The Latest European Court of Human Rights Ruling on Accountability for Torture

In another important decision on European participation in the US war on terrorism, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued a judgment late last month against Italy for its role in the extraordinary rendition of Egyptian cleric Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, better known as Abu Omar. (An English-language summary of ruling is here; the full decision, presently available only in French, is here.) The ruling not only represents a further contribution to the Strasbourg Court’s growing accountability jurisprudence, but also highlights the United States’ own failure to provide any redress to victims of the torture program that it primarily created and operated.

The ECtHR’s decision in Nasr v. Italy concerns one of the most notorious instances of extraordinary rendition (i.e., the extrajudicial transfer of an individual to another country for purposes of abusive interrogation). In 2003, Nasr, who had been granted political asylum in Italy, was abducted in broad daylight from a street in Milan and taken to Aviano air base, which is operated by the US Air Force. Nasr was subsequently taken, by way of the US’s Ramstein air base in Germany, to Cairo where he was interrogated by Egyptian intelligence services. Egyptian authorities held Nasr in secret for more than a year and subjected him to repeated torture before releasing him in April 2004. Approximately 20 days after his release — and after submitting a statement to Milan’s public prosecutor describing his abuse — Nasr was rearrested and detained without charges. He was released in 2007, but prohibited from leaving Egypt.

The ECtHR ruling centers on Italy’s role in Nasr’s abduction in Milan, his rendition to Egypt where he faced a real risk of abuse, and its subsequent failure to conduct an effective domestic investigation or to provide any redress. The ECtHR found Italy liable for multiple violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), including article 3 (the prohibition on inhuman or degrading treatment), article 5 (the right to liberty and security), and article 13 (the right to an adequate remedy). It ordered Italy to pay €70,000 to Nasr and €15,000 to his wife, Nabila Ghali, for the suffering and anguish caused by her husband’s enforced disappearance.

The Milan public prosecutor had previously investigated and prosecuted 25 CIA officers, including the agency’s Milan station chief, Robert Seldon Lady, and seven Italian military intelligence officers, for aiding and abetting in Nasr’s abduction and rendition. The United States strenuously opposed the prosecution, warning that it would harm US-Italian relations, and the Italian government successfully challenged much of the evidence on the grounds it could jeopardize national security. The trial court convicted 22 CIA agents in absentia and gave them prison sentences of between six to nine years; a Milan appeals court upheld the convictions and overturned the acquittals of the other three US defendants. Italy’s highest court, however, overturned the conviction of five of the Italian military intelligence agents based on state secrecy grounds. The Italian government has refused to seek the extradition of the convicted US nationals. (For more details, Human Rights Watch has an excellent summary of the proceedings in Italy here.)

The ECtHR’s ruling in Nasr strengthens accountability by reinforcing state responsibility for participation in abuses committed during the war on terrorism. It builds on the Strasbourg Court’s prior decisions in El-Masri v. Macedonia and Al-Nashiri v. Poland/Husayn (Abu Zubaydah) v. Poland, which held Macedonia and Poland, respectively, liable for their role in CIA torture and rendition, including (in the case of Poland) for hosting a CIA black site. Nasr, together with El-Masri and al-Nashiri/Husayn, should help discourage a state’s future participation in cross-border counterterrorism operations conducted in flagrant violation of human rights guarantees. While the deterrent value of legal judgments may be uncertain, the recent line of Strasbourg Court decisions raises the costs of aiding and abetting illegal operations, even in the national security context.

Nasr also advances the jurisprudence surrounding a state’s duty to conduct an effective domestic investigation into torture. The Strasbourg Court noted that Italian courts had conducted a detailed investigation and that the evidence disregarded by Italy’s highest court on grounds of state secrecy had been sufficient to convict the five Italian military intelligence defendants. It further observed that because the evidence inculpating those defendants had been widely available in the press and on the Internet, the court’s invocation of state secrecy doctrine was not only unpersuasive, but designed to grant impunity to the defendants. Further, the Strasbourg Court noted that the Italian government had never sought the extradition of the convicted CIA agents. As result, the court ruled that despite the efforts of Italian investigators and judges, which had identified the responsible individuals and secured their convictions, the domestic proceedings failed to satisfy the procedural requirements of article 3 of the European Convention (prohibiting torture and other ill-treatment), due to the actions of the executive. This ruling is important because it imposes liability not only where a state takes no steps towards a genuine domestic investigation and prosecution (as in El-Masri and Al-Nashiri/Husayn), but also where efforts by a state’s judges and prosecutors are thwarted in the name of state secrecy.

The ECtHR’s rulings on the CIA torture program also highlight the continued absence of accountability in the United States. The US has failed both to conduct an effective criminal investigation of those most responsible for CIA torture and to provide any remedies to victims. In fact, the Obama administration has vigorously opposed the latter at every turn, invoking the same sweeping state secrecy doctrines the ECtHR rejected in El-Masri and Nasr. These rulings will likely catalyze future litigation before the Strasbourg Court and in European domestic courts as well. (Recent actions filed against Germany for its participation in US targeted killings through use of the Ramstein Air Base provide one example of such litigation.) While the ECtHR’s rulings may not spur further efforts in the United States, they reinforce the perception of the United States as an outlier on the important question of accountability for human rights violations. 

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Hafetz

Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law Follow him on Twitter (@JonathanHafetz).