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25th May 2019

CIA rendition victim wins European court case

  • Poland, Lithuania, and Romania as well some Scandinavian countries allegedly colluded with the CIA in its rendition programme (Photo: Council of Europe)

The European Court of Human Rights has vindicated a German national, a victim of the CIA’s secret rendition programme on European soil, in what human rights advocates are calling a major ruling.

The Strasbourg-based court on Thursday (13 December) decided that Macedonian authorities had violated the fundamental rights of Khaled El-Masri when they handed him over to the CIA in 2004.

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Macedonia is the first European state to be held accountable for its involvement in the secret US-led programme by the court.

"This ruling is historical. It recognises that the CIA rendition and secret detention system involved torture and enforced disappearances," said Wilder Tayler, secretary general of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists.

Macedonian border guards arrested El-Masri on 31 December 2003 over his suspected ties to terrorist organisations. He was then taken to a hotel in Skojpe, kept locked in a room for 23 days, before being led to the airport handcuffed and blindfolded.

He spent the next four months, without any charges, in a small concrete cell in a brick factory near Kabul. His pleas to speak to German embassy officials were ignored. He was instead tied up, beaten, and threatened throughout the ordeal until the CIA realised they had the wrong person.

El-Masri, who had by then gone on two hunger strikes (one lasting 37 days), was eventually flown to Albania and dumped on the side of a road. German authorities issued arrest warrants in 2007 for the CIA agents involved in his abduction.

The court found El-Masri’s account to be established beyond reasonable doubt and held that "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" had been responsible for his torture and ill-treatment both in the country itself and after his transfer to the US authorities in the context of an extra-judicial "rendition."

The ruling could have broader implications on Poland, Lithuania and Romania thought to have hosted similar CIA detention centres and rendition programmes.

All three have pending cases at the court but independent investigations have come to a virtual standstill.

"Can it be that all a government has to do is deny, that all an EU member state has to do is deny, deny, deny and suddenly that is somehow transformed into truth? That really can't be the way the EU operates when it comes to human rights," Julia Hall, Amnesty International's expert on counter-terrorism and human rights, told this website from New York.

The European Parliament called upon the three member states in September to relaunch independent investigations into the allegations but without much success.

Despite having acknowledged, in 2009, the existence of two CIA detention centres, Lithuania authorities remain largely silent on the issue.

A committee on the prevention of torture at the Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, had visited the Lithuanian sites in the summer of 2010.

But an investigation into the allegations that eight people were held in CIA detention centres was stopped several months later in January 2011.

"There is in Lithuania virtually no accountability at all for the centres, there is no on-going investigations to determine whether anybody was ever held there. Things are at a standstill," Hall said.

Poland's former head of intelligence, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, was charged in March 2012 for his involvement with the CIA rendition programme in 2008.

But ongoing criminal investigations have since been met with numerous delays, says Amnesty International.

"The lawyers for the victims really need to have greater participation in the proceedings," noted Hall.

Romania, for its part, continues to deny any involvement despite the admission of former CIA officials who had identified sites.

"Romania is essentially a brick-wall. They have absolutely flat-out denied any participation," said Hall.

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