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Macedonia faces pressure on CIA prisoner

Aspiring EU member Macedonia faced pressure on Thursday to explain its role in the alleged CIA abduction of a German man as a European Parliament team flew in for a three-day investigation mission.
/ Source: Reuters

Aspiring EU member Macedonia faced pressure on Thursday to explain its role in the alleged CIA abduction of a German man as a European Parliament team flew in for a three-day investigation mission.

German Khaled el-Masri was detained in Macedonia on Dec. 31, 2003. From there he says he was flown by the Central Intelligence Agency to Afghanistan and jailed for months as a terrorist suspect before being released and dumped without explanation in Albania.

His case is among the best known examples of U.S. "extraordinary rendition" -- the practice of secretly transferring terrorist suspects to third countries where, human rights groups say, they may face abuse or torture.

Masri's lawyer Manfred Gnjidic, in a telephone interview with Reuters, urged Macedonia to disclose whether or not it told German or European Union authorities it was holding Masri.

If not, he told Reuters, it would be a "massive violation" and an argument against EU membership for Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic which last December became an official candidate to join the 25-nation bloc.

But if Macedonia did tell Germany, "then Macedonia is out of the fire -- perhaps they committed an understandable mistake under pressure from the CIA. But then questions would have to be asked in the direction of Germany."

The German government has said it knew nothing of Masri's plight until May 31, 2004, soon after his release, when the U.S. ambassador to Berlin informed the interior minister.

Secret flights
A six-member European Parliament team was arriving in Macedonia on Thursday, led by Italian Claudio Fava, head of a committee investigating alleged secret prisoner transfers and illegal detentions by the CIA in Europe.

In a report on its findings so far, Fava said on Wednesday that more than 1,000 secret flights operated by the CIA had transited through the EU since 2001.

"The CIA has, on several occasions, clearly been responsible for kidnapping and illegally detaining alleged terrorists on the territory of (EU) member states, as well as for extraordinary renditions," he said.

During its stay in Macedonia, the parliament team will meet the president, government ministers, intelligence and human rights officials, and will visit the hotel where Masri says he was held by armed Macedonian guards and interrogated for 23 days before being flown to Afghanistan.

His lawyer Gnjidic said among the questions he wanted answered was who paid the bill for the hotel room, which Masri was never allowed to leave.

Other missing evidence included a video tape that Masri was forced to make immediately before being driven to the airport to fly to Afghanistan, in which he was made to say he had been well treated in Macedonia.

"This video wasn't made to provide Khaled el-Masri with evidence, but to exonerate Macedonia in case the story came out ... I want to get hold of that video," he said.

Masri is suing the former head of the CIA, George Tenet, and other officials for alleged wrongful imprisonment and torture. A first oral hearing in a Virginia court is expected next month.

Washington has declined public comment on the case. But U.S. officials have acknowledged that Masri was held, initially on suspicion of having a false passport and because he had the same name as a wanted militant, and later freed for lack of evidence.