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Dec 13, 2012
European court of human rights finds against CIA abuse of Khaled el-Masri
America must now apologise to the German citizen, a victim of mistaken identity who
was kidnapped and beaten by the CIA
By Amrit Singh
Source: The Guardian
The much-maligned European court of human rights has this week shown itself at its
very best: standing up for the rights of an individual who has been denied justice for
almost nine years since he was abducted, secretly detained, and tortured under the
CIA's rendition program.
Khaled El-Masri, a German national, was seized by Macedonian security officers on
31 December 2003, at a border crossing, because he had been mistaken for an al-
Qaida suspect. He was held incommunicado and abused in Macedonian custody for
23 days, after which he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and driven to Skopje airport,
where he was handed over to the CIA and severely beaten.
The CIA stripped, hooded, shackled, and sodomized el-Masri with a suppository – in
CIA parlance, subjected him to "capture shock" – as Macedonian officials stood by.
The CIA drugged him and flew him to Kabul to be locked up in a secret prison known
as the "Salt Pit", where he was slammed into walls, kicked, beaten, and subjected to
other forms of abuse. Held at the Salt Pit for four months, el-Masri was never charged,
brought before a judge, or given access to his family or German government
The CIA ultimately realised that it had mistaken el-Masri for an al-Qaida suspect with a
similar name. But it held on to him for weeks after that. It was not until 24 May 2004,
that he was flown, blindfolded, earmuffed, and chained to his seat, to Albania, where
he was dumped on the side of the road without explanation.
In December 2005, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a press conference – while
then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood by her side – that the United States
had admitted it had made a mistake. But the US government still refused to
acknowledge its shameful conduct in el-Masri's case and waged a successful
campaign to prevent other governments from disclosing the truth.
El-Masri's subsequent search for justice has repeatedly been thwarted. The United
States succeeded in getting el-Masri's US lawsuit dismissed on "state secrets"
grounds without even responding to his allegations; in 2007, the US supreme court
declined to review that dismissal. The Macedonian government resorted to bald-faced
lies, claiming that it played no role in his detention or abuse, despite overwhelming
evidence confirming his account. The German government refused to disclose what it
knew about el-Masri's case, and apparently caved to US pressure not to seek
extradition of CIA officials involved in el-Masri's rendition.
Today, the European court of human rights delivered a measure of justice to el-Masri.
It vindicated his account of his ill-treatment, and unanimously found that Macedonia
had violated his rights under the European Convention, including by transferring him
to US custody in the face of a risk of ill-treatment, and facilitating and failing to prevent
his being subjected to CIA "capture shock" at Skopje airport.
This is the first court to comprehensively and specifically find that the CIA's rendition
techniques amounted to torture. The decision stands in sharp contrast to the abject
failure of US courts to deliver justice to victims of US torture and rendition.
Both the United States and Macedonia must now issue el-Masri a full-scale public
apology and appropriate compensation. Macedonia should also commit to an
internationalized investigation capable of holding its officials accountable. There are
plenty of examples of such inquiries into national issues that are too politically
charged to handle unaided: Northern Ireland's 1997 Independent International
Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) included members from Canada, the United
States, and Finland.
But Europe's work is not over yet. Macedonia was not the only European country
complicit in CIA renditions. A 2006 inquiry by Swiss Senator Dick Marty implicated 14
European governments – including the United Kingdom – in the CIA's "spider's web"
of rendition operations. But with the exception of Italy, whose highest court recently
upheld the convictions of US and Italian officials for involvement in rendition, neither
the UK nor other complicit countries – including Lithuania, Romania, and Poland,
which hosted secret CIA prisons – have conducted effective investigations capable of
holding officials accountable for their participation in rendition.
The human rights principles at stake extend to the use of the death penalty.
European governments are prohibited from transferring criminal suspects to the
United States if they risk execution; yet Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national, was
secretly flown to Guantánamo Bay after being held in secret CIA prisons in Romania
and Poland. He now faces a possible death sentence after a trial by military
commission that does not meet international standards.
The European court's decision in the el-Masri case is a clarion call for accountability
for the flagrantly illegal CIA rendition program.
The time has come for European governments to stand up to the United States and
break the conspiracy of silence, regardless of the diplomatic consequences. As
former Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammerberg,
rightly said on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the 11 September attacks:
"The purported cost to transatlantic relations of pursuing such accountability cannot
be compared to the damage inflicted on our European system of human rights
protection by allowing ourselves to be kept in the dark."