BERLIN - German politicians expressed surprise on Thursday at reported U.S. comments that Washington had apologized and paid money to a German citizen it abducted to Afghanistan and held for months as a terrorist suspect.
The case of Khaled el-Masri, who is suing the Central Intelligence Agency for wrongful imprisonment and torture, took a new twist with comments from Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in parliament on Wednesday.
German Khaled el-Masri is seen in Ulm, Germany, December 11, 2005. Germany played no part in the U.S. abduction of a German citizen who was held as a terrorist suspect in Afghanistan, the government said on Wednesday, describing it for the first time as a possible crime. REUTERS/Alexandra Winkler
Schaeuble shed new light on a conversation on May 31, 2004, between his predecessor Otto Schily and then-U.S. ambassador Daniel Coats, at which Coats first told the German government that one of its citizens had been detained.
Coats had said that Masri "had received an apology, agreed to keep quiet and been paid a sum of money", Schaeuble said.
But he said the U.S. envoy had not gone into detail about what happened to Masri. He had mentioned "neither the word Afghanistan, nor the length of time he had been held by the American side".
Masri's lawyer told German media his client had not received money from the Americans, and dismissed the account as an attempt to smear him.
The case has caused a political storm in Germany, with the government under pressure to demand a full explanation from Washington and clarify when German officials were told of the case and what they did about it.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told parliament on Wednesday that the government found out about the Masri case only after his release.
Hans-Christian Stroebele, deputy leader of the opposition Greens, said the question of whether the United States had paid Masri was a significant new element.
"That is an additional admission. You don't pay money unless you're conscious of making a serious mistake," he told Reuters.
In a U.S. lawsuit against ex-CIA director George Tenet and other unnamed officials, Masri is seeking compensation of at least $75,000, plus "punitive and exemplary damages" and legal fees.
"If the Americans say he already received money...then that's a question that is obviously significant to this legal case and I assume it will be cleared up in the United States," Stroebele said.
Foreign Minister Steinmeier on Wednesday said Germany played no part in the abduction of Masri, who was arrested in Macedonia on December 31, 2003, and then flown to Afghanistan, where he remained in jail until late May 2004.
The affair has drawn international attention at a time when Washington faces allegations that the CIA has run secret prisons in Europe and elsewhere, and covertly transferred suspects to countries where they may face torture.
The United States has defended its intelligence methods as legal, saying it will do everything within the law to win the war on terrorism. A U.S. embassy spokesman declined to comment on the latest developments in Masri's case.
© Reuters 2005