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."
Macedonian authorities had argued that El-Masri was detained on suspicion of traveling with false documents, then traveled on his own to neighboring Kosovo — an argument the court called "utterly untenable."
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.