When mistaken identity leads to torture

Khaled El-Masri was held for weeks by secret agents who missed a letter in his name

Khaled El-Masri
September 10, 2011 11:01PM (UTC)

Every day through Sept. 11, we'll offer a new story from "Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice," about men and women caught in the war on terror's crossfire.

On New Year’s Eve 2003, Khaled el-Masri, now 48, was seized at the border of Serbia and Macedonia by Macedonian police who mistakenly believed that he was traveling on a false German passport. (Reportedly, he was mistaken for a suspected terrorist with the name al-Masri.)


He was detained for over three weeks before being handed over to the CIA and rendered to Afghanistan. Shortly after Khaled’s release from Afghanistan, staff within both the CIA and the U.S. State Department reported the mistaken identity of their detainee to senior personnel, and German prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA agents allegedly involved in Khaled’s abduction. However, cables disclosed by WikiLeaks reveal that United States officials heavily pressured Germany to abandon the case. A February 2007 cable quoted the deputy U.S. chief of mission in Berlin as advising a German diplomat to "weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the United States" if the agents were prosecuted. The German government withdrew the warrants five months later. The CIA analyst who advocated Khaled’s abduction and argued against his release was reportedly later promoted to chief of the Global Jihad unit hunting al-Qaida members.

Currently incarcerated in Germany (on unrelated charges), Khaled has stopped speaking about his experiences. His narrative is drawn from sworn and published statements made in the past. The excerpt below describes Khaled’s arrest by Macedonian police and his subsequent detention in Skopje, Macedonia. Khaled was held in a hotel room in Skopje for 23 days before being transported by the CIA to Afghanistan.

I asked them if I was under arrest and they said that I wasn’t, asking me if I saw any handcuffs on my wrists. They carried out another search of all my belongings. After this, three of them began interrogating me again. These interrogations were conducted in English, despite the fact that I have only a very basic grasp of the language. The three men asked many questions all at once, speaking at me and firing questions from all sides of the room. The interrogation lasted until at least 3 a.m. the next morning.


The men conducted similar such interrogations for the next three days. They observed my every move at all times. Even when I went to the toilet they asked me to leave the door open, although it was located in the same room where I was staying. When I was exhausted and tired of answering their questions, and after having been locked in this hotel room all this time, I demanded a translator. Then I asked to call the German embassy, a lawyer and my family. All my requests were refused.

At one point I became so angry that I demanded to be released and attempted to leave the room by force. During this particular incident, we all raised our voices, each of us speaking in our own language. Communication was clearly impossible. One of the men pulled out his firearm and held it level with my head. The other two placed their hands on their holsters in a threatening manner.

                                                                                  *   *   *


The watch was divided between nine men; they changed shifts every six hours. On the fifth day, a man with a bag appeared. He had sheets of paper and fingerprint ink. He also had a camera and took a few photographs of me: right profile, left profile and then frontal.

After about seven days, another official turned up. He appeared to be of a much higher rank than any of my guards. He brought an assistant with him. He was very respectful. He asked me about my condition and how the food was. He told me that I could order food from any restaurant if I didn’t like the food that was being served. He also asked if the guards had treated me well. I thanked him and said that so far I was fine. He then told me that he wanted to and could end my current situation, and that he had a deal to offer me.


I asked him what kind of a deal. He replied that if I admitted that I belonged to the al-Qaida organization they would send me back to Germany with a police escort. I refused and he subsequently left.

Two or three days later, his assistant showed up again and presented me with a list of allegations. He told me that he was certain that these allegations were true. He added that, based on these allegations, the case against me was no longer within their control, and that it had been referred to the Macedonian president. He said that the president had made a decision regarding my continued detention.

I was surprised by this turn of events and asked again to meet with the German ambassador or any other German authority. He told me that the German government did not want anything to do with me, and that I was wanted by them as well. One of the specific allegations against me was that my passport did not belong to me, and that I was wanted by both the Egyptian and German governments because I had been seen in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. After presenting me with these allegations, he left.


                                                                                 *   *   *

On the 13th day after my seizure, I began a hunger strike to protest my situation. A week later, I was told they would soon send me to the airport to fly me back to Germany. I did not eat again for the remaining 10 days of detention in Macedonia.

At around 8 p.m. on the 23rd day of my captivity, January 23, 2004, a video recording was taken of me. I was instructed to state my full name, that I had been treated well, and that I would shortly be flown back to Germany. I was then accompanied out of the hotel. Once outside, two men approached me. They grabbed hold of my arms and a third man then handcuffed and blindfolded me.


