The government of Macedonia has formally apologized to Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who was unlawfully abducted, tortured and handed over to the United States, which further tortured him at a secret CIA "black site" in Afghanistan under its Bush-era extraordinary rendition program.
The Macedonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed to the Associated Press on Wednesday that it apologized to the 54-year-old el-Masri, a married father of five and former car salesman originally from Lebanon who was seized by Macedonian state security agents at a border crossing while on vacation on December 31, 2003.
Believing he was an al-Qaeda militant, Macedonian authorities secretly imprisoned and tortured el-Masri for 23 days before he was blindfolded, handcuffed and handed over to Central Intelligence Agency operatives. He was then stripped, beaten, sodomized, drugged and flown to Afghanistan, where he was imprisoned in the notorious CIA "black site" known as the Salt Pit, where suspected militant Gul Rahman was tortured to death in November 2002.
El-Masri was held at the Salt Pit and interrogated for four months. During that time, he was never permitted any contact with his family or German government officials. He was never charged with any crime or even brought before a judge.
Underfed, forced to drink putrid water, denied due process and uncertain if he would ever be released and see his family again, el-Masri went on a hunger strike in March 2004 and lost 60 pounds (27 kg). By the following month, CIA Director George Tenet was informed he was being wrongfully detained. In May, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice ordered el-Masri’s release.
CIA agents flew el-Masri out of Afghanistan, dumping him on an Albanian roadside without any information or funds to return home to Germany, more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away. He was detained by Albanian authorities, who thought he was a terrorist due to his disheveled appearance. When he finally returned home to Ulm, Germany, el-Masri discovered his wife had left for Lebanon with their children because she believed he had abandoned them.
"It was a crime, it was humiliating and it was inhuman," el-Masri said of his ordeal in a 2005 Guardian interview. "Those responsible have to take responsibility and should be held to account."
However, despite an admission from Rice that el-Masri’s abduction and imprisonment were in error, the former detainee felt he was being denied justice. He decided to sue to the CIA.
"It’s a question of moral values, of principles," el-Masri explained to CBS News in 2009. "I want to find out why they did it. I want an apology.
He would get neither an explanation nor an apology. A federal judge ruled that while el-Masri has "suffered injuries" and "deserves a remedy," he had no choice but to dismiss his lawsuit on national security grounds.
In January 2007, a German court issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA operatives in connection with el-Masri’s unlawful kidnapping and imprisonment. Despite warnings from Washington, the German government handed the warrants over to Interpol. However, Berlin ultimately caved under Bush administration pressure and declined to pursue the matter further, even though Spanish prosecutors also wanted to arrest the 13 agents.
In May 2012, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that CIA agents had tortured el-Masri while Macedonian agents looked on. The court also found Macedonia guilty of torturing and secretly imprisoning him in violation of domestic and international law. Macedonia was ordered to pay el-Masri €60,000 ($78,500 at the time) in damages.
James Goldston, a human rights lawyer who represented el-Masri in the ECHR case, said that while Macedonia’s apology was welcome it did not go far enough, noting the Balkan nation "has yet to open a formal criminal inquiry into what happened or to hold anyone to account."
“US government documents show that the CIA was aware of its mistake very shortly after it had wrongfully detained him, but he was still secretly held and abused for over four months,” Goldston said in a statement to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s human rights program, added that the case is "a stark reminder of America’s utter failure to hold its own officials accountable for serious violations of US and international law, which is important for preventing anything like it from happening again."
The subject of secret prisons and torture is once again in the headlines as President Donald Trump – a torture proponent who said he wants to bring back "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding" – has chosen CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, who ran a "black site" in Thailand, as the agency’s next chief. Known by some agents as "Bloody Gina," Haspel oversaw the interrogation of terror suspects and played a key role in the destruction of videotapes showing detainees being tortured.
Based in San Francisco, Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. His articles, blogs and op-eds, which focus on war and peace, human rights and social justice, have appeared in Digital Journal, Daily Kos, Business Insider, and Yahoo News.