WASHINGTON—A German citizen whom the CIA abducted from Macedonia and held in a secret prison in Afghanistan for five months sued former CIA Director George Tenet on Tuesday, saying he'd been tortured.
"I want an apology, and I want to know why this happened to me," Khaled al-Masri said during a video hookup from Germany. "What happened to me was outside the bounds of any legal framework, and should never be allowed to happen to anyone else."
Al-Masri's lawsuit, filed by ACLU lawyers in Alexandria, Va., sheds light on the CIA's secret practice of "extraordinary renditions," using special teams to capture suspected terrorists and transport them to countries that practice torture or to one of the agency's reported secret prisons in Eastern Europe or Asia.
Questions about al-Masri's treatment dominated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit Tuesday to Germany, where the case has put intense public pressure on the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Rice said that "when and if mistakes are made, we work as quickly as possible to rectify them." She declined to admit error in al-Masri's case, either during a news conference with Merkel or, according to U.S. officials, in their private meeting.
Senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the legal and diplomatic sensitivities, said admitting error would be a boon to al-Masri's lawsuit.
A CIA representative said, "We don't comment on matters before the courts."
In the four years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA has captured about 3,000 people, including some top al-Qaida leaders, according to a Washington Post report. Intelligence committees in Congress have been told that the CIA's inspector general is investigating possible "erroneous renditions."
U.S. officials refuse to confirm or deny the existence of secret prisons.
Human rights groups and several European leaders have criticized the rendition program, which has shipped some suspects to countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which use torture, or to the CIA's own reported secret detention centers. At least four suspects then were taken to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Al-Masri said he was beaten and threatened repeatedly in custody, kept in a squalid cell in Afghanistan and denied medical treatment. He said an American told him that "you are now in a country with no rule of law—you might get buried here."
Al-Masri, 42, was born in Kuwait to Lebanese parents. He moved to Ulm, Germany, in the 1980s, became a citizen in 1995 and has five children. His saga began on a visit to Macedonia, where that nation's security forces detained him on Dec. 31, 2003. The CIA suspected that he was involved with Sept. 11 conspirators.
Seven or eight black-clad men blindfolded, handcuffed and beat him, drugged him and dragged him onto a plane, al-Masri claims in the lawsuit. He said he was interrogated harshly in Afghanistan and was asked repeatedly if he knew Mohamed Atta and Ramzi Binalshibh, two Sept. 11 conspirators who'd been active in Germany.
Al-Masri professed his innocence, and after a hunger strike in which he was force-fed, he said, he was visited by a German who told him he'd be released soon. He also said a prison "director" told him he'd been held because of "mistaken identity."
Tenet and Rice learned of the mistake, according to the Washington Post report, and eventually told German officials but asked them not to discuss the case.
In May 2004, al-Masri was flown to Albania and driven to a hilltop late at night, he said. Three armed men took him to another plane, and he was taken to Germany.
"I'm not the man I used to be," al-Masri said Tuesday, speaking German. He claimed in the lawsuit that he lost 40 pounds in custody, and a forensic analysis in Germany showed he was malnourished.
Al-Masri is seeking at least $75,000 in damages for "prolonged, arbitrary detention and torture." His lawyers are using the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to sue over conduct by U.S. officials overseas.
The CIA has defended the rendition program, which dates to the 1980s, as a swift, effective way to neutralize terrorists and foil plots. The agency expanded the use of renditions after the Sept. 11 attacks, when it was under pressure to prevent more al-Qaida assaults.
"Terrorists started the war on our soil. We have taken the war to them. Sometimes this requires what we euphemistically call a `kinetic' solution on foreign soil," CIA Director Porter Goss told Congress in March, referring to renditions.
"We have to be able to use all of the tools at our disposal and understand the consequences of how we use them," he added.
The al-Masri case showed how a rendition can affect relations with allies. Merkel, at Tuesday's news conference, appeared to imply that the Bush administration had acknowledged that al-Masri's seizure and detention was a mistake. But Rice aides moved swiftly to quash the idea that Rice had apologized or admitted a mistake.
One official said that Washington, without admitting wrongdoing, had told the Germans that al-Masri was seized because his name—which is common—matched that of a suspected terrorist. His passport was erroneously thought to be forged, the official said.
On Saturday, al-Masri boarded a flight to the United States to appear at the ACLU news conference, but was refused entry. A senior State Department official traveling with Rice said the department had told Germany after that refusal that al-Masri would be allowed into the United States if he wanted to come again.
(Davies, of The Miami Herald, reported from Washington; Strobel reported from Berlin.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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