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Germany still awaits U.S. response to kidnapping allegations

BERLIN—Despite U.S. assurances that any mistreatment of prisoners will be investigated and punished, German prosecutors have been waiting since May for the American government to respond to charges that the CIA kidnapped and mistreated a German citizen named Khaled al-Masri.

Al-Masri is suing former CIA Director George Tenet for the alleged kidnapping. He said he was told that he was seized in a case of mistaken identity and held by the CIA in a secret prison in Afghanistan for five months. He's asking for at least $78,000 and an apology.

The case is central to concerns about the CIA's "extraordinary renditions," the practice of sending suspects captured outside the United States to a third country, which critics claim allows the U.S. government to give suspected terrorists to countries that use torture to extract information.

Al-Masri was arrested as he was traveling from Germany to Macedonia on New Year's Eve 2003. He said that after five months in Afghanistan, he was flown to Albania, put on another plane and taken back to Germany. The German government also is seeking information from the Albanian and Macedonian governments.

A spokesman for state prosecutors in Munich, Christian Schmidt-Sommerfeld, said German prosecutors had been seeking answers from U.S. officials since May. They have al-Masri's testimony, but need to confirm it, he said. "If it's accurate, it would indicate a criminal violation."

The case now names "persons unknown" as the perpetrators of al-Masri's alleged kidnapping.

Frauke-Katrin Scheuten, a spokeswoman for the German federal prosecutors, said her office had examined the case in July 2004 but had decided against pressing charges.

Last week in the German parliament, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble said that according to the minutes of a meeting between his predecessor, Otto Schily, and former U.S. Ambassador Daniel Coates, the United States had admitted that the kidnapping was a mistake and had apologized. The U.S. government gave al-Masri money and received a promise of silence, he said. The amount allegedly paid wasn't disclosed. German news reports have indicated that it was about $500,000.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. government would have no comment on al-Masri's case, because "this is a matter that's before the courts." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't publicly admit error in al-Masri's case when she visited Germany earlier this month, saying only that "when and if mistakes are made, we work as quickly as possible to rectify them."

Al-Masri and his attorneys have denied that he received money or an apology.

Rob Boudewijn, a senior fellow and an expert on European politics at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch research center, said European governments were unsure how to react to allegations that al-Masri and other prisoners had been transported on CIA flights that had landed at airports around Europe.

Nobody has produced evidence that the flights were carrying prisoners, or at least that they were carrying prisoners to be tortured, he said. The most serious allegations have involved kidnappings, a case in Italy similar to the al-Masri case and the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe.

In the Italian case, 13 arrest warrants have been issued for U.S. intelligence operatives, though none is known to have been served. European news reports and human rights groups have reported that there were secret prisons in Poland and Romania, but the prisons haven't been located or shown to have existed.

Boudewijn said that if a prison were found in Romania, that country's entry into the European Union could be delayed for several years.

The big question in most people's minds, he said, is "How much did my government know about all this?" He added that the suspicion of many is that their governments were aware of any U.S. actions.

"The policy in this war on terror seems to be everything is tolerated," he said.

Richard Whitman, the head of the European program at the English research center Chatham House, said that European government reactions have been fairly muted so far.

"It's difficult to know if, in the past, there's not been justification in some minds that something useful might come out of such techniques," he said. "European anxiety about terrorism is as high as American anxiety."

He added that he wondered how the information seemed to be coming out now.

"There are clearly people abroad not doing their utmost to keep these things secret," he said. "Maybe that's a reflection even with extraordinary renditions and secret prisons, we don't seem to be getting desired results."

Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, the head of the Wilhelm Institute for Peace Research, who's been studying the secret policing methods, thinks European governments looked the other way because they wanted results. He added, however, that there wouldn't have been any need to build secret prisons in Europe because prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan would be less visible.

"In my opinion those who knew kept silence," he said. "The main reason for the moderate reaction is to save continuity in the common war against terror."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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