AP FILE PHOTO
In this March 13, 2006, photo, German Khalied al-Masri, who says CIA agents abducted him and transported him to Afghanistan, attends a meeting of the European Parliament committee investigating claims of U.S. secret prisons and flights in Europe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France.
BERLIN — After years of legal struggles, a German man mistaken for a terrorist who was abducted and held captive for months in 2004 won a measure of redress on Thursday when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Macedonia had violated his rights by arresting him and turning him over to the United States.
In a unanimous ruling, the 17-judge panel, based in Strasbourg, France, found that Macedonia had violated the prohibition against torture and inhuman or degrading treatment in the European Convention on Human Rights for its role in the abduction of the man, Khaled el-Masri. It was the first time a court had ruled in el-Masri’s favor in the case.
El-Masri, 49, who is of Lebanese descent, was seized on Dec. 31, 2003, as he entered Macedonia while on vacation; border security guards confused him with an operative of al-Qaida with a similar name. He says he was turned over to the CIA, which flew him to Afghanistan as part of its clandestine rendition program, in which terror suspects were transported to third countries for interrogation.
After more than four months in custody, he was dropped on a roadside in Albania. No charges were filed against him. El-Masri has said he was held in a secret U.S. prison in Afghanistan and tortured before his captors let him go.
El-Masri’s account of his seizure by Macedonian authorities and rendition to Afghanistan by the CIA was “established beyond reasonable doubt,” the ruling said.
The court ordered Macedonia to pay el-Masri about $78,000 in damages.
The decision, which Amnesty International hailed as “a historic moment and a milestone in the fight against impunity,” is final and cannot be appealed. The CIA declined to comment on the ruling.
“It’s a historic ruling and sends the message to European nations that they have a heightened obligation to investigate their complicity and cooperation with the illegal CIA extraordinary rendition program,” said Jamil Dakwar, head of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Kostadin Bogdanov, a lawyer who represented Macedonia before the court, said Macedonia would pay the damages and perhaps take other actions in light of the ruling. They include reopening the Masri investigation and amending laws regarding criminal procedures or their implementation, he said.
James A. Goldston, executive director at the Open Society Justice Initiative, who argued the case before the court, 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.”
A lawsuit against the United States filed on his behalf by the ACLU was dismissed in 2006 on the grounds that it would expose state secrets.
The ACLU is representing el-Masri in a case against the United States now before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The petition was filed in 2008 and the U.S. government has yet to respond.
Dakwar said it had been “an uphill battle” to convince the Obama administration to hold officials accountable under international law for el-Masri’s mistreatment, but that the case before the commission “gives the Obama administration the opportunity to acknowledge the egregious violations against Khaled, offer official apology and reparation.”
Nearly nine years have passed since the authorities pulled el-Masri off a bus at the Macedonian border on New Year’s Eve in 2003. He was taken to a hotel in the capital, Skopje, and locked in a room there for 23 days. His detention, along with the threat that he would be shot if he left the hotel room, “amounted on various counts to inhuman and degrading treatment,” the ruling said.
When he was handed over to the CIA rendition team at the Skopje airport, he was “severely beaten, sodomized, shackled and hooded” in the presence of Macedonian officials, the ruling said, a treatment that “amounted to torture.”
His German lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic, said his mental state had suffered not only abuse but the “nine years of constantly fighting, being called a liar, a terrorist, an Islamist, a hard-liner.” El-Masri has broken off contact with his lawyers while serving a prison sentence on unrelated charges involving a 2009 assault on the mayor of Neu-Ulm in Bavaria.
Gnjidic said he had written Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany asking the German government to appeal to the U.S. government on el-Masri’s behalf and to see what could be done on the German side to help him.
“Macedonia was only the henchman of the great powers,” Gnjidic said. “The question is: What is with the big fishes, with Germany, with the USA? All he ever wanted was to know why this was done to him and an apology.”
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