European rights court takes CIA to task on rendition in landmark ruling

The European Court of Human Rights made history Thursday by ruling in favor of a Lebanese national who said he was tortured by a CIA rendition team partnered with Macedonia. The decision marked a legal triumph for opponents of the controversial US program that became a well-known part of the so-called “war on terror.”

Khaled El-Masri, a German resident, was subjected to “torture and ill-treatment both in the country itself [Macedonia] and after his transfer to the US authorities [in Afghanistan] in the context of an extra-judicial rendition,” the court said, according to Der Spiegel

The Guardian claimed the ruling marks “the first time the court has described CIA treatment meted out to terror suspects as torture.” 

El-Masri was apprehended during a 2003 trip to Macedonia and detained over suspicions of terrorist activity, allegations Der Spiegel said are widely believed to have stemmed from a case of mistaken identity. El-Masri claimed he was mistreated and denied legal help while being detained in Macedonia, charges denied by the government. 

The rights court, however, was unconvinced by Macedonia’s defense and ordered the government to pay El-Masri 60,000 euro in damages. Their press release on the ruling stated: 

“Mr El-Masri’s treatment at [Macedonia’s] Skopje Airport at the hands of the CIA rendition team – being severely beaten, sodomised, shackled and hooded, and subjected to total sensory deprivation – had been carried out in the presence of State officials of ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ and within its jurisdiction. … In the Court’s view, such treatment had amounted to torture.”

The court further penalized Macedonia for turning El-Masri over to US authorities in Afghanistan despite any legal grounds for doing so, “exposing Mr El-Masri to the risk of further treatment in violation of Article 3 [of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms] by having transferred him into the custody of the US authorities,” according to the court’s press release

El-Masri was held in Afghanistan for more than four months and returned to Germany in 2004, said Der Spiegel, where he spent years trying to get his case heard. 

James Goldston of the Open Society Justice Initiative told The Guardian Thusday’s ruling represents “an authoritative condemnation of some of the most objectionable tactics employed in the post-9/11 war on terror.” 

There was no immediate comment from Macedonia on the court’s decision. 

At least 14 European nations either managed detention centers or worked with the CIA in rendition-related movement to and from their territory, according to a 2007 Council of Europe study, cited by Der Spiegel. 

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