TORTURING THE WRONG MAN
A judgment issued on Thursday by the European Court of Human Rights contains an account of the treatment of a man who, after some detective work by a foreign police force, was handed over to the C.I.A. as a suspected member of Al Qaeda:
Upon arrival, still handcuffed and blindfolded, he was initially placed in a chair, where he sat for one and a half hours….Then, two people violently pulled his arms back. On that occasion 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….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. [editor’s note: The righteous always wear masks.]
Four months, two hunger strikes, and a sojourn in more than one secret prison later, the man, Khaled El-Masri, who had been picked up in Macedonia in 2003, was simply dumped by the side of the road near an Albanian border crossing. Along the way, he’d had a gun held to his head as an interrogator berated him, demanding that he admit his connection to Al Qaeda. Why would someone with such dangerous connections be released? What about the casual information he might have that could unravel some devious plot?
The answer is simple: after a couple of months, the C.I.A. figured out that they had picked up not a shadowy terrorist, but a car salesman from Bavaria who happened to have a similar name. Even then, they kept him prisoner for several weeks while trying to figure out their next move. There is now no dispute that this was a case of simple mistaken identity. (I asked Jose Rodriguez, who was part of the C.I.A.’s interrogation program, about El-Masri’s case when I interviewed him this summer.)
When El-Masri first got back to Germany—the Albanians put him on a plane to Frankfurt—he had trouble getting people to believe him. His wife had gone back to her family. But the story slowly came out, thanks, in part, to El-Masri’s hair. (From the judgment: “Scientific testing of Mr El-Masri’s hair follicles… is consistent with Mr El-Masri’s account that he spent time in a South-Asian country and was deprived of food for an extended period of Time.”) The A.C.L.U. tried to bring a case for him in U.S. courts, but the government got it thrown out by asserting its state-secrets privilege; another suit has stalled. In 2006, El Masri came to New York, and was the subject of a Talk of the Town story, in which he drove through Manhattan with The New Yorker’s Mark Singer in a convertible—the portrait of a free man. Since then, he has struggled, getting into legal trouble in Germany, unable to find his footing again; his lawyer has spoken of his fits of paranoia. He was put in jail after going into a rage and assaulting his town’s mayor, and then had his sentence extended when he punched a guard. Just because you’re a Hitchcockian character doesn’t mean that it’s over when the light comes on. Today’s judgment was on a complaint he brought against the government of Macedonia, asking for damages for his “suffering, anguish and mental breakdown,” and there is, sadly, evidence of all three. The court found that he had been tortured, and that Macedonia indeed bore responsibility for having “transferred him knowingly into the custody of the C.I.A.” when it had reason to believe that he might be. The court awarded him sixty thousand euros.
It sounds like something from a bad movie—or maybe, in a week in which cinematic portrayals of the same sorts of cells El-Masri found himself in are very much a part of the national conversation, a good one. “Zero Dark Thirty,” a movie by Kathryn Bigelow that opens next week, has raised questions about whether it properly portrays torture’s role in the search for bin Laden, and the extent to which it offers a justification for the torture of terrorists. Those are arguments worth confronting (and ones that I’ll join in as soon as I see the movie; meanwhile, see Dexter Filkins’s Talk of the Town story in this week’s issue). But there are others.
How do we even know that people who are never brought into court are terrorists? Between the wrong man and real guilt there is the realm of people we talk ourselves into thinking could be useful to us. The temptations and delusions of torture and indefinite detention interact terribly. Do we trust torturers to pick the people they want to drag into a dark room? We may find that we are mistaken not only about the identity of some blindfolded men but also about who we are, and what we value.
Illustration by Tom Bachtell.