In what is hoped to be a seminal legal ruling, the European Court of Human Rights court on Thursday found that the CIA's extraordinary rendition and subsequent mistreatment of a German national in 2004 was clearly a case of "torture" and breach of international law.
The court condemned the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's illegal transfer of Khaled El-Masri into CIA custody, which resulted in his being beaten, sodomized and otherwise tortured.
James A. Goldston, executive director at the Open Society Justice Initiative, who argued the case before the court, welcomed the verdict and called the ruling “a comprehensive condemnation of the worst aspects of the post-9/11 war on terror tactics that were employed by the CIA and governments who cooperated with them."
The ACLU—which currently represents El-Masri in a separate case against the US now being considered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—agreed, and said the United State's refusal to investigate its own crimes has made it necessary for other courts to pursue cases such as this.
"Today’s landmark decision is a stark reminder of America's utter failure to hold its own officials accountable for serious violations of both U.S. and international law. Continued lack of accountability is turning the United States into an outlier among its European allies, which is an appalling outcome for a nation that prides itself as a global leader on the rule of law and human rights," said Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Human Rights Program.
Khaled El-Masri, 49, was abducted from Macedonia in late 2003, held in a hotel room for 23 days and threatened to be shot if he left. Weeks later, in 2004, he was handed over to CIA operatives, who stripped, beat, shackled and drugged him as part of its clandestine rendition program, in which terror suspects are taken to third countries for interrogation.
The historic ruling, which supported the findings that El-Masri was tortured, shackled and hooded by the CIA in the presence of Macedonian officials, is the first time a European state has been held accountable for involvement in US rendition and torture program.
The decision "is a milestone in the fight against impunity," said Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists in a statement about the court's unanimous finding.
"Many other European governments colluded with the USA to abduct, transfer, 'disappear' and torture people in the course of rendition operations. This judgment represents progress, but much more needs to be done to ensure accountability across Europe," they said.
Held in a secret detention facility in Afghanistan for more than four months, El-Masri was eventually released—but not charged with any crimes.
The court found that El-Masri's rendition by the CIA was "established beyond reasonable doubt," the New York Times reports, and ordered Macedonia to pay El-Masri about $78,000 in damages for violating the prohibition against torture and inhuman or degrading treatment in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Though the case focused on Macedonia, it drew broader attention because of how sensitive the CIA extraordinary renditions were for Europe.
The operations involved abducting and interrogating "terrorist" suspects without court sanction in the years following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, under former President George W Bush.
A 2007 Council of Europe investigation accused 14 European governments of permitting the CIA to run detention centres, or carry out rendition flights, between 2002 and 2005.
In their statement, the ACLU added that the ruling
makes it harder for the United States to continue burying its head in the sand and ignoring domestic and global calls for full accountability for torture. 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.