CIA rendition case: European court holds Macedonia partly responsible

The decision is important because it suggests that US allies that helped the CIA undertake its secret detention and interrogation program may face liability for their role supporting such operations.

Christian Hartmann/AP
In this 2006 file photo, German Khalid el-Masri attends a meeting of the European Parliament committee investigating claims of US secret prisons and flights in Europe at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, eastern France. The European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday, Dec. 13, in favor of el-Masri who says the CIA illegally kidnapped him and took him to a secret prison in Afghanistan in 2003.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Thursday that the government of Macedonia was partly responsible for the illegal detention and torture of a German national who was turned over to the CIA’s counterterrorism rendition program and sent to an Afghan prison for interrogation.

The court declared that Macedonia was responsible for alleged abuses suffered in that country by Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen, who was apparently mistaken for a terror suspect with a similar name.

The 17-member court unanimously found that Macedonia violated five articles of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – including prohibitions against the use of torture and enforced disappearance.

The court ordered the government to pay Mr. Masri 60,000 euros in compensation.

The decision is important because it suggests that US allies that helped the Central Intelligence Agency undertake its secret detention and interrogation program may face liability for their role supporting such operations.

Macedonia denied any involvement in the Masri rendition. The court rejected the government’s claims, in part citing an affidavit by the Macedonia Interior minister at the time of the detention.  

Masri’s ordeal began Dec. 31, 2003, when he was detained after arriving on a bus at the Serbia-Macedonia border. Border officials verified his German passport, but the CIA asked that he be detained.

Masri was transported to a hotel in Skopje, where he was held incommunicado for 23 days. He was held by nine armed guards and was repeatedly interrogated. At one point he was told he’d be sent home to Germany in return for admitting his membership in Al Qaeda.

In protest of his treatment, Masri refused to eat for the last 10 days of his confinement in Skopje.

He was turned over to the CIA on Jan. 23, 2004, for a flight to Afghanistan.

The court described the transfer: “[Masri], handcuffed and blindfolded, was taken from the hotel and driven to Skopje Airport. Placed in a room, he was beaten severely by several disguised men dressed in black. He was stripped and sodomized with an object. He was placed in a nappy and dressed in a dark blue short-sleeved tracksuit.

“Shackled and hooded, and subjected to total sensory deprivation, [Masri] was forcibly marched to a CIA aircraft (a Boeing 737 with the tail number N313P), which was surrounded by Macedonian security agents who formed a cordon around the plane. When on the plane, he was thrown to the floor, chained down and forcibly tranquillized.”

Masri’s treatment at the airport amounted to torture, according to the court. “The court notes that the above-mentioned measures were used in combination and with premeditation, the aim being to cause severe pain or suffering in order to obtain information,” the decision says.

It adds: “In the court’s view, such treatment amounted to torture.”

The judges also ruled that Macedonian officials were aware of the CIA’s policy of extraordinary rendition and were aware that by turning him over to the CIA, there was a genuine risk that Masri would subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

“The court concludes that [Macedonia] is to be held responsible for the inhuman and degrading treatment to which [Masri] was subjected while in the hotel, for his torture at Skopje Airport, and for having transferred [Masri] into the custody of the US authorities, thus exposing him to the risk of further treatment contrary to Article 3 of the Convention [which bans torture],” the decision says.

After five months in custody, including four months in an Afghan prison, Masri was flown to Albania, where he was released on a dark, remote road without explanation or apology.

Masri attempted to sue the US government. That suit was thrown out of court by a federal judge on grounds that the litigation would expose “state secrets.”

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union praised the European Court’s ruling. “Today’s landmark decision is a stark reminder of America’s utter failure to hold its own officials accountable for serious violations of both US and international law,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program.

“This remarkable decision will no doubt put greater pressure on European nations to fully account for their complicity in cooperating with the illegal CIA ‘extraordinary rendition’ program, and to hold responsible those who violated the human rights of El-Masri and those like him,” Mr. Dakwar said in statement.

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