Good news from Germany

Khaled al-Masri
German police prosecutors have finally taken action in the case of Khaled Masri.

Masri was the German citizen who was kidnapped by CIA agents in January 2004 and flown to a base in Afghanistan where he was held, interrogated and beaten for five months. The agency had apparently mistaken him for a terrorist called Khalid al-Masri. A month after the error was discovered, he was dumped on a lonely road in Albania and left to find his way home to Ulm with empty pockets. If you missed âKidnapped by the CIAâ in SBSâs Cutting Edge slot last week (they havenât put the transcript on the web), you can get all the details from Wikipedia.

That US agents kidnap foreign nationals with impunity, that they detain them without due process, and that the US government has not compensated Masri even after admitting they grabbed him by mistake — I will take it as read that this is all a complete disgrace.

What is interesting here is that the German authorities have taken so long to act.

They know who the agents were. According to this Washington Post story back in October, a German television crew tracked some of them down, and several months ago the prosecutors received all the additional information they needed from the Spanish police. Apparently public prosecutor August Stern, who is based in Munich,

…said his office recently received the list of about 20 CIA operatives from Spanish judicial authorities, who assembled it from the flight manifest of an airplane that investigators believe was used in the kidnapping.

Aviation records show that the plane, a Boeing 737 registered to a suspected CIA front company, left the Spanish island of Mallorca on Jan. 23, 2004, and arrived a few hours later in Skopje, Macedonia, where Masri said he had been held for a few weeks by Macedonian and U.S. agents. The next morning, the plane left for Kabul, Afghanistan, with a brief stopover in Baghdad, according to the records.

The passengers on board are believed to have used fake passports. But Spanish investigators obtained photographs of several who checked into hotels in Mallorca before they left Spain.

Some of the spies were sloppy in other ways in concealing their trails. According to the German television network ARD, one pilot used his hotel phone to call his father in the United States; others used false last names but kept their real first ones and barely altered their birthdates on their passports.

Stern blamed the US and German governments for the delay. In the case of the Americans, it’s no surprise that they didn’t cooperate: they don’t pretend to be accountable, and you know where you stand with them. The secrecy of the German government is surprising and worrying, however. The government initially denied it knew about Masri’s kidnapping until after he was released, but the Bundesnachrichtendienst later admitted it knew about the affair more than a year before the Americans officially informed Chancellor Merkel, which occurred at the end of 2005.

It’s comforting at least to know they were ashamed, but if they weren’t involved in the kidnapping itself, why won’t they cooperate?

Unfortunately there is some evidence that the German government was complicit in the kidnapping. The Washington Post story says:

A German federal police investigator testified last month in Berlin, however, that Masri had been under surveillance for months before his disappearance because of suspicions he had links to a radical Islamic group based in Lebanon. The investigator testified that details of the monitoring may have been passed to U.S. intelligence agencies.

Masri has testified that he was interrogated in Kabul by a German-speaking agent named “Sam,” who he assumed was working for the German government. Investigators said they have been unable to confirm that Sam was a German operative.

This is an important case. Given that the US government has abrogated all responsibility for upholding human rights, at least for the time being, it will be up to the Europeans to set some kind of moral and legal standard for the rest of the human race. This is desirable in its own right, but even more necessary when the West is touting its institutions, against some pretty ugly competition, as our planet’s best hope for peace and prosperity.

One has to be pessimistic about the UK at the moment, if the case of Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, is anything to go by.

It’s not that the cause of due process and state accountability is lost in Europe. The Masri affair has been pursued quite vigorously by individual members of both the German and European parliaments. The question is, why have the prosecutors suddenly decided to act on information they have possessed at least since October? Is the answer they were waiting for more information from the government, which they could use as evidence? And that, finally, faced with overwhelming pressure from the press and the public, they’ve decided to proceed on the evidence they have? Or was Stern actually being blocked somehow by senior officials in the Interior Minsitry, who have now decided to cut their losses and give him the green light? The mainstream media havenât managed to shed much light on the whole dark business yet.

In any case, let’s hope that the whole truth comes out soon. Perhaps the outcry will be loud enough to prompt action from the German parliament, bringing new policies and laws that will set the tone for Europe, and a benchmark that American campaigners, like the American Civil Liberties Association (which prosecuted Masri’s case in the US) can hold up for their own leaders.

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Juan Moment
Juan Moment
17 years ago

What happened to El Masri is what in german is called a Sauerei, and the German authorities were at least complacent, if not cooperating. However, there is not a sprinkle of a doubt in my mind that the same thing could happen here in Oz. The case of David Hicks or the Bali 9 scenario is demonstrating all too well that the Australian government has no gripes about handing over Australian citicens to regimes who torture or kill inmates. It is a shame.

It appears that charges against CIA operatives have now been filed in Germany and in Italy. I wouldn’t hold my breath though, chances are slim that any of those kidnappers will ever be brought to justice. I reckon the German BND should send their own undercover team to the US and abduct as many of the kidnappers as possible and smuggle them out, to be interrogated for months on end in abandoned Polish aircraft hangars and then, after they’ve done their time for the crime, be released in the Albanian mountains without a penny. Quid pro quo.

Joshua Gans
17 years ago

Yes, that’s a pleasant revenge fantasy. The makings of a Mel Gibson movie, in fact.

17 years ago

Good point, James. The Europeans need to step up to the plate. That fat has-been Yank is pitching a nightmare.