Merkel says Rice admits U.S. fault in abduction

Secretary of state avoids public apology or explanation for the seizing of a German citizen as terror suspect

December 07, 2005|By TODD RICHISSIN | TODD RICHISSIN,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

LONDON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted that the United States had mistakenly abducted a German citizen as a terror suspect, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday. But Rice, in visits yesterday to Berlin and Bucharest, Romania, avoided public apologies or explanations for security policies increasingly coming under criticism in Europe.

After meeting with Rice in Berlin, Merkel said the secretary of state acknowledged that the United States had made a mistake in detaining for months a German citizen named Khaled al-Masri. In her public remarks, Rice did not mention al-Masri by name or directly address allegations that the CIA maintained secret prisons in Europe.

"I did say to the chancellor that when and if mistakes were made, we will work very hard and as quickly as possible to rectify them," Rice said.

Al-Masri, in a lawsuit filed yesterday in Alexandria, Va., against former CIA Director George J. Tenet and others, alleged he was abducted during a vacation in Macedonia on New Year's Eve 2003 and taken weeks later to a U.S. prison facility in Afghanistan, where he said he was shackled and beaten.

Several European governments, including those of Italy and the Netherlands, have expressed growing unease about published reports in the United States that the CIA or other intelligence agencies operated prisons in Europe and transported terror suspects from Europe to other countries, which could violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

A senior United Nations official said yesterday that if there were proof that the United States jailed people for two months or more in secret prisons, he would find the U.S. guilty of engaging in state-sponsored torture. That could lead to the spectacle of U.S. diplomats, who for decades made a priority of exposing human rights violations in other countries, facing the U.N. Human Rights Commission as defendants.

"I would have no choice," said the official, Manfred Novak, who is the United Nation's special rapporteur on torture. "You take someone from one world, lock him away in a whole different world with no explanation about what he did or even let him know where he is. And in the eyes of the law, he is guilty of nothing - and then you keep him incommunicado for weeks and months - it's mental torture."

"I think what we're seeing is evidence of a very big problem, that the Bush administration and Europe are just not compatible," said Dana Allin, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London. "The Bush administration is determined that in the war on terror, anything goes. And that is just not a view that's going to provide a sustainable relationship with Europe."

Rice could have hoped for better circumstances for her four-stop trip, which began Monday in Berlin and ends tomorrow in Brussels, Belgium. If she had hoped to start afresh with the new German government, she was soon facing questions about the prisons and alleged American disregard for its allies.

Rice left to Merkel to announce the admission that al-Masri had been wrongly detained, and then declined to confirm the information that the chancellor provided.

If anything, the lack of uncontrived acknowledgment is adding to the resentments here. Andrew Tyrie, a Conservative member of Parliament in Britain expressed dissatisfaction with Rice's answer to demands for information on CIA activities in Europe.

"This is not an issue to play games with and too important to try to address with clever semantic games," he said. "We are not going to buy that. We do not expect signals and tricky language and rhetorical smoke screens. We are talking about the torture of human beings, with strong evidence that we are talking about the torture of human beings within Europe."

Before leaving for Europe, Rice read a statement that appeared to assure the Europeans that the Bush administration agrees with them on avoiding torture and inhuman treatment, though the two sides remain far apart.

Europeans want the U.S. to abide by the U.N. convention on torture. Rice said it was U.S. policy that "interrogations will be consistent with U.S. obligations under the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." But the administration has interpreted the convention to mean that the United States is not obliged to refrain from "inhuman treatment" against detainees overseas.

In other developments yesterday, Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot told his country's Parliament that Rice's explanations were unsatisfactory, and he predicted a sharp debate when NATO's foreign ministers, including Rice, meet tomorrow in Brussels.

After traveling to Romania yesterday, Rice declined to say whether a base near Bucharest served as a clandestine holding pen or interrogation center for terror suspects.

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