Self-professed captive El-Masri talks of abuse during stay in CIA prison

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Photo by Julia Dahl.
Khaled El-Masri describes the abuses he allegedly suffered at a secret CIA prison.

BY JULIA DAHL

WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 – A newly released report confirming that several European governments cooperated with a covert CIA detainee program is likely to improve the legal case of Khaled El-Masri, the ACLU said Wednesday.

El-Masri, a German national who claims he was abducted and imprisoned by the CIA, appeared in a federal appeals court Tuesday proclaiming his innocence and requesting a public apology. El-Masri is the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the U.S. government.

According to El-Masri, on Dec. 31, 2003, while on vacation in Macedonia, he was kidnapped, beaten, drugged and transported on a CIA plane to a secret prison in Afghanistan. While in prison, El-Masri said he was subjected to prolonged interrogation, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement. After five months, El-Masri said he was taken to Albania and “dumped” in a forest.

“To this day I don’t know why they arrested me or why they released me,” El-Masri said through an interpreter Wednesday morning. “I would like an explanation and an apology.”

El-Masri, who is being represented by the ACLU, spoke to reporters Wednesday at the National Press Club, a day after his appeal was argued before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Alexandria, Va.

Both the CIA and the Justice Department declined to comment on the case. The Federalist Society also had no comment.

The ACLU filed Khaled El-Masri v. George R. Tenet, et al. on Dec. 6, 2005. The case was dismissed by a federal district court in Richmond, Va., in May after the Justice Department argued that allowing it to move forward would damage national security and expose “state secrets.”

“This is a concrete example of the gross excesses of the Bush administration and its torture policy,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “If not before an American court of justice can an individual who has been wronged by the U.S. government seek justice, then where?”

But much has changed since the government received a dismissal in May.

In June, a German investigation found that at least one of its intelligence agents knew that El-Masri had been abducted and “handed over to the Americans” within weeks of his disappearance, the BBC reported. And on Sept. 6, President Bush formally admitted that the CIA had been operating a secret prison program in Europe and the Middle East.

“It is interesting that in support of a political agenda the president can announce the fact [of the secret prisons] in public, but the very same fact was considered a state secret when the U.S. was being called to account in a court of law,” said Ben Wizner, El-Masri’s ACLU attorney.

Wizner says that new evidence, including an eyewitness to El-Masri’s imprisonment, makes the appellate case particularly strong.

All this, plus Tuesday’s European Parliament report, which states that as many as 11 European countries, including Britain, France, and Germany, not only knew of, but “cooperated actively or passively” with the CIA program of secret kidnappings called “extraordinary rendition,” may increase El-Masri’s chances of winning his appeal.

“There is no way the Bush Administration can hide behind the veil of secrecy and argue that to discuss the program of special rendition and secret prisons would compromise national security,” said Romero.

El-Masri, 43, was born in Kuwait and is of Lebanese decent. He has lived in Germany since 1985. Though neither El-Masri nor his attorneys have received any explanation as to why he was kidnapped and then released, they have speculated that it may have been a case of mistaken identity since El-Masri’s name is similar to 9/11 conspirator and al-Qaeda member Khalid Al-Masri.

El-Masri, who is in the U.S. for the first time this week, will brief members of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees as well as members of the Armed Services Committee on his experience Thursday. He plans to return to Germany — where his wife has recently given birth to their sixth child — on Sunday, and said that he is reasonably optimistic about getting the explanation and apology he feels he deserves.

“I have faith in the American system of law,” he said. “I want to know why this was done to me.”

The American University School of Communication Graduate Program in Journalism works to prepare students for the realities of today's news and information space and the challenges of tomorrow. Find out more by visiting us online at soc.american.edu

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