(By Ray D.)
The El-Masri rendition case has been the focus of heavy media attention in Germany since the story first broke last year that a German citizen of Lebanese decent was apparently the innocent victim in a case of mistaken identity. On January 14, 2005, SPIEGEL ONLINE's English site published the following:
"Khaled el-Masri just wanted to go on a short holiday to Skopje, he says. He needed some time alone -- away from the clamor of his four young sons. A couple of days. But it turned out to be a longer trip than he had planned. And he didn't end up seeing much of the Macedonian capital, either. Rather, he spent months locked up in a dirty prison cell in Afghanistan.
El-Masri, a 41-year-old German citizen who lives in the western German city of Ulm, was kidnapped on the Macedonian border by secret service personnel -- he doesn't know what country they were from -- on Dec. 31, 2003. From there, he was brought to a hotel in Skopje where he was not allowed to leave his room for three weeks. His captors began interrogating him there: "They offered me a deal," he told the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "I should sign a confession that I was a member of al-Qaida and then they would let me go.""
After five months, the intelligence agencies reportedly realized they had the wrong man and released Mr. El-Masri, allegedly offering him money to remain silent. Recently a Washington Post article by Dana Priest indicated that German government and intelligence knew much more about the case then previously admitted:
"In May 2004, the White House dispatched the U.S. ambassador in Germany to pay an unusual visit to that country's interior minister. Ambassador Daniel R. Coats carried instructions from the State Department transmitted via the CIA's Berlin station because they were too sensitive and highly classified for regular diplomatic channels, according to several people with knowledge of the conversation.
Coats informed the German minister that the CIA had wrongfully imprisoned one of its citizens, Khaled Masri, for five months, and would soon release him, the sources said. There was also a request: that the German government not disclose what it had been told even if Masri went public. The U.S. officials feared exposure of a covert action program designed to capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them among countries, and possible legal challenges to the CIA from Masri and others with similar allegations.
The Masri case, with new details gleaned from interviews with current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials, offers a rare study of how pressure on the CIA to apprehend al Qaeda members after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has led in some instances to detention based on thin or speculative evidence. The case also shows how complicated it can be to correct errors in a system built and operated in secret."
Other sources also indicated that US intelligence contacted German authorities after apprehending El-Masri, sparking controversy in the German media. El-Masri also claims he was interrogated by a German man who identified himself as "Sam" while in Afghanistan. Recently media sources have speculated on the identity of "Sam" without conclusive findings. The International Herald Tribune Europe reported last Tuesday:
"German officials said they knew nothing about the man's abduction and have repeatedly pressed Washington for information about the case, which has sparked outrage here. At a meeting in Berlin in December, Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded an explanation of the incident from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
But on Monday in nearby New Ulm, the police and prosecutors opened an investigation into whether Germany served as a silent partner of the United States in the abduction of the man, Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Arab descent who was detained on New Year's Eve 2003 in Macedonia and flown to the Kabul prison.
The action came after a two-and-a- half-hour meeting at police headquarters in which Masri told the police that he was "90 percent" certain that a senior German police official was the interrogator who had visited him three times inside the prison in Kabul but had identified himself only as "Sam."
The German prosecutors said Monday that they are also investigating whether the German Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, had been notified about Masri's kidnapping within days of his detention there, but then did nothing to try to help him.
In broadening its criminal inquiry into the abduction of Masri to the activities of its own government, the prosecutors are trying to determine whether German officials worked secretly with the United States in a practice known as "rendition," in which terror suspects are sent to be interrogated in other countries where torture is commonly used."
In the meantime, El-Masri has become a cause celeb for organizations like the ACLU. So much so that the organization has even filed a lawsuit on the German's behalf against former CIA Director George Tenet. The ACLU website states:
"In a history-making lawsuit, the ACLU is challenging the practice on behalf of Khaled El-Masri, an entirely innocent victim of rendition who was released without ever being charged.
The lawsuit charges that former CIA Director George Tenet violated U.S. and universal human rights laws when he authorized agents to abduct Mr. El-Masri, beat him, drug him, and transport him to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan. The corporations that owned and operated the airplanes used to transport Mr. El-Masri are also named in the case. The CIA continued to hold Mr. El-Masri incommunicado in the notorious “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan long after his innocence was known. Five months after his abduction, Mr. El-Masri was deposited at night, without explanation, on a hill in Albania."
But was Khaled El-Masri really just an innocent man plucked from a bus on a dark night? Or did he have real connections with radical Islamic organizations? A new media report from the German magazine "Focus" sheds further light on the case.
Focus Magazine: El-Masri Commando Chief with Radical Lebanese Al-Tawhid
Yesterday, a report surfaced on the "Focus" website with the following information (translated):
"The German-Lebanese Khaled el-Masri who was abducted to Afghanistan was the commando chief of a radical movement in Lebanon Focus reports.
The German-Lebanese commanded a 16-man armed group in Lebanon according to information from German intelligence. That was conveyed to FOCUS from the 273 comprehensive secret report of the German security authorities for the parliamentary oversight committee (PKG).
According to it, El-Masri was a leading member of the radical movement Al-Tawhid (spelled "el-Tawhid" in German) at the start of the 1980s. The organization stood close to the Muslim Brotherhood ideologically and above all fought the Alavite sect in Lebanon that they saw as un-Islamic. The area of operations for El-Masri and his troop was supposed to be Tripoli." (emphasis ours)
So is Mr. El-Masri an "an entirely innocent victim of rendition" as the ACLU claims or did the CIA have real reason to suspect him as someone with connections to Al-Qaeda? This recent "Focus" report is certain to provoke new questions and a fresh look at the case.