The muezzin at the Omajjaden Mosque had just called the faithful to evening prayers when the telephone rang at the German embassy in Damascus. The caller, an official with the Syrian Foreign Ministry, was clearly in a hurry. He was calling to discuss an offer from his government, but the Germans, he said, would have to act quickly -- preferably right away. It was Tuesday, Nov. 7.
A consular official, following the Syrian's instructions, called for a car and drove north along a country road. Her destination, the Saidnaya Prison in a small mountain village outside Damascus, has three wings designed like the spokes on the famed Mercedes star.
At about 8 p.m., the diplomat met with a man who has since become an international symbol of what happens when questionable methods are employed in the war against terror. The prisoner was Syrian-born German citizen Mohammed Haydar Zammar, 45, a friend of the Sept. 11 pilots who had lived in Hamburg. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA had Zammar abducted and taken to Syria where, according to fellow prisoners, he was tortured.
The meeting was the first time a representative of the German government met with the now-prominent prisoner since German security officials interrogated Zammar under dubious circumstances in November 2002. His fate and the questionable role played by German authorities who had notified the Americans of Zammar's travel plans in the first place, has now become the subject of a government investigation in Berlin.
Zammar met with the German diplomat for one hour. Al-Qaida detainees are kept in a wing of the prison that is isolated from the rest of the facility and dubbed the "black gate" by other prisoners. At the end of the conversation, Zammar asked the German diplomat for winter clothing and some money. A lawyer, he added, would also be helpful -- not an unreasonable request for someone who has been deprived of legal counsel for almost five years now.
Indeed, the Islamist, who has been a German citizen since 1982, is sorely in need of legal representation. Zammar's case goes to trial in Damascus next Sunday, when he will be accused of membership in a brutal organization, the Attar wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Prosecutors will also charge him with "attending training camps in Afghanistan and Bosnia" and "jihadist ambitions" -- offences for which the standard penalty is death. This is where things become uncomfortable for the German government, because it was German investigators who supplied important pieces of evidence against Zammar in the first place.
A fair trial is unlikely
The trial will take place before Syria's Supreme State Security Court, a notorious special tribunal in Damascus that deals exclusively with political cases. Chances are slim that Zammar will get a fair trial. According to human rights organization Amnesty International, the judges on the Syrian court have no qualms in allowing confessions obtained through torture. "Sometimes the lawyers aren't even allowed to set foot in the courtroom, and sometimes the court bars them from reviewing the files," says Ruth Jüttner, a Middle East expert with Amnesty. Moreover, the court's rulings cannot be appealed.
When the case against Zammar was first tried on Oct. 8, the presiding judge read the charges out loud and promptly characterized Zammar as "a friend of Mohammed Atta and Ziad Jarrah," the Sept. 11 pilots who had lived in Hamburg.
Zammar, whose weight has dropped from 145 kilograms (320 pounds) to about 90 kilograms (199 pounds) during his incarceration, stood up and argued in his own defense. He told the judge that he did not deny having known Jarrah and Atta, but that the two men had never told him about their grand plan, and that he had been completely in the dark about the attacks on the United States. He added that although he is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he certainly supports the mujahedeen, God willing. The hearing, which a United Nations observer happened to attend, ended prematurely when Zammar angered the judges by condescendingly informing them: "jihad is an Islamic duty."
An ethical dilemma for Berlin
For the German government the case, and the possibility of Zammar being sentenced to death, means that it could have some explaining to do before the investigative committee in Berlin. This is because Syrian authorities were not the only ones who gathered the evidence against Zammar.
Indeed, some of the incriminating material came directly from the German investigation. In preparation for a joint task force of German and Syrian security officials, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), handed over many of its records to the Syrians on Aug. 2, 2002.
The German investigators were convinced that their approach was justified, especially since Zammar was still being prosecuted in Germany on charges of supporting a terrorist organization. Providing the material was part of the German officials' contribution to a planned trip to Syria.
Three months after the files were delivered, five agents from the BKA, the German foreign intelligence agency (BND), and the domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), were in fact permitted to question the al-Qaida sympathizer in Damascus.
However, the German officials were not the only ones to analyze the results. The visits, spread across three days, lasted exactly 15 hours and 20 minutes -- and were taped by the Syrians. One of the main charges in the Syrian case against Zammar, his visits to al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and Bosnia, is clearly supported by his responses to the German agents' questions.
In the interviews, Zammar tells the Germans in detail how he had traveled to Afghanistan five times between 1991 and 2000. Before the Germans interrogated Zammar, the Syrians had complained that the prisoner was only admitting things that they claimed were already known. But Zammar, who apparently trusted the German delegation more than the Syrians, identified other mujahedeen in photographs and incriminated various Syrian exiles. Back in Berlin, the agents from the BKA, BND and BfV characterized the results of their trip as "good to very good."
"The change in the group (of interrogators) created a new psychological situation for him," the BND officials wrote in their secret interrogation report, "which could provide new information from which the Syrian service may also benefit." The domestic intelligence service, the BfV, came to a similar conclusion in its own secret report: "The interrogations are likely to have provided considerable new information for the Syrians. The phrasing of the questions alone has given them a new understanding of the case," because, as the report continued, the Syrians had "admitted that they conducted their interrogations in the absence of significant background information."
"A major stomachache"
But once the initial euphoria over the official trip to Damascus had dissipated, BfV experts sensed just how problematic the process of what August Hanning, the head of the BND intelligence service, called "giving and taking" with Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, a regime despised in the West, could be.
In March 2003, about four months after the German interrogation in Damascus, the BKA asked BfV officials in Cologne for access to the file of photographs in which Zammar had identified other Islamists. The request was flatly denied. On March 10, 2003, a BKA official noted: "The BfV considered it 'inopportune' to provide access to the photographs that were shown to Zammar." A senior BKA official wrote his own, handwritten take on the matter: "The BfV now has a major stomachache."
The domestic intelligence officials were worried "that the public would become aware of the BfV's involvement in the Syria trip." For the same reason, BfV officials opted not to take part in a planned meeting with their counterparts at the BKA and BND, the purpose of which was to exchange information. They had decided to end any involvement with a country whose secret services were notorious for their unscrupulousness and whose judicial system is known for its arbitrariness.
The nature of that relationship will now change in the Zammar case, a reversal the Germans see as a way of making amends. The German Foreign Ministry plans to send an observer to witness Zammar's new trial this Sunday, and German diplomats have now obtained an attorney for the accused terrorist sympathizer, even offering to pay his legal fees. Like Zammar, the diplomats hope the judges will exercise leniency. Indeed, the Syrian regime would be doing the German authorities a great favor if it commuted the expected death sentence to a lengthy prison term, as it has done before in similar cases.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan