January 31, 2007 in Nation/World

Germany wants U.S. agents arrested

Jeffrey Fleishman and John Goetz Los Angeles Times
 

BERLIN – German investigators have recommended that prosecutors issue arrest warrants against 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 were 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 al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, onto a Boeing 737 and flew him from Macedonia to Afghanistan in January 2004. Al-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 identified.

The al-Masri case has periodically strained U.S.-German relations and led to a parliamentary investigation into allegations that German intelligence agents were involved in the abduction. Investigators also have examined discrepancies about when high-ranking government officials were informed of al-Masri’s fate.

The prospect of criminal charges in the al-Masri ordeal comes as an Italian court is deliberating whether to order the trial of 26 Americans and nine Italians in connection with 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.

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 al-Masri abduction stayed at a luxury resort on the Spanish island of Mallorca before flying to Skopje, Macedonia, on Jan. 23, 2004.

When checking into the hotel, some of the operatives gave aliases. The covert team’s charges in Mallorca also included a food bill of nearly $1,700 and an $85 bill for a massage.

Al-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 a 2005 interview that he had left Germany for a short 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.

Al-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 sweat suit 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, Iraq, then to Afghanistan.

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