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German court challenges CIA over abduction

International Herald Tribune | January 31, 2007

Mark Landler

In the most serious legal challenge yet to the Central Intelligence Agency's secret transfer of terrorism suspects, a German court has issued an arrest warrant for 13 people in the mistaken kidnapping and jailing of a German citizen of Lebanese descent.

Prosecutors in Munich said the suspects, whom they did not identify, were part of a CIA "abduction team," which seized the man, Khaled el-Masri, in Macedonia in late 2003 and flew him to Afghanistan. He was imprisoned there for five months and has said he was shackled, beaten and interrogated about his alleged ties to Al Qaeda before being released without charges.

His ordeal is the best-documented case of the CIA's practice of "extraordinary rendition," in which terrorism suspects were seized and sent for interrogation to countries where torture is practiced.

"This is a very consequential step," August Stern, the deputy prosecutor in Munich, said by telephone. "It is a necessary step before bringing a criminal case against these people."

The CIA has never acknowledged any role in Masri's detention, and an agency spokesman declined to comment Wednesday. The German government said it would not comment on the case, except to affirm the independence of the public prosecutor.

Stern said investigators would seek to establish the true identities of the 13 people, most of whom are believed to use aliases. They include the four- member crew of the Boeing 737 that picked up Masri, as well as a mechanic and several CIA operatives, people familiar with the case said.

The issuing of an arrest warrant represents a major expansion of the legal assault on the CIA's rendition program in Europe. Italian prosecutors are seeking indictments against 25 CIA operatives and Italy's former intelligence chief for the kidnapping of a militant Egyptian cleric in 2003.

But the German case carries more weight, according to legal experts, because of the reputation of courts here for painstaking deliberation, as well as the diplomatic ties between Germany and the United States.

It comes at a delicate time for both countries. The Bush administration has faced a drumbeat of criticism because of its anti-terrorism policies since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, while the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been eager to heal rifts in the trans-Atlantic alliance over the Iraq war.

"It is unique that a German court would issue warrants against 13 CIA agents," said Hans-Christian Ströbele, a Green Party member of a German parliamentary committee that is investigating the flights.

The case also has political implications within Germany, where the role of the German government in tolerating — or even facilitating — CIA flights has come under increased scrutiny. Frankfurt Airport was used for many of the flights, as was the Ramstein American air base.

In Germany, unlike in Italy, defendants cannot be tried in absentia. As a practical matter, it is unlikely that the Bush administration would acquiesce in the extradition to Germany of the 13 people covered by the arrest warrant. But it could hinder their ability to move around Europe.

On Wednesday, a German radio station, NDR, revealed what it said were the names of the 13 people — 11 men and two women. Stern declined to discuss the names, which have been picked up in other German news media.

The whereabouts of all 13 people are not known, though a German television program, "Panorama," tracked down three of them in North Carolina last September. They declined to comment on their activities.

For Masri, who has had to overcome a tide of public skepticism about his account since it was first reported in The New York Times in early 2005, the court's action is a significant step in bolstering the credibility of his claims, according to his lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic.

"This is unbelievably important for our case," Gnjidic said in an interview. "It's the first direct sign of the German government against the CIA that they did the wrong thing."

Masri, who is unemployed, lives in the southern German city of Neu-Ulm. Gnjidic said he had been buoyed by a statement of support from the former German interior minister Otto Schily.

Masri is petitioning a U.S. appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, to reinstate a lawsuit against the agency. Last May, a federal judge threw out a suit brought by Masri, accepting the U.S. government's contention that it would be impossible to open a trial without disclosing state secrets.

The U.S. Justice Department has declined to help the German prosecutors in their investigation, citing pending legal cases in the United States. This has made the Germans dependent on information from other sources, including journalists investigating the CIA rendition program.

A major break, Stern said, came from a Spanish reporter who compiled a list of the names of people involved in Masri's abduction from sources in the Civil Guard, a Spanish paramilitary unit. The CIA used the Spanish island of Majorca as a logistics center for its flights, Gnjidic said, and the authorities found the names of members of the rendition team on hotel logs there.

Stern also credited tips from prosecutors in Milan, as well as from Dick Marty, a Swiss senator who conducted an inquiry into the rendition program on behalf of the Council of Europe.

The nature of Germany's role in Masri's case, and in other CIA flights, remains murky. Masri has claimed he was interrogated three times inside his prison in Kabul by a German, who identified himself as "Sam."

Germany's foreign minister, Frank- Walter Steinmeier, has said he was told of Masri's abduction only in June 2004, after he had been released in Albania. As chief of staff to the former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, Steinmeier oversaw all German intelligence services.

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