The Masri Case White House Fears ACLU Campaign

Khaled El-Masri was innoncently detained in a secret CIA prison. Now US civil liberties advocates are helping him take the intelligence service to court. His chances of winning the trial are slim -- but his case is stirring up negative publicity for the Bush administration.

By Georg Mascolo in Washington

German national Khaled el-Masri claims he was tortured in Afghanistan after being kidnapped by the CIA as a suspected terrorist. He's an innocent man and now he wants justice and an apology.

German national Khaled el-Masri claims he was tortured in Afghanistan after being kidnapped by the CIA as a suspected terrorist. He's an innocent man and now he wants justice and an apology.

The lawyers of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were nervous until the very last moment. Director Anthony Romero was visibly relieved when he was finally able to present his star guest to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Khaled el-Masri, formerly the victim of a CIA kidnapping operation in Macedonia and now the claimant in an international trial against US President George W. Bush's anti-terrorism policies, has finally made it to the USA. He was supposed to visit the country last year, but US authorities turned him back at the airport without further explanation. This time the ACLU took the precaution of applying for Masri's visa.

Now he's sitting there, just one block away from the White House, dressed in a single-breasted, gray three-piece suit and a tie, his long and impressively voluminous hair tied straight back. The sign in front of Masri reads "Rendition Victim." A translator whispers into his ear. "We're proud to represent this man," says Romero.

A dozen camera teams have arrived, sent by the major TV channels and the most important US daily papers. The Washington Post has just devoted another full page to his case. The story of the family man who landed in one of the CIA's notorious secret prisons for terror suspects -- has been a public relations debacle for the Bush administration.

The ACLU has succeeded in legally representing two victims from the CIA's shadow realm until now: Masri and Canadian citizen Maher Arar. Arar was deported to Syria in September of 2002 and tortured there. His innoncence has since been established, just like Masri's. That's just what makes the two cases so valuable for the ACLU -- and so dangerous for the White House.

For months now, a legal skirmish has been going on in the federal courts. Backed by the ACLU, Arar and Masri are suing top CIA officials. Citing national security concerns, the Bush administration has so far been successful in stalling any trial. On Monday, Masri and his lawyers traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where the ACLU experts appeared before the federal appeals court in order to press once more for the continuation of the trial.

George W. Bush confirmed the existence of secret CIA prisons in September, out of tactical considerations in the run-up to the Congressional midterm elections. His admission has become the strongest argument wielded by the ACLU: Something the president has openly admitted can't just be reclassified the next day, Romero argues, adding that the whole world knows what happened to Masri. The ACLU lawyers are using this argument to try to lure Washington into admitting Masri was detained and possibly tortured.

Fear of a legal watershed

And while that may sound harmless, it isn't. The White House fears it could prove to be a legal watershed, and the US Department of Justice is watching the attack mounted by the civil rights activists with growing concern. Charges have been brought against Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary who recently resigned but remains in office, before a German federal court. Italy has initiated police investigations into a number of CIA agents following a kidnapping in Milan. The Munich court that is investigating Masri's case could possibly make the same decision. US President Bush and the members of his administration fear they may all find themselves in court one day.

When Masri's innocence was conclusively established, his release was ordered by then National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. Were the decisions as to who should be detained made in her office as well? Washington's policy is to confirm or concede nothing. Masri is demanding clarification "and an apology." He doesn't want money, only justice.

His chances aren't very good. In a Kafkaesque move, the Justice Department is now trying to muzzle even those former detainees at the so-called "black sites" who have since been moved to Guantanamo and keep them from speaking openly about their experiences. The Justice Department is going so far as to try to prevent them from discussing the top-secret interrogation techniques even with their lawyers, claiming that the interrogation techniques are classified infromation. Thus, torture victims have become carriers of state secrets.

And therein lies the problem: What contributes to national security and what doesn't is not a matter the courts can decide. Even the ACLU seems to have its doubts as to whether it can successfully release the legal emergency brake the US administration has applied. Nevetheless, the balance of power in the USA has shifted following the recent midterm elections. The Democratic victory will bring ACLU supporters back into power in January and Congressional hearings on errors made by the Bush administration are in the planning stages. One of them will be concerned with what Senator Carl Levin calls the " rendition program" -- the system of detention that Masri fell victim to. Masri has to go: Levin's aides are waiting in Congress. They want the CIA victim to tell them his story.

The ACLU has just sent a film called "Outlawed" to all members of Congress. It's a 27-minute indictment of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies. Masri is the film's main star.


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