ON NEW YEAR’S EVE in 2003, I was seized at the border of Serbia and Macedonia by Macedonian police who mistakenly believed that I was traveling on a false German passport. I was detained incommunicado for more than three weeks. Then I was handed over to the American Central Intelligence Agency and was stripped, severely beaten, shackled, dressed in a diaper, injected with drugs, chained to the floor of a plane and flown to Afghanistan, where I was imprisoned in a foul dungeon for more than four months.
Long after the American government realized that I was an entirely innocent man, I was blindfolded, put back on a plane, flown to Europe and left on a hilltop in Albania — without any explanation or apology for the nightmare that I had endured.
My story is well known. It has been described in literally hundreds of newspaper articles and television news programs — many of them relying on sources within the U.S. government. It has been the subject of numerous investigations and reports by intergovernmental bodies, including the European Parliament. Most recently, prosecutors in my own country of Germany are pursuing indictments against 13 CIA agents and contractors for their role in my kidnapping, abuse and detention. Although I never could have imagined it, and certainly never wished it, I have become the public face of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program.
Why, then, does the American government insist that my ordeal is a state secret? This is something beyond my comprehension. In December 2005, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, I sued former CIA Director George Tenet along with other CIA agents and contractors for their roles in my kidnapping, mistreatment and arbitrary detention. Above all, what I want from the lawsuit is a public acknowledgment from the U.S. government that I was innocent, a mistaken victim of its rendition program, and an apology for what I was forced to endure. Without this vindication, it has been impossible for me to return to a normal life.
The U.S. government does not deny that I was wrongfully kidnapped. Instead, it has argued in court that my case must be dismissed because any litigation of my claims will expose state secrets and jeopardize American security, even though President Bush has told the world about the CIA’s detention program, and even though my allegations have been corroborated by eyewitnesses and other evidence. To my amazement and dismay, last May, a federal district court judge agreed with the government and threw out my case. And then Friday, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. It seems that the only place in the world where my case cannot be discussed is in a U.S. courtroom.
I did not bring this lawsuit to harm America. I brought the lawsuit because I want to know why America harmed me. I don’t understand why the strongest nation on Earth believes that acknowledging a mistake will threaten its security. Isn’t it more likely that showing the world that America cannot give justice to an innocent victim of its anti-terror policies will cause harm to America’s image and security around the world?
IN NOVEMBER, I traveled to America for the first time to hear my lawyers argue my case before the appeals court in Richmond, Va. and to meet with members of Congress and their staff on Capitol Hill. (It’s obvious that the U.S. government does not consider me a security threat, or I would not have been allowed to enter the country, much less be in the same room with federal judges and members of Congress.)
Although I did not understand all of the arguments made by the lawyers, I was impressed by the dignity of the proceedings and by the respect for the rule of law that I have always associated with America. I’m deeply disappointed to find that this same legal system denies me the chance to fully present my case.
If I were being treated fairly by the American legal system, perhaps we would not have reached the point where German prosecutors are bringing criminal charges against American citizens.
During my visit in November, many Americans offered me their personal apologies for the brutality that had been perpetrated against me in their name. I saw in their faces the true America, an America that is not held captive by fear of unknown enemies and that understands the strength and power of justice. That is the America that, I hope, one day will see me as a human being — not a state secret.