Sunday, January 09, 2005

German's Claim of Kidnapping Brings Investigation of U.S. Link

The New York Times
January 9, 2005
German's Claim of Kidnapping Brings Investigation of U.S. Link

MUNICH - On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2003, Khaled el-Masri was traveling on a tourist bus headed for the Macedonian capital, Skopje, where he was hoping to escape the "holiday pressures" of home life during a weeklong vacation.

When the bus reached the Serbia-Macedonia border, Mr. Masri said, he was asked the usual questions: Where are you going? How long will you be staying? Mr. Masri, a German citizen, did not think much of it, until he realized that the border guards had confiscated his passport.

The bus moved on, but an increasingly panicked Mr. Masri was ordered to stay behind. A few hours later, Mr. Masri, a 41-year-old unemployed car salesman, said he was taken to a small, windowless room and was accused of being a terrorist by three men who were dressed in civilian clothes but carrying pistols.

"They asked a lot of questions - if I have relations with Al Qaeda, Al Haramain, the Islamic Brotherhood," recalled Mr. Masri, who was born in Lebanon. "I kept saying no, but they did not believe me."

It was the first day of what Mr. Masri said would become five months in captivity. In an interview, he said that after being kidnapped by the Macedonian authorities at the border, he was turned over to officials he believed were from the United States. He said they flew him to a prison in Afghanistan, where he said he was shackled, beaten repeatedly, photographed nude, injected with drugs and questioned by interrogators about what they insisted were his ties to Al Qaeda.

He was released without ever being charged with a crime. The German police and prosecutors have been investigating Mr. Masri's allegations since he reported the matter to them last June, two weeks after his return to Germany.

Martin Hofmann, a senior national prosecutor in Munich who handles terrorism cases and is in charge of the Masri investigation, and another official, a senior organized crime investigator in southern Germany, say they believe Mr. Masri's story. They said investigators interviewed him for 17 hours over two days, that his story was very detailed and that he recounted it consistently. In addition, the officials said they had verified specific elements of the case, including that Mr. Masri was forced off the bus at the border.

Still, much of Mr. Masri's story has not been corroborated. His assertion that he was held by Americans in Afghanistan, for example, is solely based on what he said he observed or was told after he was taken off the bus in Macedonia.

Mr. Masri said he was confounded by his captors' insistence that he was a Qaeda operative. He attends a mosque in Ulm, Germany, that has been closely watched by the authorities because several suspected terrorists have worshiped there. But those authorities say Mr. Masri has never been a suspect.

Mr. Masri's lawyer, Manfred R. Gnjidic, said he suspected that his client was swept into the C.I.A.'s policy of "renditions" - handing custody of a prisoner from United States control to another country for the purposes of interrogation - because he has the same name, with a slightly different spelling, as a man wanted in the Sept. 11 attacks. The policy has come under increasing criticism as other cases have come to light recently.

Although the German authorities say they have no specific suspects in the Masri case, they say they are looking into the possible role of the United States and other countries.

"It is an unusual case," Mr. Hofmann said. "The political dimension is huge. Under German law, we can charge a person with kidnapping, but not a country. Countries cannot kidnap people."

Officials at Germany's national intelligence agency said they are also investigating. They said they asked the F.B.I. for assistance last fall but have received little help.

A senior administration official said the Bush administration had been aware of these allegations for some time, but he referred questions to the F.B.I. and the C.I.A.

In a series of interviews, neither the C.I.A. nor the F.B.I. would deny or confirm Mr. Masri's allegations. A C.I.A. spokeswoman said the agency would not comment at all. Senior F.B.I. officials in Washington acknowledged that they received a request for help from the Germans last October, and said they were assisting in the investigation. The officials disputed that they had not worked aggressively on the case.

"This is a very ongoing thing, and we are working together with the Germans to resolve it," a senior official said. "Our hope is we can get to the bottom of it." The official declined to discuss whether the bureau had had any contact with the C.I.A. or Pentagon about the allegations.

Golan Pavlovski, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry of the Republic of Macedonia, said he had no information about Mr. Masri's case.

When he returned home last June, Mr. Masri said, he felt relief but also rage. Asked whom he blames, Mr. Masri, a burly, soft-spoken man, looked at his hands for a long moment before saying, "Of course, I blame the Americans first."

