A Munich court has ordered the arrest of 13 U.S. intelligence operatives in connection with the kidnapping and beating of a German citizen who was interrogated for five months at a secret prison in Afghanistan, prosecutors said Wednesday.
The suspects are said to have been members of a CIA-sponsored team that allegedly flew Khaled Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, from Macedonia to Afghanistan in January 2004. Each of the accused, all but one of whom were identified only by aliases, was charged with kidnapping and causing serious bodily harm.
Police found a “strong suspicion” that the operatives were involved in Masri’s disappearance, said a statement released by the Munich prosecutor’s office. “According to the information we have, the suspects listed in the arrest warrants are believed to be so-called code names of CIA agents. The investigation will now focus on learning the actual names of the suspects.”
Legal experts said it was unlikely the accused, including four pilots, a medic and members of an operations unit, would appear before a German court. CIA and State Department officials have refused to comment in detail about the Masri case, but the Bush administration has said that anti-terrorism laws allow for such covert operations, known as “extraordinary renditions.” U.S. officials have denied allegations of torture.
“As far as I know, the German court has never issued an arrest warrant against 13 CIA officials all at once,” said Hans-Christian Stroeble, a member of a parliamentary committee investigating the Masri case whose Green Party has criticized the renditions program. “This is a great success.”
The intelligence operatives, most of whom are believed to be Americans, are suspected of having been involved in a mission that loaded a bound and drugged Masri onto a Boeing 737 that flew him from Skopje, Macedonia, to Afghanistan.
Masri had been detained weeks earlier by Macedonian security officials when he attempted to cross the Macedonian border with Serbia. He said that he was beaten while in Macedonian custody.
German prosecutors were initially skeptical of Masri’s tale: that he disappeared into a hidden dimension in the anti-terrorism fight and was held for interrogation and abuse before being released in the mountains of Albania in May 2004.
But German authorities said they concluded that the car salesman and father of four was telling the truth. They believe Masri was the victim of mistaken identity: a man with the same name as a suspected terrorist linked to Al Qaeda.
Former Interior Minister Otto Schily has told a German government committee that U.S. officials privately apologized.
German officials allege that the operatives, many of whom live in North Carolina, work for Aero Contractors, a contract air carrier that has been linked by news reports and German investigators to the CIA. The company is connected to Premier Executive Transport Services Inc., which held the registration for the Boeing that transported Masri, according to European aviation documents.
The parliamentary committee is investigating whether German agents were involved in the abduction and why Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier did not immediately disclose his knowledge of the affair.
The improving relationship between Berlin and Washington has at times been affected. In 2005, after a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was pleased that the Bush administration “admitted this man had been erroneously taken,” speaking of Masri. But a senior U.S. official quickly denied such a characterization, saying that Masri had been released because Washington “no longer had evidence or intelligence to justify” his detention.