FRANKFURT: A German court on January 31 issued an arrest warrant for 13 people in the mistaken kidnapping and jailing of a German citizen of Lebanese descent, in the most serious legal challenge yet to the Central Intelligence Agency's secret transfers of terrorism suspects.
Prosecutors in Munich said the suspects, whom they did not identify, were part of a CIA "abduction team" that seized the man, Khaled el-Masri, in Macedonia in late 2003 and flew him to Afghanistan. He was imprisoned there for five months, during which, he said, he was shackled, beaten and interrogated about alleged ties to al-Qaida, before being released without charges.His ordeal is the most extensively documented case of the CIA's practice of "extraordinary rendition," in which terrorism suspects are seized and sent for interrogation to other countries, including some in which torture is practiced.
"This is a very consequential step," August Stern, the prosecutor in Munich, said in a telephone interview. "It is a necessary step before bringing a criminal case against these people."The Central Intelligence Agency has never acknowledged any role in Masri's detention, and a CIA spokesman declined to comment on January 31.Stern said investigators would seek to establish the identities of the 13 people, most of whom are believed to use aliases. They include the four pilots of the Boeing 737 that picked up Masri, a mechanic and several CIA operatives, people familiar with the case said.
Issuing an arrest warrant is a major expansion of the legal challenge to the CIA's rendition program in Europe. Italian prosecutors are seeking indictments against 25 CIA operatives and Italy's former intelligence chief for the kidnapping of a militant Egyptian cleric in 2003.It is unlikely that the Bush administration will acquiesce in the extradition to Germany of the 13 suspects. But the arrest warrant could further hinder their ability to move around Europe.
The German case also carries more weight, legal experts said, because of the reputation of courts here for painstaking deliberation and because of recent efforts to repair damaged diplomatic ties between Germany and the United States."It is unique that a German court would issue warrants against 13 CIA agents," said Hans-Christian Stroebele, a Green Party member of a German parliamentary committee that is investigating the flights.
The arrest warrants were first reported in The Los Angeles Times on January 31.For Masri, who has had to overcome a tide of public skepticism about his account since it was first reported in The New York Times in early 2005, the court's action is a significant step in bolstering the credibility of his claims, said his lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic."This is unbelievably important for our case," Gnjidic said in an interview. "It's the first direct sign of the German government against the CIA that they did the wrong thing."