The American Civil Liberties Union today argued before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that its lawsuit on behalf of Khaled El-Masri, a victim of the CIA’s policy of “extraordinary rendition,” should proceed. Earlier this year a federal district court in Alexandria, VA dismissed El-Masri’s lawsuit based on the government’s argument that allowing it to proceed would jeopardize state secrets.
“Our country’s system of justice, based on the rule of law, is intended to allow everyone their day in court” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “But here the government seeks to keep the doors of the courthouse closed to an innocent man who has suffered unthinkable abuse at the hands of our government. We go to court to fight for his right and the right of us all to petition for justice.”
El-Masri came to the United States to witness the appeal of the ACLU’s landmark lawsuit on his behalf, and sat in the courtroom today behind his attorneys. The suit charges former CIA director George Tenet, other CIA officials and U.S.-based aviation corporations with violations of United States and universal human rights laws. El-Masri was on vacation in Macedonia when he was kidnapped, abused and rendered to a CIA-run “black site” in Afghanistan. After several months of confinement in squalid conditions, he was flown from Afghanistan and abandoned on a hill in Albania with no explanation, never having been charged with a crime.
The ACLU argued that the government is invoking the state secrets privilege to avoid accountability for the abuses it perpetrated against El-Masri rather than to protect sensitive national security interests. Based on official recognition of the rendition program and the volume of information on its widespread use both generally and specifically in relation to El-Masri, the ACLU argued that allowing El-Masri to litigate his claims further will not harm national security.
“I have come to America seeking three things,” said El-Masri. “An acknowledgement that the United States government is responsible for kidnapping, abusing and detaining me; an explanation as to why I was singled out for this treatment; and an apology because I am an innocent man who has never been charged with any crime.”
According to the ACLU lawsuit, El-Masri, a 43-year-old German citizen and father of six young children, was forcibly abducted while on vacation in Macedonia on December 31, 2003 by agents of the Macedonian government. These agents handed El-Masri over to the CIA who held him incommunicado, beat and drugged him, and rendered him to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, where he was subjected to inhumane conditions and coercive interrogation. During his detention, El-Masri was refused contact with a lawyer or any member of his family. After several months of confinement in squalid conditions, on May 28, 2004 he was flown from Afghanistan and abandoned on a hill in Albania with no explanation, never having been charged with a crime.
According to the ACLU, shortly after El-Masri was flown to Afghanistan, CIA officers realized that they had abducted, detained and interrogated an innocent man. Tenet, former director of the CIA, was notified of the mistake, yet El-Masri remained in detention for two more months.
In September President Bush publicly acknowledged the widely reported fact that the CIA has operated a secret prison system outside of the United States and outside the requirements of U.S. and international law. Earlier this month Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that his committee’s priorities will include an investigation into the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program, including the use of CIA operated aircraft. In an interview with the Financial Times, Levin said he was uncomfortable with the system and believes “that there’s been some significant abuses which have not made us more secure but have made us less secure and have also, perhaps, cost us some real allies, as well as not producing useful information. So I think the system needs a thorough review and, as the military would say, a thorough scrubbing.”
Both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe have conducted investigations into the CIA’s use of European airspace and facilities as part of the rendition program. An investigation by Swiss Senator Dick Marty concluded that not only do illegal U.S. detention centers in Europe exist, but that 14 European nations have assisted the CIA to carry out its rendition program.
“The CIA’s policy of extraordinary rendition has resulted in a worldwide web of kidnapping, torture, and abuse,” said Steven Watt, an attorney with the ACLU. “The policy violates fundamental human and civil rights, but perhaps more importantly it violates basic principles of morality.”
El-Masri is represented by Watt, Ann Beeson, Ben Wizner and Melissa Goodman of the ACLU National Legal Department, Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman, LLP, Rebecca Glenberg of the ACLU of Virginia and Victor Glasberg of Victor M. Glasberg & Associates.
More information is available online at: www.aclu.org/rendition ACLU