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The Curious Case of Khaled El-Masri

The Curious Case of Khaled El-Masri

Photo Credit: The Telegraph


The following is a guest post from James A. Goldston, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative


Strasbourg – The United States government has been trying for close to a decade to hush up what it did to Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen whose story of mistaken identity, abduction and abuse marks one of the low points of the CIA’s post 9/11 “war on terror”.

This week [May 16] El-Masri will finally have his day in court—not here in America, where judges have resolutely declined to hear cases like this one, but at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

El-Masri, a German national, was seized by security officers in Macedonia on December 31, 2003, while crossing the border from Serbia by bus. On Washington’s request, he was held incommunicado for 23 days, then turned over to the CIA at Skopje airport. He has described how he was violently beaten by his American captors, and brutally subdued for a long flight to Afghanistan, via Baghdad:

“The pain from the beatings was severe. I was terrified and utterly humiliated. My assailants continued to beat me, and finally they stripped me completely naked and threw me to the ground. My assailants pulled my arms back and I felt a boot in the small of my back. I then felt a stick or some other hard object being forced in my anus. I realized I was being sodomized. Of all the acts these men perpetrated against me, this was the most degrading and shameful.”

And yet this was only the beginning. Dressed in a diaper, blindfolded, and with a bag placed over his head, El-Masri was chained to the floor of a disguised CIA plane, and flown to Kabul. He was kept for four months in a putrid, unheated cell in a secret US prison known as the Salt Pit. When he launched a hunger strike to protest his mistreatment, he was forcibly fed by hooded men who dragged him from his bed, bound his hands and feet, tied him to a chair, and stuffed a tube up his nose through which liquid was sent. He was never charged with a crime or given access to his family, a lawyer or German consular officers.

In fact, as Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in December 2005 after meeting with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the CIA blundered in seeking El-Masri’s capture. As became clear shortly after his forced disappearance commenced, El-Masri was the victim of mistaken identity: wrongly detained because his name resembled that of an Al Qaeda suspect.

But El-Masri was imprisoned long after Washington realized its error. It was only on May 28, 2004, that El Masri was reverse-rendered to Albania, where he was told not to tell anyone what had happened to him, then placed on a commercial flight back to Germany.

Although official inquiries by the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the German Parliament have all pointed to U.S. responsibility, Washington has never publicly admitted what happened. To the contrary, U.S. officials sought to block German and Spanish criminal inquiries, and obtained dismissal of El Masri’s attempts to secure judicial redress in U.S. courts on the grounds that “state secrets” precluded consideration of his claims.

The case now before Europe’s judges, which formally charges the government of Macedonia for collaborating in this chain of abuse, represents El-Masri’s last chance at legal accountability.

It is unfortunate that, eight years on, the U.S. government has yet to rectify one of the most horrific instances of unlawful excess in the Bush Administration’s war on terror. For so long as Washington maintains a policy of—in President Obama’s famous words— “look forward not backward,” it will fall to courts in other countries to uphold the rule of law.

During one of the darkest days of his detention in Afghanistan, El Masri was warned: “Where you are right now, there is no law, no rights, no one knows you are here, and no one cares about you.” This week’s hearing is an opportunity to prove otherwise.

James A. Goldston, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, represents Khaled El-Masri in the European Court of Human Rights.



James Goldston

James A. Goldston is the founding executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which promotes rights-based law reform and the development of legal capacity worldwide. A leading practitioner of international human rights and criminal law, Goldston has litigated several groundbreaking cases before the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations treaty bodies, and has served as Coordinator of Prosecutions and Senior Trial Attorney in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.