PARIS - A European court issued a landmark ruling Thursday that condemned the CIA's so-called 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 a victim of torture and abuse, in a long-awaited victory for a man who had failed for years to get courts in the United States and Europe to recognize him as a victim.
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 CIA. 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 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 extrajudicial rendition."
It said the government of Macedonia violated Masri's rights repeatedly and ordered it to pay (euro) 60,000 ($78,500) in damages. Macedonia's Justice Ministry said it would enforce the court ruling and pay Masri the damages.
U.S. officials have long since closed internal investigations into the Masri case, and the administration of President 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.
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 was in fear of terrorist attacks but divided over the Bush administration's methods of rooting out terrorism.
Those methods involved abducting and interrogating terror suspects - without court sanction - in the years following the 9/11 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.
Masri's attorney, Manfred Gnjidic, said he hoped the ruling would inspire Masri to resume contact with his attorneys and family, which he broke off after he was sentenced to two years in prison in 2010 for assaulting the mayor of the German town of Neu-Ulm.