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Context of 'Between June 2004 and November 2005: CIA Closes Salt Pit Prison in Afghanistan'

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To Khalid el-Masri’s astonishingly bad luck, his name closely resembles that of Khalid el-Masri, a man suspected to be involved in the planning of the 9/11 attacks. Born in Lebanon, he is a German citizen, legally living in Germany. On December 31, 2003, he travels by bus from Serbia to Macedonia on his way to Skopje for a weeklong vacation. At the border, Macedonian authorities take him in custody and interrogate him about possible involvement with terrorism. A few hours later, he is taken to a motel on the outskirts of Skopje, accompanied by armed police officers. For the next 23 days, he will be held there by a number of Macedonians, questioned repeatedly and accused of having a fake passport, being an Egyptian national, and having been to a training camp for terrorists in Jalalabad. After about ten days, one interrogator tells him, “[W]e’ll make a deal: you say you are an al-Qaeda member, and sign a paper saying that, and we’ll put you back on a plane and you will be deported to Germany.” El-Masri refuses, “naturally,” he recalls. “It would have been suicide to sign.” The man leaves, but two days later, the same man accuses him of not being cooperative, says he has only himself to blame for his troubles, and that they know everything about him. (Meek 1/14/2005)

Two officers in the CIA’s European division hatch a plan to free an innocent German named Khalid el-Masri who has been held at an agency black site since January (see January 23 - March 2004). The plan, which is termed a “reverse rendition,” is basically to take el-Masri out of prison, fly him somewhere, drive him round in circles for a few hours, and then let him go. However, a manager at Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is opposed to this plan. The manager, Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, had been the driving force behind el-Masri’s rendition to Afghanistan in the first place and had previously put obstacles in the way of his release (see Late March 2004). Now, she still argues that el-Masri is a terrorist. Author Jane Mayer will comment on why Bikowsky’s opposition carries weight: “She had an unusual amount of clout in the agency. She was smart and tough. And her trump card was that she sometimes personally briefed President Bush.” (Mayer 2008, pp. 285-286) Despite Bikowsky’s opposition, a version of the “reverse rendition” plan will be implemented at the end of May (see May 29, 2004).

A native German speaker visits Khalid el-Masri in the US prison in Kabul but does not identify himself. “I asked him,” El-Masri recalls, “‘Are you from the German authorities?’ He says: ‘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.’” What the German is able to tell him, is that one of the obstacles to his release is that the Americans do not want to leave any evidence that el-Masri has ever been in the prison. (Meek 1/14/2005)

The US Ambassador to Germany Daniel Coats tells German Interior Minister Otto Schily that the CIA has been holding an innocent German citizen named Khalid el-Masri at a black site for several months (see January 23 - March 2004) and shortly plans to release him (see May 29, 2004). The CIA had intended to keep this information from the German authorities (see (May 2004)), but the Germans are told at the suggestion of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (see (May 2004)). According to author Jane Mayer, Schily is “extremely unhappy” at hearing the news and makes it clear that he would have preferred not to have known. “Why are you telling me this?” he asks. “My secretary is here—taking notes! Now there’s a record! It will get out—it will become a German political issue. I’ll have to face investigations—I’ll have to testify in front of the Bundestag! Why didn’t you just let him go, give him some money, and keep it quiet?” (Mayer 2008, pp. 286)

At the end of May, more than a week after the German’s visit (see Mid-May 2004), (Meek 1/14/2005) Khalid el-Masri is cuffed, blindfolded, and put on a small jet. After a bus ride of six or seven hours, he is left on the side of the road. He follows the instruction of a man who tells him to walk in a certain direction and arrives at a border crossing, which he discovers is in northern Albania close to the Macedonian border. Three Albanian border officers await him. When El-Masri tells them of his five months in captivity, one of them starts to laugh. He says, according to El-Masri, “Don’t tell that story to anyone because no one will believe it. Everyone will laugh.” El-Masri is then handed back the belongings that were taken from him on the first day of his captivity in Macedonia (see December 31, 2003-January 23, 2004), including his passport and money. His passport is then stamped with the date of May 29, 2004. He returns to Germany on June 3. (van Natta and Mekhennet 1/9/2005)

Alfred Frances Bikowsky (see September 21, 2011), the CIA officer responsible for the wrongful rendition and torture of the innocent German Khalid el-Masri (see Before January 23, 2004 and January 23 - March 2004), is promoted at some point after el-Masri is released from prison (see May 29, 2004). Writing in 2008, author Jane Mayer will say Bikowsky is appointed to “a top post handling sensitive matters in the Middle East.” (Mayer 8/14/2008) A February 2011 Associated Press article will state that at that time Bikowsky is head of the agency’s Global Jihad Unit, so presumably the promotion is to the position of head of this unit. (Goldman and Apuzzo 2/9/2011)

The CIA closes a prison known as the Salt Pit near Kabul, Afghanistan. According to the Washington Post, the reason for the closure is that the road leading to the prison is unsafe. The facility is relocated to Bagram Air Base. The date of closure is uncertain, although a detainee was still being held there in late May 2004 (see May 29, 2004) and the prison’s closure is reported in November 2005. (Priest 11/2/2005)

A group of German civil rights lawyers files a lawsuit against the German government, demanding that the government attempt to extradite 13 CIA agents named in the alleged kidnapping of a German citizen. Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, says he was abducted in December 2003 at the Serbian-Macedonian border (see December 31, 2003-January 23, 2004 and January 23 - March 2004). He was flown by the CIA to a detention center in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was interrogated and abused for months. El-Masri says he was released in Albania in May 2004, and told that he was the victim of mistaken identity (see May 29, 2004). No government or body has yet taken responsibility for el-Masri’s kidnapping and brutalization. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US officials have refused to address the case, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the US acknowledged making a mistake with el-Masri.
Accountability - “We are demanding accountability” with the lawsuit, says attorney Wolfgang Kaleck. For himself, el-Masri says, “I just want the German government to acknowledge what happened to me.” An American judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by el-Masri against the CIA and three US corporations in 2006 (see May 18, 2006). In January 2007, German prosecutors issued warrants for the arrests of 13 CIA agents, accusing them of wrongfully imprisoning el-Masri and causing him serious bodily harm. The US Justice Department refused the requests, citing “American national interests,” and the German Ministry of Justice dropped the request. The lawsuit seeks to force the German government to reconsider extradition for the CIA agents.
Extraordinary Rendition - According to human rights organizations, el-Masri’s case is an example of “extraordinary rendition,” where the US takes suspected terrorists to foreign countries where they are subjected to abuse and torture. A criminal lawsuit against CIA officers in conjunction with the el-Masri case is also ongoing in Macedonia; that case could end up before the European Court of Human Rights. And the American Civil Liberties Union has also filed a petition on el-Masri’s behalf through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body that seeks to establish international laws. (Associated Press 6/9/2008)


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