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Investigation: Macedonia Implicated in Abduction Case
The Macedonian authorities were involved in the kidnapping and illegal detention of a German national following a “request” from the CIA, local police and intelligence sources have told IWPR.
State prosecutors in Berlin have confirmed that they are “investigating unnamed parties on suspicion of abduction” following complaints by Khaled el-Masri, a German national of Lebanese origin.
The unemployed father of six claims that, after being kidnapped and illegally detained while traveling in Macedonia, he suffered months of abuse in a US-controlled secret prison in the Afghan capital Kabul.
A number of police and intelligence sources confirmed the claims to IWPR, saying that Macedonian officers were acting on a request from Washington. And enquiries at Skopje airport have revealed that an American Boeing 737 left for Kabul at the time el-Masri claims he was transferred.
Few Macedonian police officials are willing to discuss this case on the record. Interior ministry spokesperson Goran Pavlovski would only say “no comment” when IWPR asked him about el-Masri’s allegations.
However, the interior ministry has not denied that Macedonian police were involved in the alleged abduction.
Police and intelligence sources have told IWPR that el-Masri was held for 23 days by agents from the Macedonian directorate for security and counter intelligence – in response to information and a request from the CIA.
“We did not look for him, we just acted upon information we had received. In other words, we just followed a request from an intelligence agency of a friendly country,” one police source said.
An interior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed, “While in Macedonia [el-Masri] was not beaten or tortured. Our people acted in a strictly professional manner.”
El-Masri, a 41-year-old unemployed car salesman from the German town of Ulm, claims that he was taken off a tourist bus by police on the Macedonian side of the border with Serbia on his way to Skopje on December 31, 2003.
His luggage was searched and he was questioned for a few hours before being taken to a large town – he assumes Skopje - by armed police.
Local intelligence sources in the Kumanovo area - which also covers the Tabanovce border crossing with Serbia, where el-Masri was allegedly taken off the bus - told IWPR that they had heard about the abduction, insisting it was conducted by Macedonian counter intelligence agents from Skopje.
“We knew that there was an operation, but we did not get any details as it was not related to our [work] at a local level,” one source from Kumanovo told IWPR.
Police sources confirm that el-Masri was detained in Macedonia, but insist that the local intelligence services were only following orders from Washington.
Asked why el-Masri was allegedly held without any charges, one police source replied that “in these cases the rules do not apply” noting that request from the CIA have absolute priority. Normally, suspects must be charged within 24 hours of their arrest, or released.
But el-Masri claims that he was held for questioning in a hotel for 23 days without charge before being handed over to what he believes were Americans, and then flown to Kabul.
A source at Skopje airport, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has told IWPR that official records do contain data about a special flight – an American Boeing 737 - that landed in Skopje from Palma de Majorca and then departed for Afghanistan.
“According to airport records the American Boeing landed in Skopje on January 23 at 9:30pm. It left Skopje few hours later, at 2am, with only one passenger. The name of the passenger is not listed. The plane’s destination was Kabul,” the source said.
IWPR’s official request for information from Skopje airport had not been answered at the time we went to press. But Kabul is not a regular destination for flights leaving the Macedonian capital.
In Kabul, el-Masri claims that he was tortured and abused for a further four months, in an attempt to force him to confess to being an Islamic militant. He said that he was eventually released in Albania at the end of May 2004.
His lawyer Manfred R Gnjidoc claims that el-Masri was the innocent victim of a controversial CIA policy known as “rendition” – where suspects are handed over to countries with poor human rights records so that information can be extracted from them using torture, while leaving America’s reputation unharmed.
The lawyer told the New York Times that his client was taken because he has the same name - albeit with a slightly different spelling - as an al-Qaeda-linked extremist who is wanted in connection with the September 11 attacks on the US.
The British newspaper The Guardian, which has interviewed el-Masri extensively about his ordeal, has reported that the Berlin authorities are now subjecting a sample of his hair to radioisotope analysis – a procedure that can reveal the source country of all food and drink consumed by a person over a period of time.
The seriousness with which the German authorities are treating the allegations has led some analysts to warn that Macedonia’s alleged role in the events will not be overlooked.
Former interior minister Pavle Trajanov told IWPR that el-Masri’s case was “unique” and noted that “it is highly unusual to hand over people to other foreign intelligence services in this manner”.
“There is little doubt that [el-Masri] was held illegally,” he said.
“There were no grounds to keep him for such a long time, especially since no court placed him in custody. If el-Masri proves his case it is likely the US will [have to] take responsibility.
“However, that does not mean that Germany will not react over Macedonia’s role in the abduction.”
Law professor Vlado Popovski, former head of Macedonia’s state intelligence agency, told IWPR that the law enforcement authorities had a duty of care to check the identity of any suspect they apprehend.
“Hypothetically speaking, if the courts decide that this was a case of mistaken identity, the Macedonian authorities would not be relieved of their responsibility even if they thought [el-Masri] was the [right] man when they handed him over the another country’s intelligence agency,” he said.
The Macedonian interior ministry and the German embassy in Skopje said that they were not aware of any official request made by Berlin for assistance from Macedonia in their enquiries. The US embassy in Skopje was approached about the allegations, but refused to comment.
Macedonia has long expressed a willingness to aid the US in its so-called war on terror, with mixed results. Former interior minister Ljube Boskovski is still on the run after being charged with the murders of seven economic migrants, passed off as Islamic extremists, in an apparent effort to impress Washington.
Ana Petruseva is IWPR’s project manager in Skopje. Miomir Serafinovic is a Skopje-based journalist.
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