ULM, Germany—When Khaled al Masri walked into Manfred Gnjidic's small-town law office more than a year ago, spinning a tale of government kidnappings, torture and secret prisons, the lawyer thought he was dealing with a crazy man.
These days—as German officials consider whether to file charges against CIA officials and contractors in Masri's case—Gnjidic is flying around the world trying to get the German and U.S. governments to help out a man who many now admit was wrongly, and severely, mistreated.
Nobody had heard of Gnjidic before, but he's now well known in Europe because of his role in bringing Masri's story to light. Masri has said he was wrongfully accused of links to al-Qaida, kidnapped in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan, where he was beaten and interrogated for four months.
Involvement in a high-profile international rights case wasn't what Gnjidic had expected out of life. But the 42-year-old partner in a four-lawyer office in quaint, wood-framed and cobble-stoned Ulm—which with Neu Ulm across the Danube, where Masri lives, has a population of about 170,000—now finds himself in the middle of world events.
Ben Wizner, lead attorney in the United States for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued in the United States on behalf of al Masri, said Gnjidic had been central to exposing U.S. policy on extraordinary renditions, or moving suspects around the globe for questioning, and had highlighted concerns about torture.
"He's a big part of the reason we're arguing about torture in the middle of an American election, 100 years after most thought the issue was dead," Wizner said. "His work, his efforts, have been overwhelming."
Hans-Christian Stroebele, a member of the German parliamentary secret services investigation committee, said the work Gnjidic had started could lead to criminal charges in the coming weeks against American CIA agents, and had led many to rethink Germany's relationship with the United States.
"Politicians of all camps are now calling for warrants of arrest to be issued for the kidnappers," he said, adding that the case has led many to "resent the German investigators' `muzzle' when it comes to attacking Americans. A crime is a crime, regardless of who commits it. You can't spare a friend from facing the facts if he did wrong."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has declined to admit error in Masri's case, and other U.S. officials won't discuss it.
Gnjidic said handling a case that prompted that kind of discussion was like nothing he'd done before or since. He's now defending a man who'd been involved in a road rage fistfight and is preparing for the trial of a man who'd been in a fight at a disco.
"When this started, I was no different than anyone else," he said. "My concerns revolved around my family, my life. The September 11 attacks worried me, but I trusted others would keep me safe.
"I now know I was wrong to trust. This is what drives my life today."
When Masri first presented his story, Gnjidic asked him to write it down in detail. The story, in summary:
Short on cash, living in a cramped basement apartment with his wife and children, watching his car-repair business fail, ran away just before New Year's Day 2004.
He said it was a break, to find his head, maybe even find a business opportunity. Masri, born in Lebanon but a German citizen, said the cheapest escape he could find was a bus trip to Skopje, the capitol of Macedonia. He rode out of Germany, through Austria, Slovenia, Bosnia and Serbia.
On the Macedonian border, there were problems with his passport. Macedonian officials started asking about ties to al-Qaida. For 23 days, he was held in a hotel room with the window shades pulled down. The Macedonian guards told him he'd be sent home if he'd admit belonging to the terrorist organization. He said he didn't.
Eventually, he was taken to an airport, stripped, beaten, humiliated, stuffed into a diaper and tracksuit and chained to the floor of a plane. He next remembers arriving someplace warm, which turned out to be Afghanistan. Again, he said, he was beaten—in the head, on the soles of his feet. He was told he was in a place where the law didn't apply.
During the next four months, he was beaten and questioned by men in black wearing ski masks, two of whom identified themselves as American. They asked about 9-11 conspirators, about meetings, about trips. He said he didn't know these people, events, places. He refused to eat and lost 40 pounds.
Eventually, they told him they were sending him home, though he thought they planned to kill him. He was flown to an unknown place, then driven into a mountainous wilderness, where his passport was returned to him and he was told to walk down a deserted road and not to look back. Another car met him and took him to an airport, where he learned he was in Albania, and he was sent back to Germany.
Gnjidic decided to see whether any of this could be verified. From passport stamps to witnesses from the original bus to chemical studies of Masri's hair—which showed he'd been under food stress and, from nutrients he'd consumed, also showed he'd been in Central Asia—it panned out.
News reports and European investigations further verified the story.
Armed with the written version of the story, Gnjidic set out to try to right the wrongs done to his client.
"It hasn't been easy," he said. "I would think everyone would have an interest in helping Khaled get a normal life. He doesn't want riches, but he would like a job, and he would like the stigma of this case removed, so that people wouldn't call out in hatred to him when he goes to the grocers."
A U.S. district judge threw out the lawsuit that the ACLU had brought on Masri's behalf, and lawyers for the rights group filed an appeal with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
The lower court ruled that since there were national security issues at the heart of the case, it couldn't be examined in court. Gnjidic disagrees, saying the whole world knows Masri's story.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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