No Comment — December 14, 2012, 9:12 am

European Court Condemns CIA Extraction Techniques as Torture

A European human rights court hands down the first binding decision against Bush-era  rendition techniques

In a landmark decision, Europe’s highest court has concluded that techniques used routinely by the Bush-era CIA in connection with its extraordinary-renditions program constitute torture.   The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, sitting in Strasbourg, awarded damages to a German greengrocer of Lebanese extraction, Khalid El-Masri. The Court also chided the governments involved for failing to pursue criminal accountability for those responsible for El-Masri’s abduction and torture.  El-Masri had been mistaken for a similarly named terrorist operative while he was on a trip in December 2003 to Macedonia. He was seized by Macedonian authorities, acting in close coordination with the United States, and was turned over to the CIA. After being flown in a chartered “torture taxi” to Afghanistan, he was held in the CIA’s notorious “Salt Pit” prison north of Kabul. Even after the mistaken identification was confirmed, the CIA continued to hold El-Masri for six weeks, ignoring instructions from the White House to release him. After a further intervention from Condoleezza Rice, El-Masri was granted his release and abandoned on a hilltop in Albania, five months after he was detained.

The Court focused its attention on El-Masri’s treatment in the hands of a CIA extraction team:

[T]wo people violently pulled his arms back . . . he was beaten severely from all sides. His clothes were sliced from his body with scissors or a knife. His underwear was forcibly removed. He was thrown to the floor, his hands were pulled back and a boot was placed on his back. He then felt a firm object being forced into his anus . . . a suppository was forcibly administered. He was then pulled from the floor and dragged to a corner of the room, where his feet were tied together. His blindfold was removed. A flash went off and temporarily blinded him. When he recovered his sight, he saw seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks. One of the men placed him in a nappy. He was then dressed in a dark blue short-sleeved tracksuit. A bag was placed over his head and a belt was put on him with chains attached to his wrists and ankles. The men put earmuffs and eye pads on him and blindfolded and hooded him. They bent him over, forcing his head down, and quickly marched him to a waiting aircraft, with the shackles cutting into his ankles. . . . He had difficulty breathing because of the bag that covered his head. Once inside the aircraft, he was thrown to the floor face down and his legs and arms were spread-eagled and secured to the sides of the aircraft.

As the court noted, these procedures were part of a standard protocol used by the CIA at the time, described in numerous reports relating to the extraordinary-renditions process and covered by a secret CIA memorandum (PDF) dated December 30, 2004.  The court found that El-Masri had been tortured and sodomized as a result of these procedures. Although the Obama Administration banned torture and ended the extraordinary-renditions program under an Executive Order issued the second day of Obama’s presidency, it remains unclear whether the extraction protocol is still in effect.  In one rendition carried out by the Holder Justice Department in April 2009, similar procedures were used on a defendant in a petty corruption case, though no suppository was applied. The Justice Department vigorously defended the extraction protocol in that case and insisted that the procedures it authorized did not constitute torture. 

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. El-Masri’s evidence had been corroborated by a German criminal investigation, and the Court also found that internal U.S. probes, as well as investigations conducted by human rights organizations, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe provided him substantial support.  The Court’s decision required careful cognizance of leaked classified U.S.-government documents, and of U.S. diplomatic cables that affirmed American conniving aimed at blocking criminal probes into the El-Masri case.

Jim Goldston, a former U.S. federal prosecutor who represented El-Masri before the Court, told me that the decision should come as a “wake-up call to the Obama Administration and to the American courts, showing that it is possible to investigate torture and similar abuses connected with the war on terror even while it is underway.” 

The ruling establishes that governments who collaborated with the CIA, even while they weren’t themselves directly participating in the rendition, are nevertheless liable for torture and attendant crimes. In this regard, it is likely to be studied closely in Poland, where a prosecution has been opened targeting Polish intelligence officials who supported the CIA’s black site there.

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.

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. 

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.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Wood Chipper·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today