Before being blindfolded, I saw a white minivan, and in front of it, a black jeep. I also saw many people in plainclothes waiting around. I was placed in the jeep and it drove off.

The most degrading and shameful act

After about half an hour, the vehicle came to a halt. I was taken out of the vehicle and made to sit down on a chair, where I sat for about another one and a half hours. At this point, I heard the voice of the assistant who had come to see me with the high-ranking official. I was told that I would soon be taken into a room for a medical examination before being returned to Germany.

As I was led into this room, I felt two people violently grab my arms, one from the right side and the other from the left. They bent both my arms backward. This violent motion caused me a lot of pain. I was beaten severely from all sides. I then felt someone else grab my head with both hands so I was unable to move. Others sliced my clothes off. I was left in my underwear. Even this they attempted to take off. I tried to resist at first, shouting out loudly for them to stop, but my efforts were in vain. The pain from the beatings was severe. I was terrified and utterly humiliated. My assailants continued to beat me, and finally they stripped me completely naked and threw me to the ground. My assailants pulled my arms back and I felt a boot in the small of my back.


I then felt a stick or some other hard object being forced in my anus. I realized I was being sodomized. Of all the acts these men perpetrated against me, this was the most degrading and shameful.

I was then pulled to my feet and pushed into the corner of a room. My feet were tied together, and then, for the first time since the hotel, they took off my blindfold. As soon as it was removed, a very bright flashlight went off and I was temporarily blinded. I believe from the sounds that they had taken photographs of me throughout.

When I regained my vision, I saw seven to eight men standing around me, all dressed in black, with hoods and black gloves.

I was dressed in a diaper, over which they fitted a dark-blue sports suit with short sleeves and legs. I was once again blindfolded, my ears were plugged with cotton, and headphones were placed over my ears. A bag was placed over my head and a belt around my waist. My hands were chained to the belt. They put something hard over my nose. Because of the bag, breathing was getting harder and harder for me. I struggled for breath and began to panic. I pictured myself like the images I had seen in the media of the Muslims that were brought to Guantánamo.


They bent me over, forcing my head down, and then hurried with me to a waiting car and then on to a waiting aircraft. They walked so fast that the pain in my joints was getting worse, as the iron of my shackles chafed against my ankles. When I tried to slow down, they almost dislocated my shoulder. In the airplane, I was thrown down onto the floor and my arms and legs were spread-eagled and secured to the sides of the plane.

During the flight, I received two injections, one in the left arm and one in the right arm, at different times. They put something over my nose. I think it was some kind of anesthesia. It felt like the trip took about four hours, but I don’t really remember. However, it appeared to be a much longer trip than one to Germany.

I was mostly unconscious for the duration. I think the plane touched down once and took off again. When the plane landed for the final time I was fully conscious, although still a little light-headed. I was taken outside the aircraft. I could feel dry, warm air and knew immediately that the place where the plane had landed couldn’t possibly be Europe.

That day, Khaled was not flown back to Germany, as he’d been told, but to Kabul, Afghanistan.


A small, filthy concrete cell

After being removed from the aircraft, I was thrown down into what felt like the trunk of a vehicle. The vehicle drove for about 10 minutes. I was then dragged out of the trunk and down a flight of stairs. My arms were raised high behind my back. I was marched so quickly that at times my feet hardly touched the ground. They pushed and shoved me against the walls of the building. Finally I was thrown to the ground. They beat me and kicked my head. Someone stepped on my head and neck with his feet, then removed my chains and my blindfold. I heard them leave and the door being pulled hard and locked behind them.

After adjusting my eyes to the light, I could see that I was lying in a small, filthy concrete cell. The walls were covered in crude Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi writing. In place of a bed there was one dirty, military-style blanket and some old, torn clothes bundled into a thin pillow. It was cold and dark. Through a small opening near the roof of the cell, I could see the red, setting sun. It was only then that I realized that I had been traveling for some 24 hours.

From "Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice," edited by Alia Malek and published by Voice of Witness. This oral history collection tells the stories of men and women who have been needlessly swept up in the war on terror. Narrators recount personal experiences of the post-9/11 backlash that have deeply altered their lives and communities. For more information on the book and to learn more about Voice of Witness visit www.voiceofwitness.org.

Khaled El-Masri

MORE FROM Khaled El-Masri

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

9/11 Books

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •