PARIS (AP) — A European court issued a landmark ruling Thursday that condemned the CIA's "extraordinary renditions" programs and bolstered those who say they were illegally kidnapped and tortured as part of an overzealous war on terrorism.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that a German car salesman was an innocent victim of torture and abuse, in a long-awaited victory for a man who had failed for years to get courts in the U.S. and Europe to acknowledge what happened to him.
Khaled El-Masri says he was kidnapped from Macedonia in 2003, mistaken for a terrorism suspect, then held for four months and brutally interrogated at an Afghan prison known as the "Salt Pit" run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He says that once U.S. authorities realized he was not a threat, they illegally sent him to Albania and left him on a mountainside.
The European court, based in Strasbourg, France, ruled that El-Masri's account was "established beyond reasonable doubt" and that Macedonia "had been responsible for his torture and ill-treatment both in the country itself and after his transfer to the U.S. authorities in the context of an extra-judicial rendition."
It said the government of Macedonia violated El-Masri's rights repeatedly and ordered it to pay €60,000 ($78,500) in damages. Macedonia's Justice Ministry said it would enforce the court ruling and pay El-Masri the damages.
U.S. officials closed internal investigations into the El-Masri case two years ago, and the administration of President Barack Obama has distanced itself from some counterterrorism activities conducted under former President George W. Bush.
But several other legal cases are pending from Britain to Hong Kong involving people who say they were illegally detained in the CIA program. Its critics hope that Thursday's ruling will lead to court victories for other rendition victims and prevent future abuses.
The case focused on Macedonia's role in a single instance of wrongful capture. But it drew broader attention because of how sensitive the CIA extraordinary renditions were for Europe, at a time when the continent lived in fear of terrorist attacks but was divided over the Bush administration's methods of rooting out terrorism.
Those methods involved abducting and interrogating suspects — without court sanction — in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 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.
The CIA declined to comment on Thursday's ruling.
El-Masri's lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic, said he hoped the ruling would inspire El-Masri to resume contact with his lawyers and family, which he broke off after he was sentenced to prison in 2010 for assaulting the mayor of the German town of Neu-Ulm. The Lebanese-born El-Masri, who is scheduled for release from a Bavarian prison next year, is a "broken" man after unsuccessfully seeking justice in U.S., German and Macedonian courts, Gnjidic told The Associated Press.
"He lost his confidence in the system of rights that the democratic world celebrates," Gnjidic said. "I hope this will give him a little bit more confidence again that even a little person who has come into a crime of great nations has the chance to have his rights."