacle.

** Despite the nickname, not all “returnees” had been captured from Albania; others had been taken from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other countries. There were also 64 people charged in absentia.