New documents released by the CIA have revealed details about the detention of Khalid al-Masri, a German-Lebanese man mistaken for an al Qaeda member in 2003. He is yet to be given compensation or an apology from the US.
New documents released by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have revealed the Kafkaesque details of one of the most notorious cases of mistaken identity in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program during the hunt for al Qaeda.
Khalid al-Masri, a German-Lebanese man living at the time in the southern German town of Neu-Ulm, was arrested on the border between Serbia and the FYR of Macedonia on December 31, 2003, only because – as was confirmed by the US Senate in 2014 – he shared a name with an al Qaeda suspect.
Macedonian authorities held him in a hotel in Skopje for three weeks before he was handed over to CIA agents, who then flew him to a secret prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, in late January 2004.
The newly released report, signed off by CIA Inspector General John Helgerson in 2007, shows that he spent four months there being interrogated, humiliated and mistreated, before he was eventually released in Albania in May 2004 and “clandestinely returned to Germany,” as the report put it. Though the German government was informed then of his detention, according to a “Washington Post” report, the US asked it not to disclose any of the details.
‘Missteps and failures’
The report also noted that the US agents did not question the Macedonian agents’ claim that al-Masri’s passport was fake until he had already spent three months in detention.
“The al-Masri operation was characterized by a number of missteps from the beginning that were compounded by subsequent failures of legal and management oversight,” the report said. “CIA did not have al-Masri’s passport examined by Agency experts until early March 2004, when it was found to be genuine.”
Moreover, the report found that “after quickly concluding that he was not a terrorist,” agents decided to detain him on the grounds that “they knew that he was ‘bad’.”
Though Helgerson concluded that he was not physically abused during his detention, al-Masri himself has claimed since that he was shackled, beaten, injected with drugs, force-fed and sodomized – a claim that the European Court of Human Rights agreed with in a ruling in 2012.
Even if the CIA’s version is true, the agency’s own psychologists’ reports on al-Masri show the degree of distress he went through. Al-Masri was kept for two months even after the CIA had concluded there was no justification for keeping him detained, a period during which a CIA psychologist found he was “desperate and depressed and prone to thoughts of suicide.”
In May 2004, a cable was sent to CIA headquarters to try and ascertain a release date. “The cable cited that al-Masri compared his situation to a Kafka novel – he could not possibly prove his innocence because he did not know what he was being charged with,” the report said. “The cable reported al-Masri as saying he had nearly reached the end of what he could bear and that, as of [redacted] May 2004, he would begin a total hunger strike to his death.”
Compensation or apology?
After his release, al-Masri filed lawsuits for compensation in the US, Macedonia and Germany at a variety of levels.
His case was also taken up by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which filed a lawsuit in Germany to try and have the 13 CIA agents involved in al-Masri’s rendition and detention deported – which the German government turned down. Nevertheless, in 2007, a Munich court did issue arrest warrants for the unknown US agents involved, on charges of kidnapping. A case was also pursued in Spain.
The European Court of Human Rights verdict in 2012 was another success, ruling that Macedonia had been “responsible for his torture and ill-treatment,” and ordering the Macedonian government to pay him 60,000 euros ($78,300) in damages.
Al-Masri’s lawyer Darian Pavli welcomed the decision as a “signal to all countries who are planning to collaborate with the US that these practices cannot be justified and that their governments and individuals will be held responsible.”
Germany’s response has been more cagey. In December 2014, the ECCHR wrote a letter to the German Justice Ministry, calling on Justice Minister Heiko Maas to work toward getting compensation for al-Masri. There has been no response as yet (the ministry did not respond to a DW request for comment on Thursday) even though Maas has in the past condemned the CIA rendition program.
“Minister Maas has recently sharply criticized the CIA’s practice of torture, and called for judicial consequences – rightly,” ECCHR General Secretary Wolfgang Kaleck commented at the time. “Now the minister must make actions follow his words.”
Al-Masri’s case, and the official silence that continues to surround it, underlines the cooperation of European governments with the CIA on its rendition program.
“Up till now, no victim of the CIA’s rendition and torture program has received compensation – the probability that there will ever be compensation payments is very small,” said Maja Liebing, rendition expert at Amnesty International Germany.
“Apart from the US, of course the European countries also have a lot of responsibility,” she told DW. “We know that Germany gave the US overflight rights, and that abductions over German territory happened.”
Not only that: various departments of the German government have refused to engage with parliamentary inquiries into involvement with the rendition program.
“Sometimes they didn’t produce the documents requested, or they hindered the investigation attempts by the inquiry,” she said. “All the information was simply categorized as secret and redacted. Up till now there hasn’t been any real investigation into Germany’s collusion in the rendition program.”
Apart from the human rights abuses, the CIA’s report – which was released because of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – also appears to raise questions about the competence of the US intelligence agencies during their search for al Qaeda.
As the CIA inspector general put it: “His rendition and detention resulted from a series of breakdowns in tradecraft, process, management and oversight.”