In America’s secret prison network

A German car salesman says that a year ago he was kidnapped in Europe, beaten and flown to a U.S. jail in Afghanistan. Now his government is collecting evidence to back up his story.

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A man is walking alone along a mountain path in the darkness. He is carrying a suitcase. He seems frightened, tired and confused. He has long hair and a long beard, but they are untidy, as if he did not grow them voluntarily. He turns a bend and meets three men carrying Kalashnikovs.

The man shows them his passport. It indicates that he is a German citizen, born in Lebanon, called Khaled el-Masri. Using poor English, he tells them that he does not know where he is. They tell him that he is on the Albanian border, close to Serbia and Macedonia and that he is there illegally, since he doesn’t have an Albanian stamp in his passport.

The story that el-Masri tells them by way of explanation, on this evening in late May 2004, is extraordinary: a story of how an unemployed German car salesman from the town of Ulm went on a New Year’s holiday to Macedonia, was seized by Macedonian police at the border, held incommunicado for weeks without charge, then beaten, stripped, shackled and blindfolded and flown to a jail in Afghanistan, run by Afghans but controlled by Americans. Five months after first being seized, he says, still with no explanation or charge, he was flown back to Europe and dumped in an unknown country that turned out to be Albania.

What really happened? With no way to prove his story, el-Masri’s account remains in the balance, a terrifying snapshot of America’s “war on terror.” It is certain that he returned home to Ulm from Albania in May 2004, and that he was taken off a bus from Germany at the Macedonian border on New Year’s Eve 2003. The only person who has offered a clear explanation for what happened in the five months in between is el-Masri himself. Yet that may change.

The German authorities are now taking his allegations very seriously. They are subjecting a sample from el-Masri’s hair to radioisotope analysis, which can reveal, down to a particular country, the source of a person’s food and drink over a period of time. Discussions are also underway about bringing to Germany two men whom el-Masri has identified as being with him in the Afghan prison, and who were also subsequently released. The fact that the German authorities do regard Ulm as an area of potentially dangerous radical Islamic activity — a number of premises were raided and alleged Islamic activists were arrested on Wednesday — only emphasizes the concern that Germany has over the el-Masri case.

So far U.S. authorities have neither confirmed nor denied el-Masri’s story, although German investigators first requested information about the case in autumn. The FBI office in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin did not return calls Thursday.

On Tuesday the Guardian was the first European news organization to interview el-Masri, at the Ulm offices of his lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic. In a conversation lasting more than four hours, el-Masri conveyed a powerful impression of sincerity: If his story is not true, he must be an actor of genius. He broke down in sobs as he described the moment he was abducted by masked men and put on a plane, excused himself to vomit as he recalled the filthy water he was given to drink in jail and brightened as he described the hours before his return to Germany. Often he would pick up a pen and sketch the layout of a room or building.

If true, the abduction would add to our understanding of a pattern of U.S. behavior frightening in its implications both for America and for the rest of the world. The former director of the CIA, George Tenet, told the 9/11 Commission last year that even before Sept. 11 the United States had abducted more than 70 foreigners it considered terrorists — a process Washington has declared legal under the label “extraordinary rendition.”

An investigation by the Washington Post last year suggested that the U.S. held 9,000 people overseas in an archipelago of known prisons (such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq) and unknown ones run by the Pentagon, the CIA or other organizations. But this figure does not include others “rendered” to third-party governments who then act as subcontractors for Washington, enabling the U.S. to effectively torture detainees while technically denying that it carries out torture.

El-Masri’s ordeal began, he says, when he decided to escape, for one week over New Year’s, the stress of living in a single room in Ulm as the unemployed father of a family of six. On a friend’s recommendation he bought a cheap bus ticket to Skopje, capital of Macedonia, intending to find a hotel when he got there.

The bus left the borders of the E.U. and crossed Serbia without incident. Then, at the Macedonian border, at 3 p.m., el-Masri was called off the bus. Now 41, he has lived in Germany for 20 years, the last 10 as a citizen. “I didn’t feel bad,” he says. “I just thought it was a mistake.”

He was taken to a room with a table and chairs, where four men whom he took to be Slavic searched his luggage and questioned him in poor English, asking him about links to Islamic organizations. Several hours later, flanked by armed police, he was driven to a city he assumes was Skopje and escorted to the hotel room where he was to spend the next few weeks. “I asked if I was arrested,” says el-Masri. “They said: ‘Can you see handcuffs?’”

El-Masri was kept prisoner in the room for 23 days; Macedonian civilian police were constantly present, and he was subject to repeated interrogations about his links to Islamic organizations — he says he has none — and about the mosque in Ulm where he worships.

After about 10 days, a Macedonian Mr. Nice appeared. “He said it was taking a long time, too much time — let’s make an end to it, and let’s make a deal. ‘We have to say you are a member of al-Qaida … then we’ll put you on a plane and take you back to Germany.’ I refused, naturally. It would have been suicide to sign.”

