The CIA and the Case of Mistaken Rendition

PHOTO: Khaled El-Masri

Nearly a decade after a German man claimed he was abducted, spirited to Afghanistan and beaten in a secret CIA-run prison, lawyers for Khaled El-Masri appeared in a European court Wednesday hoping to make his case against the local government that allegedly handed him over to the CIA's extraordinary rendition program in the first place.

El-Masri, a German national of Lebanese descent, is suing the country of Macedonia in the European Court of Human Rights for its alleged role in his four-month "disappearance" beginning in late 2003. The new case is the latest in el-Masri's nine-year judicial odyssey, which has so far involved the legal systems of at least four countries and could cast a sliver of sunlight on one of the CIA's most secretive and controversial post-9/11 programs.

El-Masri contends that in December 2003 he was traveling by bus from Germany to Macedonia when he was detained at the Macedonian border, according to court documents. Plainclothes Macedonian police officers brought him to a hotel in the capital city of Skopje and held him there under guard for 23 days. In the hotel he was interrogated repeatedly and told to admit he was a member of al Qaeda, according to an account provided by the Open Society Justice Initiative, which represents El-Masri in the current case. El-Masri responded by going on a hunger strike.

The German claims he was then blindfolded and taken to an airport by the Macedonian plainclothes police where he was beaten and sexually assaulted before he was dragged to a corner of the room and had his blindfold removed. He saw before him several men in black clothes and black masks.

These men, the Initiative claims, were from a secret CIA rendition team.

El-Masri was then allegedly thrown onto a plane and claims that the next thing he knew, he was in Afghanistan, where he would stay for four months under what his lawyers called "inhuman and degrading" conditions that included "violent and prolonged interrogations."

According to the Initiative, it wasn't until May 28, 2004 that El-Masri was suddenly removed from his detention, thrown onto another plane and flown to a military base in Albania.

"On arrival he was driven in a car for several hours and then let out and told not to look back," the group says on its website.

Albanian authorities soon picked El-Masri up and took him to an airport where he flew back to Frankfurt, Germany. According to El-Masri's lawyers, the CIA had realized they accidentally picked up the wrong man.

Upon arriving in his home city of Ulm, Germany, El-Masri says he contacted his lawyer and began seeking criminal proceedings against those who he said kidnapped and assaulted him without cause.

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Since then, El-Masri, his supporters and foreign governments have attempted to settle the matter through various legal channels, but to no avail. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of El-Masri against George Tenet, then director of the CIA, but that case was dismissed in 2006 after the U.S. government claimed the case would jeopardize "state secrets." The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case in 2007.

The same year, a German prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for 13 CIA agents for their alleged role, according to the New York Times, but the agents were never arrested.

In 2009 El-Masri filed a civil lawsuit for damages against the Macedonian Ministry of Interior and that case is still pending, the Initiative said.

Even Spanish authorities became involved in 2010 when investigators there claimed the CIA team had made a secret stopover in Palma de Mallorca before heading to Macedonia, according to the Spanish national newspaper El Pais.

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