NEW YORK—Macedonia has formally apologized to a man it unlawfully seized, held incommunicado, and handed over to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency 14 years ago, during the secret CIA rendition and torture program which followed the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Macedonian security personnel detained Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, at Macedonia’s border on December 31, 2003, and interrogated him in secret for over three weeks. They then delivered him to CIA agents who flew him to Afghanistan, where he was imprisoned for almost four months in inhuman conditions, and then further mistreated him in a notorious CIA facility. In late May, the CIA reverse rendered El-Masri to Europe, and then left him on a roadside in Albania, long after American authorities had concluded that they had mistakenly captured the wrong man.
On December 13, 2012, in a case brought on El-Masri’s behalf by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found Macedonia in breach of several provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights and awarded compensation of €60,000, which the government subsequently paid.
Now, six years later, in a letter to El-Masri dated March 28, 2018, Macedonia’s minister of foreign affairs, Nikola Dimitrov, has expressed his “sincere apologies and unreserved regrets” for what he described as the “improper conduct of our authorities” in 2004. He also noted the “immeasurable and painful experiences and grave physical and psychological wounds you suffered” as a result.
James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative, stated:
“We welcome the Macedonian government’s apology to El-Masri, and its recognition that its security personnel violated the European Convention on Human Rights. This certainly goes further than the United States, which continues to refuse to hold anyone at the CIA responsible for this appalling case, or to acknowledge the wrong done to El-Masri, let alone to provide compensation. However, the conduct at issue was illegal, not merely ‘improper,’ and thus requires a thorough investigation. Macedonia has yet to open a formal criminal inquiry into what happened, or to hold anyone to account.”
El-Masri was secretly held and interrogated in a hotel in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, for over three weeks. He was then handed over to the CIA and flown to Kabul for further questioning—a process which included stripping him, photographing him, and forcefully inserting a tube into his anus. Subsequently, Mr. 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. U.S. government documents show that the CIA was aware of its mistake very shortly after it had wrongfully detained him, but he was still secretly held and abused for over four months.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said:
“While we welcome Macedonia’s official apology, it is only the first step in revealing the whole truth about El-Masri’s illegal kidnapping and torture. It’s also a stark reminder of America’s utter failure to hold its own officials accountable for serious violations of U.S. and international law, which is important for preventing anything like it from happening again. El-Masri deserves justice and nothing less than a full and transparent investigation into those responsible for overseeing and implementing the CIA torture and rendition program. He also deserves an official apology and compensation to help him and his family to rebuild their lives.”
The ACLU currently represents El-Masri in a case against the U.S. government which is now being considered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The ACLU also represented him in a lawsuit in U.S. federal court which was eventually dismissed, because hearing the case would reveal “state secrets.”
In 2014, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA torture program confirmed that El-Masri was wrongfully detained and that the CIA tried to cover up the mistakes and avoid accountability for them. A declassified report by the CIA’s inspector general detailed the grueling psychological torture that El-Masri was subjected to, along with the CIA’s blatant disregard for his physical and mental health while in custody.