Mongolian Murder Mystery: Release of Alleged Spy Angers German Investigators

By Georg Bönisch and

Only weeks before German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Ulan Bator, a court in Germany ruled that a Mongolian official detained as part of an investigation into an illegal kidnapping must be released. Criminal investigators here say the decision was "removed from reality" and "counterproductive".

"Welcome to Mongolia, Chancellor Merkel": Critics have called the court decision to release a suspected spy as "a goodwill gesture intended to smooth Mrs. Merkel's way" during her upcoming visit. Zoom
DPA

"Welcome to Mongolia, Chancellor Merkel": Critics have called the court decision to release a suspected spy as "a goodwill gesture intended to smooth Mrs. Merkel's way" during her upcoming visit.

Official visits between heads of state, worldwide, follow strict protocols and schedules determined far in advance. That means the schedule on Thursday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel carries out the official part of her visit to Mongolia, is already common knowledge. First, the Mongolian prime minister will welcome the chancellor to Ulan Bator, the capital, with military honors. Then she is scheduled to meet with Mongolia's president, followed by lunch with the prime minister.

In between, scheduled for precisely 10:15 a.m., comes the signing of a trade agreement. Mongolia, once the heart of Genghis Khan's empire, is considered a highly attractive emerging market, with a small population but large reserves of coal, iron ore, copper and gold. Berlin provides development aid totaling around €25 million ($34 million) annually.

That provides a number of conversation topics during a visit that will last only a few hours, meaning there likely won't be time to discuss the case of Bat Khurts, the head of Mongolia's National Security Council. The case, which played out across France, Belgium, Great Britain and Germany, reads like a political murder mystery. And it caused a battle between the highest institutions in German jurisprudence: the Federal Prosecutor's Office and the Federal Court of Justice.

Like any murder mystery, it began with a killing.

On Oct. 2, 1998, in Ulan Bator, a masked duo, or perhaps an entire gang, broke into the home of Sanjasuuren Zorig, the country's young infrastructure minister, a leading member of the Democratic Union and a man with an excellent shot at becoming prime minister. The attackers killed Zorig, 36, by stabbing him and striking him with an axe. The brutal crime served as a setback to the country's fledgling democracy movement. The former communist party, MPRP, returned to power with a promise to track down the murderers, presumably hoping to gain favor with the people. In other words, they needed to find a guilty party.

A Spook at the Center

The man who came under suspicion -- or toward whom suspicion was directed -- was Enkhbat Damiran, who was 43 at the time. If the account of Mongolian authorities is to be believed, he was sent to a penal colony as a teenager and later to prison for theft, assault and fraud. He was released in late July 1998, they say, two months before Zorig's murder. In 2000, and this much has been confirmed: Damiran immigrated to Germany with his family. In 2002, he moved to France and applied for asylum there under an assumed name. Around this time, Mongolia's Interpol branch began searching for him again -- though not in relation to the Zorig case, according to German investigators.

When these police actions proved unsuccessful, Mongolian authorities came up with another idea: abduct Damiran and pin the political murder on him back home. It's unclear who precisely gave the order to do so. Mongolia's attorney general and the former ambassador to Berlin later claimed the country's intelligence agency acted alone.

That's a curious defense, given the body of evidence -- and this is where Bat Khurts comes into the picture. According to investigations by two German institutions, the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation and the Federal Prosecutor's Office, it is believed that Khurts was an intelligence agent for Mongolia, although he was officially working as First Secretary at the Mongolian Embassy in Budapest.

Two women, one of whom knew Damiran personally, allegedly led Khurts to him in May 2003, in the northern French port city of Le Havre. Damiran was lured into a trap, overpowered, drugged and brought first to Brussels, and then to Berlin. On May 18, his abductors flew him out of Germany on a jet belonging to the Mongolian national airline, MIAT. They presented him to airport border guards as a Mongolian minister who had gotten into a fight in Brussels and urgently needed to be brought back home. According to witness testimony, Shirbazar Altansukh, consul at the Mongolian Embassy in Vienna, contrived this story. Altansukh was later removed from his post. The embassy declined to comment on the matter to SPIEGEL.

Legally speaking, Damiran's ordeal up to this point could be defined as nothing more than false imprisonment and assault. But German federal prosecutors classified what followed in Ulan Bator as a "Verschleppung," the German word that, in legal terms, is used to mean a specific type of abduction driven by political motives. As an offense against national security, this fell under the jurisdiction of the Federal Prosecutor's Office.

In Ulan Bator, Damiran was told to confess to Zorig's murder and to name who had hired the hit, perhaps a prominent politician from Zorig's party. Damiran insisted he'd had nothing to do with the crime. He insisted it once, twice and a third time.

Masked men sat in front of him, Damiran said in describing one interrogation, and "two civilians with guns stood behind me. I was shaking." He said he was so weak that he fell from his chair many times, and he also described a mock execution in the woods near the capital.

'The Charges Were Clearly Invented'

Damiran had his defense attorney, Lodoisambuu Sanjaasuren, to thank for making a record of these statements. Sanjaasuren smuggled a video camera into the cell and recorded his client's statements, in a video of just under 40 minutes. On Sept. 27, 2003, about four months after Damiran's forcible return to his homeland, the Mongolian private TV channel 25 broadcast the video.

Soon after, the country's attorney general dismissed the murder charge against Damiran, on grounds that there was no incriminating proof. Viennese law professor Manfred Nowak reinvestigated the case on behalf of the United Nations and reached the same conclusion but with different reasons. The case was dropped, Nowak believes, "because the charges were clearly invented."

However, Damiran remained in custody. As a result of the TV broadcast of his statements, he was then charged with betraying state secrets, for which he was sentenced to three years in prison. Critically ill, he was released on April 17, 2006, and died only five days later.

His family has since filed charges with the French police, who turned the case over to the Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) in Karlsruhe. The BKA in turn engaged the Federal Prosecutor's Office, and the investigating judge at the Federal Court of Justice issued a warrant that soon went into effect across Europe.

Agent Khurts was now a German case, file number 1 BGs 13/2006. By then the head of Mongolia's National Security Council, Khurts arrived at London's Heathrow Airport on Sept. 17, 2010, for diplomatic talks in Britain, only to be arrested at passport control. He claims he was lured into a trap, and should be protected by diplomatic immunity as well. Two different courts rejected both of these arguments. After 10 months in custody, Khurts was extradited to Germany, arriving in Berlin on August 19 of this year.

Release Criticized by Prosectutors

Soon, though, the Federal Court of Justice released Khurts at the request of his defense attorneys, Frankfurt lawyer Egon Geis and his Berlin colleague Rolf-Werner Bock. Geis maintained his client had "tracked down Damiran and brought him to Berlin, nothing more." The judges at the court's Third Criminal Division declared that the attack on Damiran hadn't been "Verschleppung," the type of abduction charged, since the "injured party wasn't facing political persecution." Even then, the ruling continued, it wouldn't have qualified as "Verschleppung" if there was "danger that the foreign state would ... resort to means which are unacceptable from a legal point of view and which would endanger the victim in life and limb."

Observers of Germany's justice system have long been aware of in-fighting between the court division responsible for state security and the Federal Prosecutor's Office. The ruling on Khurt's case, sources with knowledge of the investigation say, was not only "removed from reality," but also "counterproductive."

Upon arrival in Ulan Bator two weeks ago, the long-detained secret agent was met by TV teams, and the deputy foreign minister shook his hand. British newsmagazine The Economist commented wryly that many in Mongolia likely believe Khurt's release "is a goodwill gesture intended to smooth Mrs. Merkel's way" during her upcoming visit.

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