A European court issued a landmark ruling today that condemned the CIA's so-called extraordinary renditions programs and bolstered those who say they were illegally kidnapped and tortured as part of an overzealous war on terrorism.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that a German car salesman was a victim of torture and abuse, in a long-awaited victory for a man who had failed for years to get courts in the United States and Europe to recognize him as a victim.
Khaled El-Masri says he was kidnapped from Macedonia in 2003, mistaken for a terrorism suspect, then held and brutally interrogated at an Afghan prison known as the "Sand Pit" and run by the US Central Intelligence Agency for four months. He says that once US authorities realized he was not a threat, they illegally sent him to Albania and left him on a mountainside.
The European court, based in Strasbourg, France, ruled that Mr. El-Masri's account was "established beyond reasonable doubt" and that Macedonia "had been responsible for his torture and ill-treatment both in the country itself and after his transfer to the US authorities in the context of an extra-judicial rendition."
It said the government of Macedonia violated El-Masri's rights repeatedly and ordered it to pay €60,000 ($78,500) in damages. Macedonia's Justice Ministry said it would enforce the court ruling and pay El-Masri the damages.
United States officials have long since closed internal investigations into the El-Masri case, and the US administration of President Barack Obama has distanced itself from some counterterrorism activities conducted under former US President George W. Bush.
But several other legal cases are pending, from Britain to Hong Kong, involving people who say they were illegally detained in the CIA program. Its critics hope that Thursday's ruling will lead to court victories for other rendition victims.
The case focused on Macedonia's role in a single instance of wrongful capture. But it drew broader attention because of how sensitive the CIA extraordinary renditions were for Europe, at a time when the continent was in fear of terrorist attacks but divided over the Bush administration's methods of rooting out terrorism.
Those methods involved abducting and interrogating terror suspects — without court sanction — in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A 2007 Council of Europe probe accused 14 European governments of permitting the CIA to run detention centers or carry out rendition flights between 2002 and 2005.
The CIA declined to comment on today's ruling.
El-Masri's lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic, said he hoped the ruling would inspire El-Masri to resume contact with his lawyers and family, which he broke off after he was sentenced to two years in prison in 2010 for assaulting the mayor of the German town of Neu-Ulm.
"I hope this will give him a little bit more confidence again that even a little person who has come into a crime of great nations has the chance to have his rights," he said.
Macedonian authorities had argued that El-Masri was detained on suspicion of traveling with false documents, then traveled on his own to neighboring Kosovo – an argument the court called "utterly untenable."
Jim Goldston of the Open Society Institute said the ruling "serves as a wake-up call to the US government and judiciary to re-examine how the CIA has treated rendition victims. ... and offers an opportunity to re-examine the (US) position of looking forward instead of backward."
Goldston said that even if the ruling has no impact in the United States, courts in other countries are likely to take it into account. He expressed hope that it will encourage "victims who have been denied redress or have simply not come forward."
A UN special rapporteur on human rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Committee of Jurists and Amnesty International were among others hailing the ruling as a long-awaited breakthrough.
The court's rulings are binding on the 47 member-states of the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog.