By David Crossland and Bryony Jones
On Wednesday, Wolfgang Schäuble told the Internal Affairs Committee of a May 2004 meeting between his predecessor Otto Schily and the then US Ambassador to Germany Daniel Coats, in which Coats told Schily about Masri's kidnapping, explaining it away as an error, and said that Masri had been paid to keep quiet about the affair.
Lebanon-born Masri, 42, moved to Germany in 1985. Suspected of links to the September 11 hijackers, he was picked up en route to Skopje in Macedonia in late 2003 and says he was flown to Afghanistan where he was allegedly tortured and questioned for months before his captors decided they had the wrong man and dumped him at the side of a road in Albania.
"An additional admission"
Compensation figures of up to $500,000 have been suggested, but Masri's lawyer Manfred Gnjidic has denied the claims. "A lot of rumours are being spread to discredit the victim," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Hans-Christian Ströbele, a prominent member of the opposition Greens, said the question as to whether hush money was paid is significant. "That is an additional admission," he told Reuters on Thursday. "You don't pay money unless you're conscious of making a serious mistake."
Earlier on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had angrily denied growing speculation that Berlin had colluded in the secret kidnapping and interrogation of terror suspects by the CIA. Speaking before a special session of the Bundestag, Steinmeier said he and other members of the former government under Gerhard Schröder had faced "irresponsible speculation and suspicions" relating to the kidnapping of Masri.
Steinmeier, who was Schröder's chief of staff before becoming foreign minister last month under new Chancellor Angela Merkel, has come under pressure following media allegations that he and a number of former ministers were told about the kidnapping in 2004 but did nothing to help al-Masri.
The case, which also involves criticism that Berlin has been allowing the CIA to use German airspace and airports when flying terror suspects to third countries where they may face torture, has marred Merkel's attempts to repair German relations with the United States. It has also prompted the opposition to accuse Schröder's government of double standards in defying George W. Bush in public over Iraq while secretly helping the CIA to interrogate terror suspects illegally.
"I say in all clarity that neither the government nor the intelligence agencies helped in the abduction of the German citizen al-Masri and I repeat that the former interior minister, foreign minister and I only learned of the abduction after he had been released," said Steinmeier in reference to ex-interior minister Otto Schily and ex-foreign minister Joschka Fischer.
A common definition of torture
"To put it mildly, I was astonished at recent reports suggesting that if we Germans can't torture suspects we simply pass information on to others who then grab them and beat the desired information out of them," said Steinmeier.
Earlier, Steinmeier as well as Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had testified behind closed doors to parliamentary committees looking into al-Masri's case
Members of the opposition liberal Free Democrats and the Leftwing Party said they weren't satisfied with what they had heard and may call for a parliamentary inquiry.
Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader of the Left Wing Party, said Schily had withheld information about al-Masri. He also accused the US government of flouting international law in the war on terror and called on Berlin to stop co-operating.
"It's unacceptable. One has to be able to say No –- even to friends," he told parliament.
Accusations of Berlin's involvement in illegal methods have been fuelled by reports that German intelligence officers have interrogated two other German citizens, one held in a Syrian jail and one held in Guantanamo Bay.
Steinmeier said: "I have the impression that the Americans are increasingly aware that they must not take European concerns lightly. We have to be able to rely firmly on our American partners to honor bilateral agreements and international law as well as human rights."
He said he hoped the United States and Europe would arrive at a common definition of torture because they would "drift apart" if they failed to.
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