Letter from Berlin Germany Talks Torture, and Finds Hypocrisy

To torture or not to torture. That, surprisingly, has become a burning question in Germany this week. Germany's new interior minister has drawn fire for saying authorities must act on information from terror suspects even if it was obtained unlawfully. Is he condoning prisoner abuse or just being realistic?

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said information obtained via torture should not be discarded out of hand.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said information obtained via torture should not be discarded out of hand.

The hypocrisy is undeniable. Germany has been condemning the detention without trial of terror suspects by the US and other countries while at the same time secretly sending agents to interrogate them.

The new interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said last week that German intelligence officers had interviewed one prisoner being held in a Syrian jail that human rights groups say tortures prisoners, and one in Guantanamo Bay. The frank admission came as a surprise, but Schäuble wasn't finished. He went on to say Germany couldn't afford to ignore information provided by suspects even if it may have been obtained illegally.

"It would be completely irresponsible if we were to say that we don't use information where we cannot be sure that it was obtained in conditions that were wholly in line with the rule of law. We have to use such information," Schäuble told the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper. He added that German intelligence officers were not allowed to take part in any torture or "to expect, so to speak with a nudge and a wink, that torture takes place," he added.

His statements have intensified a heated debate in Germany about whether intelligence agencies should be allowed to bend the rules, or ignore the bending of rules, if doing so saves lives. The most recent round of bickering comes on the heels of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Europe -- a visit dominated by questions about the CIA practice of transferring terror suspects to secret prisons.

The opposition liberal Free Democrats were quick to attack Schäuble. "If you're not allowed to torture, then you're not allowed to profit from information that may have been obtained through kidnapping and torture," said Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a senior member of the FDP.

Berliner Zeitung wrote: "Speaking with a forked tongue is something Europeans are masters at. They criticise torture by the US and then enquire about visiting hours in the dungeons, they condemn the torture centers in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and offer to set up their own ones in Eastern Europe."

Claudia Roth, co-leader of the opposition Greens, said Schäuble had "got onto a dangerous slippery slope." Germans must not allow themselves to become "beneficiaries of the dirty work done by others," she said.

Schröder's credibility on the line

Berlin has come under mounting pressure to reveal how much it knows about the CIA's alleged network of secret prisons in Europe and elsewhere, and about the US practice of covertly transferring suspects to countries where they may face torture.

Schäuble, a senior member of the conservative Christian Democrats, can afford to be frank. He has only been in his job since November when new Chancellor Angela Merkel took over from Gerhard Schröder, so it makes sense to put everything on the table now, when his predecessors will take the blame.

And it seems to be working. Revelations of Germany's tacit involvement in the interrogation of terror suspects and its knowledge of CIA methods have cast doubt on the credibility of Schröder's government, which regularly condemned US practices in the war on terror. Schröder also was always quick to remind Germans of his decision not to support the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Speaking in parliament last week, Schäuble confirmed that German agents had interviewed Mohammed Haydar Zammar, 44, who has German and Syrian citizenship and is being held in the Far-Filastin jail in Damascus.

Zammar, an associate of the Hamburg cell which led the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, was arrested by Moroccan authorities at the end of 2001 and then flown by the CIA to Damascus in a classic case of what the CIA calls "extraordinary rendition" –- transporting suspects to secret locations in third countries for interrogation.

In a Syrian jail: Mohammed Haydar Zammar.
Knut Müller

In a Syrian jail: Mohammed Haydar Zammar.

Schäuble said that as far as he knows, Zammar had not been tortured. That contrasts with a report by Amnesty International and statements from former fellow prisoners at the jail that Zammar had been repeatedly tortured. Amnesty has described conditions in the jail as inhuman and humiliating, and that prisoners there have been tortured with electric shocks, blows to the soles of their feet and being squeezed into a rubber tire.

Both Schäuble and Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said Zammar had told the German interviewers that he had been beaten in Morocco and in Syria. But, the ministers added, being beaten isn't the same as being tortured.

"Syrian agencies with whom we cooperate offered to let us question the man," Schäuble told Süddeutsche Zeitung. "...He apparently said he had been beaten but that was not connected to the interview. I have no reason to suspect that the Federal Criminal Police profited from behavior that could be described as torture."

Pressure on Germany after 9/11

Sept. 11 put huge pressure on German authorities to join the hunt for militant Islamists because several of the suicide pilots lived in the northern port of Hamburg and planned the attacks there undisturbed. US officials repeatedly accused Germany of not having done enough to combat al-Qaida and Berlin pledged to do whatever they could to prevent a repeat.

Questioning Zammar appeared a good way of finding out more about the Hamburg cell. "We were under pressure," said August Hanning, who was head of the BND foreign intelligence service at the time. "The information we were getting from Syria wasn't sufficient."

The interview with Zammar took place in November 2002 after months of negotiations between Syria and Germany. In return for access to Zammar, Germany dropped two court cases against suspected Syrian spies.

Schäuble also said a Turkish citizen, 23-year-old Murat Kurnaz, imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay since January 2002, had been interviewed there by German intelligence agents.

Did Germany do enough to fight al-Qaida? September 11 put pressure on the German intelligence services.

Did Germany do enough to fight al-Qaida? September 11 put pressure on the German intelligence services.

Members of Merkel's coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats have been defending Schäuble. "Schäuble has simply been honest," said Dieter Wiefelspütz, domestic policy spokesman for the Social Democrats. "He said what no one has dared say until now. If you get a piece of secret intelligence information it's not labelled: 'obtained through torture!' We must be careful not to become hypocritical or naïve."

Meanwhile cabinet ministers are hoping the controversy will die down over the Christmas break and be forgotten by the new year. "At some point this bone will be chewed bare," said Otto Schily, Schäuble's hardline predecessor as interior minister.

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