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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Rights Court Rebukes Secret CIA Renditions

(CN) - Macedonia should not have transferred custody of a German man to CIA agents who tortured him secretly for five months, the European Court of Human Rights ruled.

Seventeen judges agreed unanimously in the landmark decision, which is the first to push back against the extraordinary rendition program implemented by President George W. Bush.

Khalid El-Masri, a German car salesman, says investigators mistook him for a suspected al-Qaida operative with a similar name.

Macedonian police officers took El-Masri off a bus for questioning on Dec. 31, 2003, and he was not heard from again until the captors left him in Albania on May 28, 2004.

He pursued action against Macedonia for his entire period in U.S. custody, and the rights court in Strasbourg ordered Macedonia on Thursday to pay El-Masri more than $78,000.

The 92-page ruling notes how agents flew El-Masri from Macedonia's Skopje Airport to a secret prison in Afghanistan on Jan. 23, 2004.

"Placed in a room [of the airport], he was beaten severely by several disguised men dressed in black," the ruling states. "He was stripped and sodomised with an object. He was placed in a nappy and dressed in a dark blue short-sleeved tracksuit. Shackled and hooded, and subjected to total sensory deprivation, the applicant was forcibly marched to a CIA aircraft (a Boeing 737 with the tail number N313P), which was surrounded by Macedonian security agents who formed a cordon around the plane. When on the plane, he was thrown to the floor, chained down and forcibly tranquillised. While in that position, the applicant was flown to Kabul (Afghanistan) via Baghdad."

The agents gave El-Masri a forcible suppository, for no medical purpose.

"In the court's view, such treatment amounted to torture in breach of Article 3 of the convention," the judges concluded, referring to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

El-Masri said that he recognized his new surroundings as Afghanistan because of the warm climate.

"He was left in a small, dirty, dark concrete cell," the ruling states. "When he adjusted his eyes to the light, he saw that the walls were covered in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi handwriting. The cell did not contain a bed. Although it was cold, he had been provided with only one dirty, military-style blanket and some old, torn clothes bundled into a thin pillow. Through a window at the top of the cell, he saw the red, setting sun. Later he understood that he had been transferred to a CIA-run facility which media reports have identified as the 'Salt Pit,' a brick factory north of the Kabul business district that was used by the CIA for detention and interrogation of some high-level terror suspects."

El-Masri says he held two hunger strikes to protest his indefinite detention without charges.

The first began in March 2004 and ended 37 days later when agents force-fed him through a tube, causing him to be bedridden for several days.

He said he started a second one a few months later in May, when he was released.

El-Masri said he arrived in Germany on May 29, weighing 18 kg less than he did in January, unshaven, with long and unkempt hair.

The court scolded the U.S. for invoking state secrets under wraps.

"In this connection it underlines the great importance of the present case not only for the applicant and his family, but also for other victims of similar crimes and the general public, who had the right to know what had happened," the judgment states. "The issue of 'extraordinary rendition' attracted worldwide attention and triggered inquiries by many international and intergovernmental organisations, including the UN human rights bodies, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. The latter revealed that some of the states concerned were not interested in seeing the truth come out. The concept of 'state secrets" has often been invoked to obstruct the search for the truth."

The evidence the court considered included five diplomatic cables about El-Masri's rendition released by WikiLeaks, allegedly provided to the website by Pfc. Bradley Manning, a 24-year-old soldier.

In a concurring opinion, four of the 17 judges spoke of the "'right to the truth,' that is, the right to an accurate account of the suffering endured and the role of those responsible for that ordeal."

While supporting the ruling as a whole, these four judges called their colleagues too "timid" in defense of that right.

Two other judges contended that the right to the truth belonged to victim, El-Masri, and not the general public.

All of the judges agreed on Macedonia's infractions: including violations of the Article 3 safeguards against torture, inhuman treatment and "extraordinary rendition;" Article 5 protections of liberty and security; Article 8 respect for privacy and family life; and Article 13 guarantee of a serious investigation.

President Barack Obama reformed, but did not end, extraordinary rendition.

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