BERLIN - A Munich court has ordered the arrest of 13 U.S. intelligence operatives in connection with the kidnapping and beating of a German citizen who was interrogated for five months at a secret prison in Afghanistan, prosecutors announced yesterday.
The suspects belong to a CIA-sponsored team that allegedly flew Khaled Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, from Macedonia to Afghanistan in January 2004. Each of the accused, all but one of whom were identified only by aliases, were charged with kidnapping and causing serious bodily harm.
Police found a "strong suspicion" that the operatives were involved in Masri's disappearance, said a statement released by the Munich prosecutor's office. "According to the information we have, the suspects listed in the arrest warrants are believed to be so-called code names of CIA agents. The investigation will now focus on learning the actual names of the suspects."
Legal experts said it was unlikely the accused, including four pilots, a medic, and members of an operations unit, would appear before a German court. CIA and U.S. State Department officials have refused to comment in detail about the Masri case, but the Bush administration has said antiterror laws allow for such covert operations, known as "extraordinary renditions." U.S. officials have denied allegations of torture.
"As far as I know, the German court has never issued an arrest warrant against 13 CIA officials all at once," said Hans-Christian Stroeble, a member of a parliamentary committee investigating the Masri case, whose Greens Party has criticized the renditions program as a violation of human rights. "This is a great success."
The intelligence operatives, most of whom are believed to be Americans, are alleged to have been involved in a mission that loaded a bound and drugged Masri onto a Boeing 737 that flew him from Skopje, Macedonia, to Afghanistan in the early morning of Jan. 24, 2004. Masri had been detained weeks earlier by Macedonian security officials when he attempted to cross the Serbian-Macedonian border. He said that while in Macedonian custody he was beaten and photographed naked.
German prosecutors initially were skeptical of Masri's tale - that he disappeared into a hidden dimension in the fight against terrorism and was held for interrogation and abuse before he was released in the mountains of Albania in May 2004. But German authorities said they concluded that the car salesman and father of four was telling the truth.
German officials believe Masri was the victim of mistaken identity - a man with the same name as a suspected terrorist linked to al-Qaeda. Former Interior Minister Otto Shilly has told a German government committee that U.S. officials privately apologized for the abduction.
U.S. authorities never charged Masri with a crime, and German prosecutors have criticized Washington for not cooperating with their investigation.
German officials allege that the operatives, many of whom live in North Carolina, work for Aero Contractors, which has been linked by news reports and German investigators to the CIA. The company is connected to Premier Executive Transport Services Inc., which held the registration for the Boeing that transported Masri, according to European aviation documents.