European Court Vindicates Rendition Claims, Finds CIA Engaged in Torture

NEW YORK—The European Court of Human Rights has today vindicated the long search for justice of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who was the victim nine years ago of a mistaken rendition operation by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

In a landmark ruling, the court offered the most comprehensive condemnation to date by any court of what it termed “torture” by the CIA during the campaign of extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects launched after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

In addition to condemning El-Masri’s arbitrary arrest, detention and interrogation in 2004, the court also found that the so-called “capture shock” techniques used by CIA agents to prepare him for a rendition flight to Afghanistan involved degrading ill-treatment amounting to torture. The ruling further found that El-Masri’s allegations of mistreatment throughout the more than four months he remained in U.S. custody were “established beyond reasonable doubt.”

“This ruling is a personal victory for Khaled El-Masri, who has faced a wall of silence in the United States and Europe about what happened to him for nine years,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative and lead lawyer for El-Masri.

“It is also the clearest possible indictment, by the world’s leading human rights tribunal, of the illegal abuses associated with the CIA’s post 9/11 campaign against al-Qaeda, and of European complicity in those abuses.”

After being seized on December 31, 2003 on Macedonia’s border and held for more than three weeks in the capital Skopje, El-Masri was handed over to a CIA team at the city’s airport. Unnamed CIA agents placed him in restraints for the rendition flight to Kabul, in an officially-standardized process used in other renditions to induce a state of “capture shock” in detainees that included stripping him, photographing him and forcefully inserting a tube in his anus.

El-Masri was held for four months in Kabul and interrogated at the infamous detention center known as the “Salt Pit”. He was flown back to Europe on May 28, and left on the side of a road in Albania; the CIA was aware of its mistake for some time before he was eventually released. El-Masri’s subsequent attempts to seek legal redress in Germany, the U.S. and in Macedonia were unsuccessful, leading him to file an application to the ECHR in September 2009. 

In its ruling, the court held Macedonia responsible for El-Masri’s treatment over the whole period of his detention, in both Macedonia and in Afghanistan.

Following the court ruling, the Open Society Justice Initiative is urging the Macedonian government to immediately publicly accept the facts of El-Masri’s abduction and rendition, and to issue a full, high-level public apology to him, while immediately paying the individual damages ordered by the ECHR.

Given the role of the U.S. government, as well as the reported involvement of Germany intelligence operatives in El-Masri’s detention, as well as Macedonia’s previous refusal to properly investigate wrongdoing in this case, the Justice Initiative doubts Macedonia’s ability to conduct an effective investigation into the events that occurred.

We therefore believe that this will only be achieved by means of a high level international inquiry, constituted by Macedonia with the support of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which is charged with implementing ECHR judgments.

“Macedonia has proven it is not prepared to investigate what happened to El-Masri properly,” said Goldston. “In view of the diplomatic pressures and internal political constraints involved, we believe that only a properly constituted, independent international inquiry will deliver an accurate and credible account of responsibility.”

Although the U.S. government is not subject to the court’s jurisdiction, we urge the U.S. government to respond to the judgment by belatedly admitting its role in El-Masri’s extraordinary rendition, while issuing a public apology at the highest level of government, and paying appropriate compensation.

We urge the German government to transmit to the U.S. authorities the arrest warrants previously issued on 31 January 2007 for 13 CIA operatives involved in the case, so that U.S. officials involved in his case can be tried in Germany. Germany must also clarify the extent of its knowledge of, and involvement in, El-Masri’s extraordinary rendition.

We also urge the German government to provide El-Masri with adequate medical and psychological care for trauma associated with his extraordinary rendition.

The Justice Initiative’s legal work on human rights abuses linked to counterterrorism and national security issues supports the Open Society Foundations’ broader efforts to strengthen and defence human rights around the world.

The Justice Initiative is currently involved in two additional cases at the ECHR over the CIA’s post-September 11 campaign of extraordinary renditions, which focus on the use of secret prisons in Romania and Poland to secretly detain and abuse Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national now on trial before a U.S. military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.