A tired-looking Khaled el-Masri told an investigative panel of the German parliament about the worst four months of his life on Thursday -- the time he says he spent in a Kabul prison after an unlawful abduction by CIA agents in Macedonia. In a broken voice he described interrogations in the middle of the night, chains on his feet, handcuffs, and hooded guards.
He also hinted at German involvement in the abduction by repeating for the committee his allegation that a mysterious man named "Sam" met him in the Kabul prison just before his release in May 2004. El-Masri seemed convinced that "Sam" was German; but this testimony raised more questions than it answered.
El-Masri, 42, is a Lebanese-born German citizen who has become the public face of the " extraordinary renditions" program, the alleged secret arrest and transfer by CIA officials of terrorism suspects from Western countries to places where torture is legal or condoned. He spoke to the panel as part of a German government investigation into the role of its own intelligence services in the war on terrorism and the US-led invasion of Iraq.
German authorities have denied cooperating with the Americans, although el-Masri's case was mentioned in a June report by the Council of Europe, a European human rights organization, detailing a "spider's web" of human rights abuses involving the CIA and European governments. El-Masri says he was abducted in Macedonia at the end of 2003, handed over to the CIA and flown to Afghanistan, where he claims to have been tortured and accused of collusion with the Sept. 11 hijackers. He says he was held for four months -- until May 28 -- before being released without any charges on a roadside in Albania.
Who knew what and when?
His claim that German intelligence services cooperated with the CIA received a small boost on Thursday from Wolf-Dietrich Mengel, a telecoms manager who testified before the panel. Mengel said he phoned a German embassy "sometime in early 2004" to report the arrest of a German in Macedonia. Mengel was working at the time as a manager at Macedonia Telecom, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, and he says he heard of the arrest from another employee.
"I phoned the German embassy and was told 'we know about the case,'" Mengel said, adding that the authorities simply "brushed him off." But he couldn't remember the name of the embassy official who answered the phone. "I didn't know that this would turn into a national scandal," he said. "Otherwise I would have taken notes."
Mengel couldn't be more specific. He only remembers making the phone call sometime before March in 2004, and claims to have "filed it mentally away" until media reports about el-Masri refreshed his memory. He says the phone call lasted only a few seconds.
The German Foreign Ministry, for its part, claims it has quizzed all of its staff who were in the Macedonian embassy at the time and that no one can recall the conversation.
Still, the testimony is significant because the German government -- in particular then-Interior Minister Otto Schily of the Social Democratic Party -- claims it learned about el-Masri's abduction only at the end of May 2004.
Opposition members of parliament seemed optimistic at the end of the marathon session. "What we're seeing is a wave of fresh memories by German officials," said Green politician Hans-Christian Ströbele, "and if it continues like this, we may come closer to the truth."
Top German officials have also said the CIA apologized to el-Masri for the detainment and even paid him damages -- but el-Masri denied receiving money and sued the CIA in US courts last year. The case was thrown out in May by a US Federal Court in Virginia. The court argued the case would risk exposing national security secrets that are key to Washington's efforts to battle terrorism.
The court's judge said he didn't even consider the validity of the claims made by el-Masri. "In the present circumstance, el-Masri's private interests must give way to the national interest in preserving state secrets," Judge T.S. Ellis III said.
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