Nearly a decade after a German man claimed he was snatched off the street, held in secret and tortured as part of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program -- all due to a case of mistaken identity -- a panel of international judges said today what Khaled El-Masri has been waiting to hear since 2004: We believe you.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a unanimous verdict siding with El-Masri in his case against the government of Macedonia, which he claimed first played an integral role in his illegal detention and then ignored his pleas to investigate the traumatic ordeal. For his troubles, the ECHR ordered the government of Macedonia to pay El-Masri 60,000 Euros in damages, about $80,000.
"There's no question 60,000 Euros does not begin to provide compensation for the harm he has suffered," James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which is representing El-Masri, told ABC News today. "That said... for Mr. El-Masri, the most important thing that he was hoping for was to have the European court officially acknowledge what he did and say that what he's been claiming is in fact true and it was in fact a breach of the law... It's an extraordinary ruling."
El-Masri's dramatic story, as detailed in various court and government documents, began in late 2003 when he was snatched off a bus at a border crossing in Macedonia. 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.
The German was then blindfolded and taken to an airport where he said he was met by men he believed to be a secret CIA rendition team. In its ruling today, the EHRC recounted how the CIA men allegedly beat and sodomized El-Masri in an airport facility, treatment that the court said "amounted to torture." The CIA declined to comment for this report.
El-Masri was then put on 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.
According to the Initiative, it wasn't until May 28, 2004 that El-Masri was suddenly removed from his cell, put on 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 finally realized they accidentally picked up the wrong man.
In their decision today, the ECHR said El-Masri's account was established "beyond reasonable doubt," in part based on the findings of previous investigations into flight logs and forensic evidence.
Before the EHRC, El-Masri and his supporters had tried to bring his case to trial in several courts, including in the U.S. in 2005. There, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of El-Masri against George Tenet, then director of the CIA, but the case was dismissed in 2006 after the U.S. government claimed hearing it 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 addition to the money Macedonia has been ordered to pay El-Masri, the Open Society Justice Initiative is calling on Macedonia, the U.S. and Germany to offer official apologies to El-Masri and for Germany to ask the U.S. to hand over the officers allegedly involved in the kidnapping so they may see trial.
Goldston said he hoped the ECHR's ruling could open the door to further investigations into the CIA's controversial rendition program and "all these kinds of cases where allegations of abuse arise from counter-terrorism practices."
El-Masri is currently in prison in Germany, serving time for an assault conviction, Goldston said. He was reportedly found guilty of attacking the mayor of a Bavarian city in 2009.