Germans seek CIA operatives' arrest

13 could be indicted for seizure of citizen as terror suspect

January 31, 2007|By Jeffrey Fleishman and John Goetz | 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 Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, onto a Boeing 737 and flew him from Macedonia to Afghanistan in January 2004. 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 spoke on the condition on anonymity.

The 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 have also examined discrepancies about when high-ranking government officials were informed of Masri's fate.

The prospect of criminal charges in the Masri ordeal comes as an Italian court is deliberating whether to order the trial of 26 Americans and nine Italians in connection with the abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar in February 2003. The Italian government may demand the extradition of the 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 United States and Europe on countering terrorism. But they have also indicated that some European governments might have been complicit in the CIA operations, called "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 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 included a food bill of nearly $1,700 and $85 for a massage.

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 Angelos 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.

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 the Skopje airport at 8:51 p.m. Jan. 23, 2004. The plane left Skopje hours later, at 2:30 a.m., flying to Baghdad, Iraq, and then to Afghanistan. Masri said he was drugged for the flight and remembers waking up in "a small, dirty cell." He said he was interrogated in cycles by Americans and a man he referred to as Sam, who spoke fluent German. Much of the questioning, he said, dealt with his attendance at a mosque frequented by radicals in his hometown of Ulm, Germany. Masri said he went on a hunger strike for 37 days until he was force-fed. He was released in the mountains of Albania five months after he disappeared.

German prosecutors said they were convinced early on that Masri's tale of abduction and imprisonment was true. They have repeatedly blamed the United States for not cooperating with the investigation.

Masri filed suit against the CIA in U.S. District Court in December 2005. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last year, saying that a trial would "present a grave risk of injury to national security." The decision is being appealed.

Jeffrey Fleishman and John Goetz write for the Los Angeles Times.

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