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Assange trial hears evidence from Kahled El-Masri

25 September 2020

Tim Dawson

Lawyers for the US government wrangled for days to prevent Julian Assange's extradition proceedings hearing Kahled El-Masri’s evidence. When eventually his story was laid before the court last week, it was obvious why.

The German shop worker suffered horrific treatment at the hands of the Macedonian police and the CIA. He was secretly held captive for months, tortured and then dumped on a roadside in a country he had never visited. It took a determined investigative journalist, the Wikileaks revelations, and nine years to establish the facts. 

Once they had, however, the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that El-Masri had been “severely beaten, shackled, sodomised, hooded and subjected to total sensory deprivation, carried out by state officials of Macedonia”. The court held that the facts of his case were established beyond reasonable doubt.

The United States, however, has resisted all attempts to hold it to account for the five months during which the CIA tortured El-Masri in secret. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague is investigating the case, which could come to trial later this year. In response, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has denounced the ICC and issued sanctions against its senior officials for “illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction”.

El-Masri grew up in Lebanon. During 1980s civil war, when he was in his 20s, he was granted political asylum in Germany where he became citizen, set up home in Ulm, married, and started a family. 

In 2003, he took a short holiday in Skopje, Macedonia – possibly after a row with his wife. As he started his coach journey home, however, he was detained by Macedonian police who mistook him for an al-Queda suspect with a very similar name and German connections.

The Macedonian police held him incommunicado for 23 days before handing him over to the CIA. Its operatives stripped, blindfolded and drugged him before strapping him spread-eagled to the floor of a plane and flying him to Afghanistan.

“I was continuously interrogated, held in a cold concrete cell with only a dirty, thin blanket and a bucket to use for a toilet. I was humiliated, stripped naked and threatened,” he told the court in his statement. It would later transpire that he was in one of the CIA's 'black sites’ known as the Salt Pit.

Eventually he went on hunger strike. After 34 days without food he was strapped to a chair and forcibly fed through his nose. 

After four months of inhumane treatment, it appears the Americans had realised their mistake. On 28 May El-Masri was again blindfolded and handcuffed and taken to a plane where he was strapped to a seat. He was flown to Albania, although he did not know it at the time. 

“I was put in the back of a vehicle and driven up and down mountainous roads. Eventually the vehicle stopped, I was brought from the back of the car and the handcuffs removed. The men gave me my suitcase and my passport and told me to walk down the road without turning back.”

He imagined that he was about to be shot in the back and was surprised as he rounded a corner to meet a group of armed men. They asked for his passport and demanded to know why he was in Albania without a visa. 

By some miracle he managed to return to Germany, but his ordeal was by no means over. After so long without word, his wife had returned to Lebanon, assuming her husband had abandoned her. Persuading anyone of what had happened to him during his five-month absence would prove challenging.

Among the investigative journalists that El-Masri contacted was John Goetz, then working for NDR, the German state broadcaster. “When we first met, very few people believed Mr El-Masri's story,” Goetz told the court last week. “Macedonia itself denied all knowledge of the detention, and the United States provided no information.”

Goetz started meticulously checking flight records to corroborate El-Masri's account. Eventually these led not only the actual flights, but to the names of the 13 CIA operatives who had held him prisoner. "I myself knocked on doors in different countries and eventually in the US where I discovered the agents and questioned them about their role”, Goetz said at the Old Bailey.

In January 2007 the Munich prosecutor issued arrest warrants for 13 people wanted in connection with El-Masri's abduction. For reasons that were, at the time, incomprehensible, the German government chose not to request extradition of those individuals.

“When the diplomatic cables (obtained by Wikileaks) first came to light El-Masri was the first thing that I typed in”, said Goetz. What they revealed with the intense pressure that US diplomats had exerted on German chancellor Angela Merkel. “There will be serious repercussions for German/American relations if (the warrants are issued)”, she was warned by US diplomats.

American justice proved equally illusive. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the US government on behalf of El-Masri. When he and his lawyer arrived to testify, they were denied entry to the US, however. Their statements were eventually heard by video link, but the judge dismissed the case on the grounds that it would: “present a grave risk of injury to national security”.

Whether El-Masri's story and its cover up persuades Judge Baraitser to refuse Assange’s extradition is for the future. The ICC's deliberations too are for another day. 

In no doubt, however, is El-Masri’s gratitude to Wikileaks. “Those cables made public in September 2011 made it clear why over the intervening yeas my suffering had been able to be denied and ignored and steps that should have been taken against those responsible sidelined.” 

Tags: , julian assange, trials, wikileaks, Kahled El-Masri, cia, Mike Pompeo, International Criminal Court, macedonia, macedonian police, torture, germany, Angela Merkel, American Civil Liberties Union