A landmark ruling was issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) holding the European Union responsible for its role in the CIA’s detention and rendition of German national Khaled El-Masri. The ECHR unanimously found Macedonia had been responsible for his “unlawful detention, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment, and for his transfer out of Macedonia to locations where he suffered further serious violations of his human rights,” according to Amnesty International. And the court also found the country had failed to conduct a proper investigation.
Julia Hall, an Amnesty International expert on counterterrorism and human rights, reacted:
This judgment confirms the role Macedonia played in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) rendition and secret detention programmes, and is an important step towards accountability for European complicity in rendition and torture…Macedonia is not alone. 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.” [emphasis added]
Wilder Tayler, Secretary General of the ICJ, put the ruling into perspective as well:
This ruling is historic. It recognizes that the CIA rendition and secret detention system involved torture and enforced disappearances. It emphasizes that both the victims and the public have the right to know the truth about these serious violations. It affirms without doubt that Europe cannot be an area of impunity but it must be a place of redress and accountability where international human rights law obligations are not bypassed but fulfilled. Other European governments – such as Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, against which cases are also pending with the Court – should note today’s European Court judgment and take measures to ensure that the truth is told, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigations are carried out and those responsible are held accountable.
El-Masri, who was abducted in Macedonia and then flown to Afghanistan in 2003, was awarded $60,000 Euros.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented El-Masri in a lawsuit in US federal court that was dismissed and now represents him in a case against the US now being considered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, called the decision “historic.”
“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. “Today’s 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.”
For those unfamiliar with the depraved and vile details of El-Masri’s “enforced disappearance,” the ECHR’s ruling contains a vivid description submitted by El-Masri’s lawyers of what happened when he was handed over to a CIA rendition team:
Upon arrival, still handcuffed and blindfolded, he was initially placed in a chair, where he sat for one and a half hours. He was told that he would be taken into a room for a medical examination before being transferred to Germany. Then, two people violently pulled his arms back. On that occasion he was beaten severely from all sides. His clothes were sliced from his body with scissors or a knife. His underwear was forcibly removed. He was thrown to the floor, his hands were pulled back and a boot was placed on his back. He then felt a firm object being forced into his anus. As stated by the applicant’s lawyers at the public hearing of 16 May 2012, of all the acts perpetrated against the applicant that had been the most degrading and shameful. According to the applicant, a suppository was forcibly administered on that occasion. He was then pulled from the floor and dragged to a corner of the room, where his feet were tied together. His blindfold was removed. A flash went off and temporarily blinded him. When he recovered his sight, he saw seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks. One of the men placed him in a nappy. He was then dressed in a dark blue short-sleeved tracksuit. A bag was placed over his head and a belt was put on him with chains attached to his wrists and ankles. The men put earmuffs and eye pads on him and blindfolded and hooded him. They bent him over, forcing his head down, and quickly marched him to a waiting aircraft, with the shackles cutting into his ankles. The aircraft was surrounded by armed Macedonian security guards. He had difficulty breathing because of the bag that covered his head. Once inside the aircraft, he was thrown to the floor face down and his legs and arms were spread-eagled and secured to the sides of the aircraft. During the flight he received two injections. An anaesthetic was also administered over his nose. He was mostly unconscious during the flight. A Macedonian exit stamp dated 23 January 2004 was affixed to the applicant’s passport.
According to the applicant, his pre-flight treatment at Skopje Airport, “most likely at the hands of the special CIA [United States CentralIntelligence Agency] rendition team”, was remarkably consistent with a recently disclosed CIA document describing the protocol for the so-called “capture shock” treatment.
That was what happened before he was detained and interrogated in Afghanistan. He wound up in 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.” He suffered torture that had become standard. El-Masri went on hunger strike and then, one night in April 2004, he was taken from his cell and a feeding tube was “forced through his nose to his stomach and a liquid was poured through it.” He then experienced a kind of “reverse rendition” to Albania and was released before the end of May 2004.
Overall, the ECHR’s ruling puts the US justice system to shame. Holding Macedonia accountable shows that there can be justice for rendition and torture victims. It shows that America has a system of justice where judges have acceded to the national security state. In doing so, they have allowed injustice to become entrenched and they have become perfectly willing to allow this to become the status quo, where they do not check the abuses of power or the commitment of human rights abuses by agencies in the US government domestically or abroad.
Guantanamo Bay prison remains open. Detainees continue to be held indefinitely. Detainees also continue to be held in Bagram prison in Afghanistan. No rendition or torture victims have been granted any relief for what they experienced. Those responsible for authorizing torture and renditions have escaped accountability. This is why this ruling is so remarkable. It truly is, to a large extent, the only accountability for Bush administration rendition and torture so far and that is incredibly appalling but not surprising given how the US government has intruded into the judicial processes of countries to ensure no government officials in the US were held accountable.