The court based its 92-page ruling not only on El-Masri's version of events but also on testimony from former Macedonian officials, results of a German investigation, and U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.
The court said El-Masri was severely beaten, sodomized, shackled and hooded "at the hands of the CIA rendition team" in the presence of Macedonian authorities. It described the measures as "invasive and potentially debasing ... used with premeditation, the aim being to cause Mr. El-Masri severe pain or suffering in order to obtain information." And that was only the first stage in El-Masri's months-long ordeal.
Jim Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Institute and a lawyer for El-Masri, said the ruling "serves as a wake-up call to the U.S. government and judiciary to re-examine how the CIA has treated rendition victims. ... and offers an opportunity to re-examine the (U.S.) position of looking forward instead of backward."
Goldston said that even if the ruling has no impact in the United States, courts in other countries are likely to take it into account. He expressed hope that it will encourage "victims who have been denied redress or have simply not come forward."
American lawyer Marc Zaid, who has defended national security whistleblowers, said the ruling could "impact how we do business with the world." He said victims are pinning hopes on European courts "because there is no remedy available in the U.S. system."
A U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Committee of Jurists and Amnesty International were among others hailing the ruling as a long-awaited breakthrough.
The court's rulings are binding on the 47 member-states of the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog.
The decision is the second blow for the CIA program in recent months. In September, Italy's highest criminal court upheld the convictions of 23 Americans in the abduction of an Egyptian terror suspect from a Milan street, paving the way to possible extradition requests for CIA operatives by Italian authorities.
Also Thursday, lawyers for a former Libyan dissident and his family said they have accepted 2.2 million pounds ($3.5 million) from the British government to settle a claim that the U.K. approved their rendition to face imprisonment by Moammar Gadhafi's regime. It is the latest in a series of costly payouts resulting from Britain's involvement in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
David Rising in Berlin, Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, Macedonia, and Kimberly Dozier in Washington, contributed to this report.