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Europe court: German was victim of CIA extraordinary rendition program

Uwe Lein / AFP - Getty Images file

A leading European court ruled that German citizen Khaled El-Masri should receive damages from Macedonia over his claims he was an innocent victim of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program.

Updated at 6:15 p.m. to include response from NSC:

The European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday in favor of a German man who claims he was mistaken for a terrorist, then kidnapped and tortured by the CIA as part of the controversial extraordinary-rendition program.


The court ordered that Khaled El-Masri should be paid about $78,000 in damages by Macedonia, the European country where he says he was captured before being taken to a secret prison in Afghanistan known as the "Salt Pit."

James Goldston, lead lawyer on the case and executive director of the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, told NBC News that the ruling was significant because it was the first time a court had established "beyond reasonable doubt" that what El-Masri was saying had happened.


He said that in light of the ruling the Obama administration should apologize to El-Masri, pay damages and launch a wide-ranging investigation into his case and others like it.

 

"Notably, the court found that the CIA’s treatment of Mr. El-Masri at the airport in Skopje, Macedonia in January 2004 amounted to torture. This judgment by the highest court in Europe represents an authoritative condemnation of some of the most objectionable tactics employed in the post-9/11 war on terror," Goldston said in a statement.

Macedonia's 'complete denial'
According to El-Masri, he was brutally interrogated at the CIA-run Afghan prison for four months after he was flown there from Macedonia.

The European court's ruling said El-Masri's account of his "alleged ordeal was very detailed, specific and consistent."

While Macedonia had issued a "complete denial," there was a "a wealth of compelling evidence supporting his [El-Masri's] allegations and rejecting the Government’s explanation as utterly untenable," it added.

The ruling said El-Masri’s account was supported by several factors including:

  • aviation and flight logs;
  • geological records of minor earthquakes he recalled during his detention in Afghanistan;
  • sketches he drew of the prison where he was held;
  • and scientific tests on his hair showing "he had spent time in a South Asian country and had been deprived of food for an extended period of time."

The ruling said the court "observes" that El-Masri was taken from his hotel in Skopje, Macedonia, to the city's airport where he was "beaten severely by several disguised men dressed in black."

"He was stripped and sodomized 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 [El-Masri] was forcibly marched to a CIA aircraft … When on the plane, he was thrown to the floor, chained down and forcibly tranquillized," the ruling said.

"While in that position, the applicant was flown to Kabul (Afghanistan) via Baghdad," it added.

Read the court's full ruling (pdf)

Macedonian authorities said they would not comment until they are formally notified of the ruling, The Associated Press reported. Though the case focused on Macedonia, it drew broader attention because of how sensitive the CIA extraordinary renditions were for Europe.

They involved abducting and interrogating terror suspects without court sanction in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., under former President George W. Bush.

A 2007 Council of Europe probe accused 14 European governments of permitting the CIA to run detention centers or carry out rendition flights between 2002 and 2005.

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'Huge victory for justice'

The White House referred NBC News' request for comment on the European court's ruling to the National Security Council press office, which responded later Thursday. 

"The United States government does not comment on what are alleged to be activities of the intelligence community," Caitlin Hayden, NSC deputy spokesperson told NBC in an email response. 

She pointed to three Executive Orders issued by President Barack Obama on his second full day in office on U.S. detention, interrogation and transfer policies directing that detainees in all circumstances be "treated humanely," that CIA detention facilities be closed "expeditiously," and that transfer practices "do not result in the transfer of individuals to face torture. The United States government is implementing those recommendations."

Goldston, who argued the case before the court, told NBC News that the United States had never commented on the claims officially and attempts to get a U.S. court to hear El-Masri’s case had failed.

He said he hoped the European court’s decision would prompt action in the U.S.

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"The Obama administration should now apologize and acknowledge what the court has found, and undertake a more sweeping, intensive inquiry that what has been done to date," Goldston said.

"It’s incumbent on the administration to do that," he said, adding that the U.S. should also pay compensation to El-Masri.

Jamil Dakwar, head of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the AP that the ruling was "a huge victory for justice and the rule of law."

He predicted "it will make it harder for the United States to continue burying its head in the sand" about accusations that its officials tortured suspects in the war on terrorism.

El-Masri was given a prison sentence in 2010 for assaulting the mayor of Neu-Ulm, Germany, and is due for release next year, Goldston said.

The court's rulings are binding on the 47 member states of the Council of Europe.

The Associated Press and NBC News' Kari Huus contributed to this report.

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