Nine years after his arrest in
Macedonia and abduction to Afghanistan - where he was interrogated
and tortured - Khaled el-Masri on Thursday won a demand for damages
before Europe's top human rights court.
In its first ruling on the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) "extraordinary rendition" programme, the European Court of Human Rights held Macedonia responsible for el-Masri's mistreatment and ordered the government to pay him 60,000 euros (78,300 dollars) in damages.
El-Masri, 49, a German man of Lebanese origin, was detained by Macedonian police in December 2003 and taken to a hotel, where he was held incommunicado and interrogated for three weeks about his alleged ties to terrorist organizations before being handed over to the US secret service.
Disguised agents, believed to be from the CIA, then tortured him at Skopje airport before flying him to Afghanistan, where he was held in a dark cell and beaten during interrogations until finally being released in May 2004, after two hunger strikes.
By the time he was brought back to Germany, via Albania, he had lost 18 kilogrammes.
Reacting to the verdict, el-Masri's lawyer, Darian Pavl, said it was a "signal to all countries who are planning to collaborate with the US that these practices cannot be justified and that their governments and individual officials will be held responsible."
Amnesty International also hailed the ruling.
"This judgment confirms the role Macedonia played in the Central Intelligence Agency rendition and secret detention programmes, and is an important step towards accountability for European complicity in rendition and torture," said Julia Hall, Amnesty International's expert on counter-terrorism and human rights.
"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."
El-Masri was one of several terrorist suspects arrested in Europe in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and handed to the CIA to be secretly interrogated in countries with poor human rights records.
Despite a Council of Europe inquiry into the renditions - which concluded that el-Masri's account was true - and Macedonia's interior minister at the time of el-Masri's arrest also corroborating el-Masri's story, the countries at the heart of the case refused to pursue it.
A claim brought in the US went all the way to Supreme Court, where it was dismissed by judges in 2007 who said that national security interests outweighed el-Masri's right to seek justice.
In Germany, a prosecutor attempted to have the CIA agents involved in the operation extradited, but a court in Cologne ruled the government was under no obligation to act on the request.
Authorities in Macedonia also refused to entertain the case, alleging that el-Masri had been detained on suspicion of travelling on false documents and subsequently let go.
In a unanimous ruling, the 17 judges of the ECHR's Grand Chamber dismissed that take on events, saying El-Masri's account had been "established beyond reasonable doubt."
Macedonia was not only responsible for his torture and ill-treatment within its borders, but also "after his transfer to the US authorities in the context of an extra-judicial 'rendition,'" the court ruled.
By holding him incommunicado in a hotel for 23 days and then handing him over to the CIA despite knowing that he risked being tortured, Macedonia had violated the European Convention on Human Right's ban on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, the court found.
The court also found Macedonia guilty of violating el-Masri's right to liberty and security, not respecting his private life and not honouring his right to an effective remedy.
The court's ruling, which is final, is binding upon Macedonia.
"This is an extraordinary important judgement by a European court which confirms that, in the fight against terrorism, we must preserve and respect our basic rights," Pavli said.
El-Masri is currently serving a jail sentence for assaulting a German mayor. He is slated for release in mid-2013.
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