Similar Cases

Mr. Masri's allegations bear similarities to the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian born in Syria who was suspected of being a Qaeda operative. Mr. Arar, who was detained in New York in 2002, says he was sent by the United States to Syria, where he says he was repeatedly tortured during 10 months in prison.

A second detainee, Mamdouh Habib, an Australian, has asserted in court papers that he was tortured in an Egyptian prison for nearly six months in 2001 before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The allegations were contained in a motion filed with a federal court recently. Mr. Habib's lawyer has asked the federal district court in Washington to block the Bush administration from sending him back to Egypt, asserting that he would be tortured again there.

The C.I.A. began the renditions program in the early 1990's, but its use has increased since the Sept. 11 attacks. Human rights organizations, who say the policy is tantamount to government-sponsored kidnapping, estimate that dozens of "high value" detainees are being held in secret locations around the world. C.I.A. officials have acknowledged that the agency conducts renditions, but say they do not condone the use of torture during interrogations.

Mr. Masri, who had not gone public with his case, agreed to give an interview last month after being approached by The New York Times. During the interview, he spoke without notes, and in great detail, about his case. He said he was able to recount his time in captivity because he wrote down his experiences right after he was released.

The timeline was corroborated by documents, including a bus ticket and a stamp on his passport in Albania on May 29, the date he said he was released. He returned to Germany on June 3. His account also matched details in a report about his case written by Amnesty International, whose officials interviewed Mr. Masri on June 21.

"Mr. Masri had been questioned twice for a lot of hours, and he always has said the same things, he never changed details," Mr. Hofmann said in an interview about his country's investigation. "Therefore I don't think it would be possible that someone could invent such a story."

Mr. Masri said his ordeal began after he decided to go on a short vacation without his family after arguing with his wife, choosing Skopje because it was inexpensive and friends had recommended it.

After being interrogated the first night in Macedonia, Mr. Masri, who speaks German and Arabic, was taken to a motel on the outskirts of Skopje, where he said several men held him for 23 days. "They told me: 'You are not arrested. You aren't handcuffed, are you?' " Mr. Masri recalled. But he said he was not permitted to leave.

Questions About Al Qaeda

He said the men continued to question him about Al Qaeda. After several days, Mr. Masri said he lost his temper, demanded to speak with officials from the German government and tried to escape. "One man put his pistol in his hand and showed it to me, to stop me from leaving," Mr. Masri said.

Another week went by, he said, before another man arrived to question him. "He was nice to me," he recalled. "He said we'll make a deal - you say you are an Al Qaeda member, and sign a paper saying that, and we'll put you back on a plane and you will be deported to Germany."

Mr. Masri said he refused. The man left but returned two days later, he said, and this time he was more combative. "He said I'm not cooperative, I bring problems on myself, they know everything about me," Mr. Masri said. He said the man asserted that Mr. Masri was originally from Egypt and had been to a Qaeda training camp in Pakistan - allegations that Mr. Masri said he repeatedly denied.

After three and a half weeks, Mr. Masri said he was told that he could return to Germany. The Macedonians took a statement from him on videotape to show he was in good health when he left their country, he said. Afterward, Mr. Masri said, he was permitted to leave the motel, but a few steps down the road, a pickup truck pulled up next to him, and several men grabbed him.

Mr. Masri said that a hood was put over his head but that he believed he was driven to the airport because he could hear the roar of planes. He said he was taken to a room and beaten. He said his clothes were cut off with knives, and he heard the sounds of cameras taking pictures. "After I was naked they took off my mask so I could see, and all the people were in black clothes and black masks," he said. "There were seven or eight people."

Mr. Masri said a couple of men put him in a blue warm-up suit, handcuffed him and tied his hands to his belt, put plugs in his ears and blindfolded him. He said he was put on a plane, where he was forced to lie on the floor. Someone injected his arm, he said, and he fell into a deep sleep.

After an unknown number of hours, he said, he awoke to find that the plane had landed. He said he was taken to a building and imprisoned in a tiny, cold cell. "Everything was dirty - a dirty blanket, dirty water, like from a fish aquarium," he said.

On the walls in his cell were words written in Arabic and what he believed was Farsi. Mr. Masri said that his captors and fellow prisoners told him he was in Kabul, Afghanistan.

That first evening in prison, Mr. Masri said, a man he assumed was a doctor, wearing a thin black mask, came to his cell to take a vial of blood. He said he believed that the doctor was American because he spoke English. Mr. Masri said he was repeatedly punched in the head and neck by several guards who accompanied the doctor. He also said he was forced to run up and down stairs with his arms shackled behind his back.