But el-Masri was accused of having been to a terror training camp in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, of having a fake passport and of being in reality a citizen of Egypt. On the evening of Jan. 23, 2004, he was handcuffed, blindfolded, put in a car and told he was going to Germany. He was driven to a place where he heard the sound of a plane, then heard the voice of one of the Macedonians saying he would have a medical examination. “I heard the door being closed,” says el-Masri. “And then they beat me from all sides, from everywhere, with hands and feet. With knives or scissors they took away my clothes. In silence. The beating, I think, was just to humiliate me, to hurt me, to make me afraid, to make me silent. They stripped me naked. I was terrified. They tried to take off my pants. I tried to stop them, so they beat me again. And when I was naked I heard a camera.”

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El-Masri breaks down as he recalls the moment when the men carried out an intrusive anal search. He was dressed in a daiper, a short-sleeved, short-legged suit and a belt. His feet were shackled and his hands were chained to the belt. His ears were plugged, and ear defenders were placed over them and a clip put on his nose. A hood was put over his blindfold. His arms raised painfully high behind his back, he was driven to an aircraft, where he was thrown down onto a bare metal floor, chained and bound, and given an injection. He was dimly aware of a landing and takeoff and a second injection before the plane landed again and he was put into the trunk of a car.

El-Masri arrived in what he later found to be his cell by being pushed violently against the wall, thrown to the floor, having feet placed on his head and his back and having his chains removed. The cell was to be his home for the next four months. From the graffiti on the wall — in Arabic script, but not Arabic — and the Afghan dress of the guards, he deduced that he was in Afghanistan. There was nothing in the cell except a blanket, a filthy plastic mat and a bottle of tainted water so vile that the memory of it makes him literally gag.

El-Masri soon discovered that the prison, though technically Afghan, was run from behind the scenes by the United States. His first encounter with an American was with a masked individual who spoke English with what el-Masri believes was an American accent. He had a Palestinian translator. The American took a blood sample and photographed el-Masri naked again.

“I asked him if I could have fresh water,” said el-Masri. “And he said: ‘It’s not our problem, it’s a problem of the Afghan people.’ I said: ‘Afghanistan doesn’t have planes to kidnap people in Europe and bring them here, so it’s not the problem of the Afghan people.’”

By whispering through the door and exchanging messages on pieces of toilet paper, el-Masri found out a few details about his fellow prisoners: two Saudi brothers of Pakistani origin who had been imprisoned for two years, two Tanzanians, a Pakistani, a Yemeni and several Afghans. (Gnjidic says two of the prisoners have been traced, but he didn’t want to identify them for fear of putting their lives at risk.) El-Masri says the first of many interrogations was carried out by a masked man with a south Lebanese accent, with seven or eight silent observers in black masks listening in. “He said: ‘Do you know where you are?’ And I answered: ‘Yes, I know, I’m in Kabul.’ So he said: ‘It’s a country without laws. And nobody knows that you are here. Do you know what this means?’”

Repeatedly, he would be asked the same questions, challenging his identity, accusing him of attending terrorist training camps. Some of the interrogators, el-Masri believes, were American.

After about a month, el-Masri met two unmasked Americans whom other prisoners referred to as the “Doctor” and the “Boss.” The Doctor was a tall, pale man in his 60s with gray, collar-length hair. The Boss was younger, with red hair and blue eyes, about 5 feet 10 inches and wearing glasses. Then, in March, el-Masri and the other prisoners began a hunger strike. After 27 days of starvation, he was taken in chains one night to meet the Americans and a senior Afghan. Near to hysteria, el-Masri said they had to let him go, put him before a U.S. court, let him speak to somebody from the German government or watch him starve to death.

The Boss told him he had to get Washington’s permission to help him, but was clearly angry, saying: “He shouldn’t be here. He’s in the wrong place.” “I had the impression that the Doctor thought I wasn’t guilty, and had sent a report saying so even after the second interrogation,” says el-Masri. Yet he was taken back to his cell, where he continued his hunger strike. Conditions in the cell improved, with a bed and a new carpet, but he was barely able to move. On the 37th day he was force-fed chocolate-flavored nutrients through a tube stuffed up his nose. El-Masri began to eat again, and the Americans brought him fresh water and promised that he would be released within three weeks.

They brought a native German speaker to the prison. “I asked him: ‘Are you from the German authorities?’ He said: ‘I do not want to answer that question.’ When I asked him if the German authorities knew that I was there, he answered: ‘I can’t answer this question.’” (Hofmann, the prosecutor, says the German security services do not admit to any knowledge of an agent visiting el-Masri in prison.)

It was to be more than a week before el-Masri finally got out of the prison; the German told him one of the obstacles to his speedy release was the Americans’ determination not to leave any evidence that he had ever been there. He was flown to Albania in what he thinks was a small passenger jet, blindfolded and in plastic handcuffs.

When el-Masri got back to Ulm, he found his wife and four children had disappeared. They had returned to Lebanon. He traced them, brought them back and told his wife his story. “It was a crime, it was humiliating, and it was inhuman, although I think that in Afghanistan I was treated better than the other prisoners. Somebody in the prison told me that before I came somebody died under torture. Those responsible have to take responsibility and should be held to account.”

Hofmann and his investigative team now have two tasks: to find evidence supporting or disproving el-Masri’s story and, if they can show it is true, to work out whom to charge with kidnapping. But how do you charge a government? “For the moment,” says Hofmann, “I have to believe the story, because there is no evidence that it is not true.”

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