AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 47/2005

The Forgotten Prisoner: A Tale of Extraordinary Renditions and Double-Standards

By Holger Stark

German Islamic extremist Mohammed Haydar Zammar has been locked in a dungeon in Damascus for the past four years as part of Washington's post-9/11 "extraordinary renditions" program. By placing the man with suspected ties to the Hamburg al-Qaida cell in Syrian hands, the United States is allowing Damascus to commit torture so that it doesn't have to.

Syria's Far-Filastin prison is like an iceberg. The most treacherous part lies hidden beneath the surface.

Its visible part is a white, two-story building in the drab style of socialist prefab construction, about as plain-looking as the former Berlin headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi. This unassuming-looking building in the Massa section of the Syrian capital, a five-minute drive from downtown Damascus, is the Syrian military intelligence agency's nerve center.

German officials flew to Damascus to interrogate a prisoner they knew was being tortured.
AFP

German officials flew to Damascus to interrogate a prisoner they knew was being tortured.

But the building's external appearance is deceptive. A staircase winds downward from the ground floor into dark basement corridors -- the prison's torture wing -- lined with cells secured by double metal doors. This underground section makes Far-Filastin one of the world's most notorious prisons, a blend of Alcatraz and Abu Ghraib. That this is a place to be feared is just as evident above ground, where signs identifying the prison as a military zone and banning photography are an ominous warning to passersby and taxi drivers alike, who prefer to give the place a wide berth.

Shortly before 5 p.m., dozens of military intelligence employees ending their day shifts pass through the facility's cast iron, five-meter gate. They include guards like Ahmed, who was suspended five years ago for his brutal interrogation tactics that often led to prisoners' deaths, but who is nonetheless back on the job. Two intelligence officers sit in a battered, white Peugeot parked at the corner, watching and waiting. The sun is about to dip the neighborhood in the mild glow of early evening, and the muezzin is about to call out the end of the day's fast. But the scene is lost on the prisoners in their dark, underground cells, where they can only hear the muezzin.

The dungeons of Far-Filastin, which means "Palestinian Division" in Arabic, were once reserved for Palestinian fedayeen fighters. Nowadays the underground cells house followers, real or suspected, of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Mohammed Haydar Zammar, 44, is one of the latter.

Zammar's cell, cell 13, is reached by taking a left turn at the end of a long corridor. It's the third door after the bathroom. He's been held here for almost four years.

At least one thing is certain: he's alive. This was confirmed when the Red Cross received a call from Walid al-Muallim, Syria's deputy foreign minister. The message -- that the prisoner would be allowed to send and receive mail -- was a small miracle by Syrian standards. The Red Cross then forwarded a short note from Zammar's wife, who lives in Hamburg, to Zammar, and the prisoner was permitted to write a few sentences in response. Zammar's letter, including the salutation (Dear wife, dear children), amounts to all of 43 words on 7 lines. In handwriting as clumsy and crooked as that of a second-grader (after all, Zammar hasn't written anything in a long time), he writes: "I am healthy and I ask you to pray for me and forgive me. Your Haydar. Al-Salam alaikum."

The letter was the first official sign of life from Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German citizen, since he was abducted weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was dated June 8, 2005 and marked Palestine Division, Damascus.

The news is good and bad. Zammar is alive. That's the good news. But whether his family will even see him again is as uncertain as ever. The correspondence shines light on a case that epitomizes the post-9/11 world, one in which it's difficult to tell who is and who isn't a villain -- and even if someone is, just how much of a villain he is. The Zammar case typifies the "war on terror," in which the US government seems to believe that almost any means are justified, even torture in a country like Syria, a country that, ironically, the Americans have branded a "rogue state." The case is also symbolic, raising, as it does, the issue of just how far a state governed by the rule of law can go, especially when the division between right and wrong is so murky.

Zammar's abduction also raises questions about the role of the German government. It has no exact knowledge -- officially, that is -- about the fate of its citizen, but it also wanted its share of the action when it came time for Zammar to confess, and so it sent a delegation of German officials to Damascus. For the Germans, the information this prisoner could potentially provide, in the days following 9/11, seemed far too important to ignore.

At the time, investigators believed that Zammar was a key figure who could help clear up the worst crime in the modern history of terrorism. Zammar, nicknamed "Fratello Mohammed" in Italy and "Bruder Haydar" (Brother Haydar) in Germany, was a known entity in Islamist circles. He was an enormous man, weighing in at 145 kg (320 lbs.), with arms the size of small tree trunks. His appearance alone -- he was thickly bearded and wore a flowing blue caftan and a Palestinian kaffiyeh -- made him a dead ringer for a dedicated servant of Allah.

Mohammed Haydar Zammars: The adopted father of the Hamburg 9/11 terror cell
Knut Müller

Mohammed Haydar Zammars: The adopted father of the Hamburg 9/11 terror cell

Zammar occasionally spent the night at the notorious apartment on Marienstrasse in Hamburg where some of the Sept. 11 terrorists lived, acting as a sort of surrogate father to the pilots surrounding Mohammed Atta. When they searched the apartment, Hamburg police found 94 copies of an appeal from Osama bin Laden. Mohammed Haydar Zammar and his family were then living with his brother in low-income housing on Bilserstrasse in the north part of Hamburg -- nine people in a two-room, ground floor apartment.

When confronted with the bin Laden pamphlet, Zammar told authorities it was "a declaration of war on the USA. I photocopied it to distribute to Muslims." His friends say that Brother Haydar had always been a bit naïve, but the reality is that he was anything but an overgrown child.

More than anything else he was unreasonable. When he was taken to a court in Hamburg six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Zammar told the judge that, as a Muslim, he was only bound by the word of God. "The law that obligates me to testify here," he said, "is not Islamic law. And that's why I don't feel bound by that law." A short time later, the Federal Public Prosecutor launched an investigation against Zammar -- under file number 2 BJs 81/01-5 -- on the suspicion that he had supported a terrorist organization -- the group of Sept. 11 pilots. The investigation is still pending.

Zammar moved to Hamburg from Aleppo, Syria in 1971, but in a sense he never really arrived in Germany. After dropping out of high school, he was trained as an automobile mechanic at Daimler, but soon became unemployed. He renounced his Syrian citizenship on March 17, 1982 and became a German citizen. Despite living from welfare and child assistance payments totaling about € 1,400 a month, he felt justified in claiming that Muslims had "always been treated poorly" in Germany.

After living in Germany for 30 years, Zammar decided to leave the land of the infidel and move to a Muslim country, Morocco or perhaps Mauritania. He applied for a new passport in Hamburg and booked a flight to Casablanca via Amsterdam. That was on Oct. 27, 2001.

Zammar's wife and six children never saw him again.

  • Part 1: A Tale of Extraordinary Renditions and Double-Standards
  • Part 2
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