The following morning, Mr. Masri said, an interrogator walked into his cell and, in a thick Lebanese accent, began shouting at him. "He told me, 'Where you are right now there is no law, no rights, no one knows you are here, and no one cares about you.' "

Mr. Masri said the man had a stack of documents and told him they knew "everything" about him, including that he was an associate of Mohamed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who is believed to have helped the hijackers. They also accused him of being a senior Qaeda operative who was trained in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, he said. "I denied everything - I kept saying, 'No, no, no.' "

His lawyer, Mr. Gnjidic, said he thought that his client had been confused with the Sept. 11 suspect Khalid al-Masri, because that man is believed by American authorities to have had contact with Mr. bin al-Shibh and Mr. Atta and to have been partly responsible for directing them to a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. It was there that the two men met Osama bin Laden, who enlisted them for the Sept. 11 mission.

More weeks went by, and Mr. Masri said he then met a man who presented himself as a top lieutenant at the prison. He believes that man was also an American, based on his accent.

"They asked me about Ulm, how many people go to the mosque, how often do they pray," he said. "I told them. When I asked why I was there, I never got an answer."

A Hunger Strike

In March, Mr. Masri said he began a hunger strike. On the 35th day, he said an Afghan prison guard told him, "The Americans don't care if you live or die."

Two days later, he said, he was beaten again and forcibly fed liquid through a tube shoved down his throat.

Mr. Masri said he then ended his hunger strike. He said he was getting to know his fellow prisoners - there were two Pakistani brothers and a man from Tanzania who had been there for several months. He also said there was a Pakistani man who had been there nearly two years.

"I'm sure those men will take revenge, after what was done to them," Mr. Masri said. "Some said to me - we hope to get out of here and then have the power to make something happen against the Americans."

Weeks went by. In May, Mr. Masri said he met a man he believed was German and who was introduced as "Sam." The man posed the same series of questions - mostly about any dealings he may have had with Mr. Atta and Mr. bin al-Shibh. "He was friendly," Mr. Masri said. "So I said, 'Can you please tell me if my family knows where I am?' And the German said, 'No, they don't know.' "

The German authorities said they were unable to confirm Mr. Masri's account of a German agent.

The Return Home

A week later, Mr. Masri said, he was blindfolded, taken to the airport and put on a flight, and then placed on a bus and driven for six or seven hours. His blindfold was removed, and a man told him to walk down a deserted, winding mountain road, he said. "I had the feeling after a few steps, they'd shoot me in the back."

He walked around the bend and came upon a border crossing, where three men in uniforms waited for him, he said. Mr. Masri said he told one of the men about his five months in captivity. "The man was laughing at me," he said. "He said: 'Don't tell that story to anyone because no one will believe it. Everyone will laugh.' "

Mr. Masri asked where they were; the man said in northern Albania, near the Macedonian border. The border officer handed Mr. Masri a plastic box containing the belongings that were taken from him on the first day of his captivity, including his passport and cash, he said. The man told him he was free to go, and his passport was stamped by the nation of Albania, on May 29, 2004.

From there, he bought an airplane ticket and flew to Frankfurt. Once in Germany, Mr. Masri said he returned to his hometown, Ulm, but his wife and four sons, ages 2 to 6, were not at home. "I feared the worst - I feared something happened to my family," he said. Four days later, he found them at his wife's mother's home in Lebanon.

In an interview, Mr. Masri's wife, Aischa, said she had moved back to Lebanon after not hearing from her husband. She said she began thinking, "Maybe he has gone to marry another woman."

Mrs. Masri, 29, said she did not expect to see him again. "The boys have cried a lot in Lebanon. They always have asked me, "Why are we here, Mom, and where is Daddy?' " she said, and then began to weep. "From time to time, I called his friends in Germany and asked them if they heard anything from him or about him. But no one knew anything."

Mr. Masri said he was still trying to rebuild his life. He said he had no steady employment, and almost no friends. "The phone doesn't ring - people have heard, and they don't want to see me," he said.

It was not until last August that Mr. Masri was told by his lawyer that he had the same name as the Sept. 11 suspect.

Mr. Masri said he was bedeviled by questions that he and the German authorities still could not answer. "There are so many questions," he said. "How did it happen? Why did it happen? I don't know."