German investigators have recommended that prosecutors issue arrest warrants for 13 U.S. intelligence operatives in connection with the kidnapping, beating and secret detention of a German citizen suspected of having links to terrorist networks.
The operatives are said to have been part of a CIA-sponsored team that transported alleged terrorists to interrogation camps around the world. Investigators say the group forced a handcuffed and blindfolded Khaled Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, onto a Boeing 737 in Macedonia and flew him to Afghanistan in January 2004. Masri was never charged with a crime, and was released after five months.
German law enforcement officials said indictments could be filed as early as this week against the suspects, including four pilots, a medic and members of an operations unit. The most serious charge is expected to be kidnapping, according to an official who asked not to be named. None of the suspects, who include CIA contract employees, have been named publicly.
The Masri case has strained U.S.-German relations and led to a parliamentary investigation of allegations that German intelligence agents were involved in the abduction. Investigators also have examined discrepancies about when high-ranking government officials were informed of Masri’s fate.
The prospect of criminal charges in the Masri ordeal comes as an Italian court is deliberating whether to order the trial of 26 Americans and nine Italians implicated in the February 2003 abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar. The Italian government may demand the extradition of the accused Americans, including the former CIA station chief in Milan, where Omar was snatched from a sidewalk.
The CIA has not commented on the Masri case, although White House, Justice Department and agency officials have argued that U.S. laws authorized such covert operations, and that they have been assured that no suspects have been tortured.
Legal experts say it is extremely unlikely the U.S. government would turn over suspects for legal proceedings in either Germany or Italy.
Both cases have outraged lawmakers across the Continent and underscored the legal and human rights questions dividing the U.S. and Europe on countering terrorism. But they also have indicated that some European governments may have been complicit in the CIA program, known as “extraordinary renditions,” to capture and transport suspected militants to secret prisons for interrogations that sometimes included torture.
Legal documents, credit card receipts and hotel records show that those allegedly involved in the Masri abduction stayed at a luxury resort on the Spanish island of Majorca before flying to Skopje, Macedonia, on Jan. 23, 2004. When checking into the hotel, some of the operatives gave aliases, such as Kirk James Bird and James Fairing. The covert team’s charges in Majorca included a food bill of $1,625 and an $81 charge for a massage.
Masri’s odyssey began weeks earlier, when he was pulled off a bus on New Year’s Eve 2003 while crossing the Serbian border into Macedonia. The car salesman and father of four told the Los Angeles Times in 2005 that he had left Germany for a holiday. He said Macedonian security officials seized him and drove him from the border to a hotel in Skopje, the capital, where he was interrogated for days and accused of being an extremist.
Masri said he was threatened at gunpoint and was denied repeated requests to contact German authorities. One night, he said, he was blindfolded and taken to an airport.
“I was led into a room. The door closed behind me and I was beaten from all sides for about one minute,” he said. “They bent my arms to my back and cut off my clothes.... I saw seven to eight men all dressed in black and wearing masks. I tried to keep my underpants on but they ripped them off. They put me in diapers and a dark blue sweatsuit with the legs and sleeves cut out.”
Aviation records viewed by The Times show that a jet registered to a company with links to the CIA landed at Skopje airport at 8:51 p.m. on Jan. 23, 2004. The plane left Skopje hours later, at 2:30 a.m., flying to Baghdad, then to Afghanistan.
Masri said he was drugged for the flight and remembers waking up in “a small, dirty cell.” He said he was interrogated in cycles by Americans and a man he referred to as Sam, who spoke fluent German. Much of the questioning, Masri said, dealt with his attendance at a mosque frequented by radicals in his hometown of Ulm, Germany.
Masri said he went on a hunger strike for 37 days until he was force-fed. He was released in the mountains of Albania five months after he disappeared.
Around the time Masri was freed, the American ambassador to Germany, Daniel R. Coats, informed the German Interior Ministry that the U.S. had detained a German citizen and was preparing to release him. The Germans, however, say they weren’t told about Masri until after he was released. The question of when the German officials knew, and why they kept quiet about the incident, is part of the parliamentary investigation.
One theory to explain the kidnapping, according to officials who asked not to be identified, may be that the captors mistook Masri for a man by the same name who is suspected of terrorist links to Al Qaeda. There also have been suggestions that U.S. intelligence wanted to learn more about the mosque in Ulm, where several known militants who fought in the separatist Russian republic of Chechnya were known to worship.
German prosecutors said they were convinced early on that Masri’s tale of abduction and imprisonment was true. They have repeatedly blamed the U.S. for not cooperating with the investigation. In December 2005, Masri filed suit against the CIA in a U.S. district court. A judge dismissed the lawsuit last year, saying that a trial would “present a grave risk of injury to national security.” The decision is being appealed.
Fleishman is The Times’ Berlin Bureau chief and Goetz a special correspondent.