Report: U.S. Covered Up Wrongful CIA Detention

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Reports that the U.S. ambassador to Germany personally asked a German minister to keep a botched CIA rendition secret have created a political furor in Germany. German citizen Khaled el-Masri says he was wrongfully taken to Afghanistan, tortured and held for five months.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

This is Rachel Martin in Berlin, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has begun her European visit.

Tomorrow, she meets the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has said one of her priorities is to strengthen US-German relations. But amid concerns about secret prisons and covert CIA flights, the German government has itself come under scrutiny after a report in The Washington Post. According to the report, the US government told the Germans that the CIA mistakenly detained a German citizen in late 2003. Khaled el-Masri from the southern German town of Ulm says he was kidnapped while in Macedonia and taken to Afghanistan, where he was tortured and held for five months by the CIA. Last year, according to The Post report, then-US Ambassador Daniel Coats personally asked the former German Interior minister, Otto Schily, to keep the issue quiet to prevent public knowledge of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

MARTIN: At the regular government press conference today, German reporters hounded the government spokesman, Ulrich Wilhelm, for answers.

Mr. ULRICH WILHELM (Government Spokesperson): (Through Translator) I ask for your understanding that I cannot say anything about this issue here today. We have to wait and see what the US secretary of State will tell us tomorrow.

MARTIN: There's been no confirmation or denial of the cover-up allegation by the US Embassy or the previous minister of the Interior, but the new German government says it's looking into the matter. Hans Christian Stroebele is a member of the German parliament for the Green Party. He says it's too early to say whether the alleged cover-up could be a violation of German or international law, but regardless it's an affront to government's role in society.

Mr. HANS CHRISTIAN STROEBELE (Member of German Parliament): (Through Translator) A lot of injustices have been done to the German citizen el-Masri, and the job of a German minister is to stand on the side of the German citizen and defend his interests.

MARTIN: Khaled el-Masri is expected to file suit against the CIA this week for his alleged rendition. Meanwhile, German prosecutors are investigating another case: whether the CIA used Germany's Ramstein Air Base to transport an Islamic cleric allegedly detained in Milan, Italy, in 2003. Florian Klenk of the German newspaper Die Zeit says cases like this could illustrate a level of cooperation with the American government in the fight against terror that the German government does not want to admit.

Mr. FLORIAN KLENK (Die Zeit): (Through Translator) The question that will be discussed now is whether the Germans just didn't want to get their hands dirty and so they delegated their work to the Americans. If this proves to be true, that means the German government was saying one thing and doing another behind the curtains.

MARTIN: But allegations that the German government kept a lid on el-Masri's kidnapping shouldn't take the pressure off the United States, says Barbara Lochbihler, head of Amnesty International in Germany. She says the US tactics in the war on terror are undermining the very human rights principles they aim to protect.

Ms. BARBARA LOCHBIHLER (Head of Amnesty International in Germany): I think it must be possible that, amongst friends, criticism can be expressed. It's a concern of all European countries, and my criticism is representative of a human rights NGO is that my government was too silent too long and not firmly criticizing openly this wrong US policy.

MARTIN: In her statement this morning, Secretary Rice said governments must adapt to new systems of criminal or military justice in order to effectively fight terrorism, and that it's up to each country to decide if it wants to work with the United States or not. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

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