The shameful treatment of Khaled el-Masri by the US

The Guardian reported last week that in a historic unanimous verdict, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, Europe’s highest court, said that, “CIA agents tortured a German citizen, sodomising, shackling, and beating him, as Macedonian state police looked on.” The person who suffered such horrendous abuse was the wholly innocent Khaled el-Masri, shown below with his family, who had the misfortune to have a name similar to that of an al Qaeda suspect wanted by the CIA.


I have written about el-Masri’s tragic story before. But the CIA agents who tortured him were not only shielded from prosecutions, they were even promoted. These are the kinds of people who are hailed in the new film Zero Dark Thirty because ‘they keep us safe’.

In January 2004, Macedonian police took him to a hotel in Skopje, where he was kept locked in a room for 23 days and questioned in English, despite his limited proficiency in that language, about his alleged ties with terrorist organisations, the court said in its judgment. His requests to contact the German embassy were refused. At one point, when he said he intended to leave, he was threatened with being shot.

“Masri’s treatment at Skopje airport at the hands of the CIA rendition team – being severely beaten, sodomised, shackled and hooded, and subjected to total sensory deprivation – had been carried out in the presence of state officials of [Macedonia] and within its jurisdiction,” the court ruled.

In Afghanistan, Masri was incarcerated for more than four months in a small, dirty, dark concrete cell in a brick factory near the capital, Kabul, where he was repeatedly interrogated and was beaten, kicked and threatened. His repeated requests to meet with a representative of the German government were ignored, said the court.

The news report adds:

UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, described the ruling as “a key milestone in the long struggle to secure accountability of public officials implicated in human rights violations committed by the Bush administration CIA in its policy of secret detention, rendition and torture”.

He said the US government must issue an apology for its “central role in a web of systematic crimes and human rights violations by the Bush-era CIA, and to pay voluntary compensation to Mr el-Masri”.

Germany should ensure that the US officials involved in this case were now brought to trial.

The reality is that German government will do no such thing and will block such efforts all the way, as it has in the past. It should be noted that it was WikiLeaks that revealed that the US government exerted secret pressure on Germany to not enforce earlier arrest warrants against the CIA officials involved in the torture.

The ACLU has more on the ruling.

The ruling highlights the lack of accountability for U.S. officials responsible for the abuse of El-Masri and others. A U.S. federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on El-Masri’s behalf was dismissed on “state secret” grounds, and the Obama administration has yet to respond to a 2008 ACLU petition filed on El-Masri’s behalf in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. As [ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil] Dakwar told the New York Times, the case before the commission “gives the Obama administration the opportunity to acknowledge the egregious violations against Khaled, offer an official apology and reparation.”

That is even more unlikely than the German government taking any action. Obama, who has such compassion for victims of horrendous crimes as long as the US government is not responsible for them, has made it quite clear in his words and actions that he will protect all the people who were involved in torture.

Scott Horton writes about the significance of this latest ruling.

The El-Masri ruling is a watershed event principally because it reflects the first high-profile, binding judicial determination that the CIA used torture practices in connection with its renditions program. Thus far, litigation of the issue in the United States has failed as federal courts — deferring to the executive’s attempts to avoid scrutiny of well-documented and severe human rights abuses by invoking secrecy — have generally refused to allow cases to proceed to trial. In the El-Masri case, the government mounted similar defenses based on national-security concerns and secrecy, but the Court refused to prioritize these over well-documented claims of torture.

During a call from Condoleezza Rice to German chancellor Angela Merkel, the United States acknowledged its mistake in seizing El-Masri. However, it has never offered him an apology, insisting in response to his complaints that the torture inflicted on him was a state secret. Nor has the United States offered El-Masri compensation or access to rehabilitation, even though it is obligated to do so under the Convention Against Torture.

How awful is the US’s record when it comes to practicing and condoning torture? The court reveals all the ghastly details of how and why a totally innocent man was treated this way and how the US has been disgraceful in not owning up to it.

The decision also focuses attention on the fact that the perpetrators of El-Masri’s torture have not been held to account under criminal law. According to an investigation run by the Associated Press, CIA officer Alfreda Frances Bikowsky played a key role in El-Masri’s abusive treatment, ignoring his protests because her “gut told her” he was a terrorist. Bikowsky was quickly promoted following the El-Masri incident, and she now occupies a senior counterterrorism post, from which she exercises great influence on sensitive operations. [My italics-MS]

In view of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of official impunity for torture-related crimes involving CIA agents during the war on terror, the Court’s judgment boils down to this question: What nation will step up to the plate, conduct a proper investigation, and bring charges? It points a finger toward two loyal U.S. allies: Germany and Macedonia. Macedonia was complicit with the CIA, while Germany buckled to U.S. diplomatic pressure and stopped its criminal probe. The Court makes clear that criminal investigation and prosecution must now follow.

Xeni Jardin, one of the board members of the Freedom of the Press Foundation I wrote about a couple of days ago, has video links of witnesses describing the torture.

Bikowsky has an appalling record when it comes to torture but that does not seem to have hindered her career in the least. In fact she seems to have benefited from it, as befits an employee of a torture-practicing and torture-condoning government.


  1. Jared A says

    Since so many Americans are ok with the label “torturer”, maybe it is time that we start branching out to other applicable labels such as “rapist”, “sadist”, etc.

  2. baal says

    US criminal procedure was developed (and criminal law generally) specifically to avoid this kind of travesty. As abuses and wrongful acts came to light (or could no longer be ignored), rules were developed to limit the harms.

    One of the very first rules is to double check that you have the right person. This check is not just a, “Arab, matching last name and country origin” check but something like medical records, other governmental docs or familial relationships.

    The fundamentally lawless administration of Bush the Lesser started this absurd notion that all rules were off the table for terrorism and as Glenn Greenwald and others have pointed out, the Obama administration hasn’t put them back.

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