German man wrongfully detained by CIA files suit

Tenet, firms allegedly linked to Afghanistan flight sued

December 07, 2005|By SCOTT SHANE | SCOTT SHANE,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A German citizen who says he was abducted, beaten and taken to Afghanistan by American agents in an apparent case of mistaken identity beginning in 2003 filed suit in federal court yesterday against George J. Tenet, the former CIA director, and three companies said to have been involved in secret flight operations.

The suit came three days after Khaled al-Masri, a 42-year-old Lebanese-born former car salesman, was refused entrance to the United States after arriving Saturday in Atlanta on a flight from Germany with the intention of appearing at a news conference yesterday in Washington. He spoke instead by video satellite link, describing somberly how he was beaten, photographed nude and injected with drugs during five months in detention in Macedonia and Afghanistan.

"I want to know why they did this to me," al-Masri said, speaking in German. He said that he had been reunited with his wife and children and was seeking work in Germany but that he had not fully recovered from the trauma of his experience.

"I don't think I'm the human being I used to be," he told reporters through an interpreter.

The lawsuit, filed by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union in Alexandria, Va., came on a day of talks between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who said Rice had admitted that al-Masri's detention had been a mistake.

Since it was first reported in January, the al-Masri case has become an oft-cited example of tough American counterterrorism policies gone awry.

His lawsuit is the latest development in a series of challenges by human rights groups on the CIA's clandestine operations to transport, detain and interrogate suspected terrorists since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Under particular scrutiny are secret detention centers, including some reported to be in Eastern Europe; the use of harsh interrogation methods by American intelligence officers; and the delivery of more than 100 suspects to other countries, including some where torture has been routine, in a practice known as rendition.

The lawsuit appears to be the first to target a web of companies that own and operate a fleet of aircraft used by the CIA, including many based at the rural Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, N.C.

The companies named in the suit were Aero Contractors Ltd., a Smithfield company that provides crews and maintenance; Premier Executive Transport Services of Dedham, Mass., which previously owned the Boeing business jet used to take al-Masri from Macedonia to Afghanistan; and Keeler and Tate Management L.L.C., of Reno, Nev., which owns the jet today.

The lawsuit could force the CIA to acknowledge its secret relationship with the companies, said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. "That's what's novel here," he said. "What we learn of these three companies will be as interesting as the outcome of the case."

A spokesman for Tenet, who served as CIA director from 1997 to 2004, said he had no comment, as did a spokesman for the CIA. Attempts to reach executives of the three air companies named in the lawsuit were unsuccessful.

Romero of the ACLU said the lawsuit was an attempt to counter the "culture of impunity" in the Bush administration for human rights violations and to force the CIA to abandon practices in conflict with American values. The organization has obtained 77,000 pages of government documents on detention and interrogation under the Freedom of Information Act that have been the basis for thousands of news reports.

Romero took issue with a statement Rice made Monday before leaving for Germany denying accusations of human rights violations and declaring that "the United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture."

"Unfortunately, as our lawsuit shows today, those statements are patently false," Romero said.

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