Wednesday, December 07, 2005
By Leonard Doyle and Tony Paterson in Berlin
Published: 07 December 2005
When Khaled al-Masri took the bus from Ulm in southern Germany to Macedonia two years ago, his only objective was to cool off after a row with his wife.
But his troubles were only beginning. At the border crossing between Serbia and Macedonia he was hauled off the coach and handed over to three men in civilian clothes carrying handguns. His name identical to one of the 11 September hijackers had lit up a police computer.
The Lebanese-born German was starting out on a journey into the darkest heart of America's war on terror. His ordeal would last five months, where, unknown to his family and friends, he would be trussed up, tortured and abused before being dumped in Albania, fearing he was to be shot.
Yesterday lawyers acting for Mr Masri filed a lawsuit in Washington claiming he had been captured and tortured by the CIA. Mr Masri, represented by the human rights group the American Civil Liberties Union, is the first to challenge alleged CIA abductions and torture of foreign nationals in so called "black site" secret prisons in Poland, Romania and other countries. The row over America's policy of "extraordinary rendition" is now raging across Europe, overshadowing Condoleezza Rice's visit to Europe.
The tension was evident yesterday as the US Secretary of State held talks with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, in Berlin. In an apparent concession to her critics, Ms Rice said: "Any policy will sometimes result in errors, and when it happens, we will do everything we can to rectify it." But US officials denied Ms Merkel's claim that Ms Rice had apologised for the treatment of Mr Masri. "We are not quite sure what was in her head," said one.
Ms Merkel, trying to repair relations with Washington which were damaged by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder's opposition to the Iraq war, said she had asked her Foreign Minister to report to a parliamentary committee on the Masri case.
Meanwhile Ms Rice shrugged off a written British request on behalf of the EU for clarification about the secret CIA flights, by attaching a copy of her statement issued on Monday in Washington, in which she said that the US did not condone torture and had acted in co-operation with European governments..
The Dutch Foreign Minister, Ben Bot, dismissed Ms Rice's statement as inadequate.
Lord Steyn, the former law lord and judge, said that "if British authorities knew the nature of these flights they would be guilty of war crimes".
In addition to torture Mr Masri says he was subjected to "prolonged, arbitrary detention" and he now wants the US government to acknowledge its mistake and apologise in public.
On 31 December 2003 as Mr Masri waited to clear immigration in Macedonia, the border police notified the local CIA station which contacted the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
This week it was revealed that the head of the CIA's counter-terrorism unit had ordered Mr Masri's "extraordinary rendition" because she " had a hunch" he was involved in terrorist activities and travelling on a false passport.
The coach left without him and Mr Masri was taken to a small room where he was interrogated for several hours by his captors who asked him whether he was linked to al-Qa'ida. "I kept saying no but they did not believe me," he said. He wastaken to a motel outside Skopje, where he was held and interrogated for a further 23 days.
The Macedonians then took a statement from him and allowed him to leave the motel. Outside a lorry pulled up and several men grabbed him and put a hood over his head. He was driven to a location he believes was near the airport and beaten, stripped naked and photographed. "After that they took off my mask and all the people were in black clothes and black masks. There were seven or eight of them," he said.
He was then knocked out with a powerful sleeping potion. Mr Masri was handcuffed, blindfolded, injected with drugs and put on a plane. He awoke several hours later in Afghanistan and taken to a prison cell with a filthy blanket and dirty drinking water. An English-speaking doctor arrived to take a blood sample. He was accompanied by guards who repeatedly punched him.
The following morning an interrogator with a thick Lebanese accent told him: "Where you are now there is no law, no rights, no one knows you are here and no one knows about you."
During his incarceration, Mr Masri says he was repeatedly beaten and forced to run up and down stairs with his hands manacled behind his back. His captors refused to believe he had no link with al-Qa'ida.
In March 2004, Mr Masri began a hunger strike which was broken 37 days later when guards beat him and force-fed him with a tube down his throat.
In early May, a man called "Sam" who Mr Masri believes was German, entered his cell and asked him questions about the 9/11 hijackers. Mr Masri denied any knowledge of the group and asked him whether his family knew where he was. "Sam" told him they did not.
A week later, Mr Masri was blindfolded and put on a plane to Albania. He was told he had been held because he had "a suspicious name". The Washington Post reported this week that when the CIA realised they had been wrong, they decided to dump Mr Masri and act as if nothing had happened.
Mr Masri was bundled aboard a bus driven for several hours and finally and let free at the Macedonian border. Three border guards were waiting for him. He tried to tell one of them about his ordeal but the guard roared with laughter and told him: "Don't tell anyone that story because no one will believe you. Everyone will laugh."
Mr Masri has since been reunited with his family. He is now unemployed and says that the publicity surrounding his case has led his friends to shun him.
Long after the CIA dropped him off on a deserted mountain road, terrified he was about to be shot in the back, the consequences of his ordeal have turned into a full-blown crisis between the US, Germany and the other European countries where a blind eye was turned to the alleged activities of CIA snatch and torture squads. "I have very bad feelings about the United States," Mr Masri said. "I think it's just like in the Arab countries: arresting people, treating them inhumanly and less than that, and with no rights and no laws."
The 800 secret flights in European airspace
CIA planes are alleged to have used almost 20 airports, including Luton, Stansted, Edinburgh, Prestwick and Glasgow. US has responded to written request for clarification by repeating official US position as stated by Condoleezza Rice.
Shannon airport is alleged to have been the refueling stop of certain CIA ßights. Ms Rice had assured Irish foreign minister the airport had not been used for "untoward" purposes.
CIA ßights are alleged to have ßown to Holland, stopping at Schipol airport on the outskirts of Amsterdam, in last six months. Dutch foreign minister says assurances by Ms Rice on secret detention centres are not satisfactory.
Berlin investigating reports of CIA flights after allegations Germany is Ôtransit hubÕ of CIA activity in Europe. German national Khaled al-Masri abducted in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan where he was held for five months before being set free in Albania. The American Civil Liberties Union is now suing the former CIA director, George Tenet, on his behalf.
'SECRET PRISON SITE'
Site of alleged secret CIA prisons where torture practised. Warsaw denies allegations, but prison reportedly transferred to North Africa following allegations by Human Rights Watch.
French officials say they cannot confirm reports of private CIA-chartered Learjet landing in Brest in 2002 and another stopping over near Paris in 2005.
Lisbon has requested information from the US after it was alleged 34 CIA ßights passed through the country.
Madrid has announced more stringent monitoring of ßights into the country after it was reported 10 CIA planes had landed in Tenerife and Majorca in 2004 and 2005.
A CIA plane was reported to have landed at Budapest airport in October carrying suspects from Afghanistan.
'SECRET PRISON SITE'
Site of alleged torture prison. Denies the allegations, but prison reportedly transferred to Africa following allegations by Human Rights Watch.
Radical Islamic cleric Abu Omar was allegedly kidnapped by the CIA in Milan in 2003. Italian prosecutors are trying to extradite 22 CIA operatives from the US.