Government cables published by WikiLeaks showed that the US interfered in a judicial investigation in Germany into the kidnapping of a German citizen by the CIA.
The citizen, Khalid El-Masri, said in written evidence that WikiLeaks publication had ensured that his story had been acknowledged and accepted after years of trying to bring the facts of his treatment to light.
El-Masri gave the statement on the ninth day of extradition proceedings against Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, at the Old Bailey.
Assange is accused of conspiring with hacking groups and faces 18 charges under the Espionage Act and one charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which carry a maximum sentence of 175 years.
El-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, said he had been detained in 2003 at the Macedonian border, then kidnapped and taken to a prison in Afghanistan by CIA agents where he was tortured.
Assange accuses prosecution of censorship
Technical difficulties prevented El-Masri from joining the court’s cloud video platform, which meant he was unable to address the court beyond his written statement.
Assange is reported to have stood up and said, “I will not accept you censoring a torture victim’s statement to this court”, after prosecution lawyers objected to him giving live testimony.
Mark Summers QC, representing Assange, said the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2011 exposed the pressure the US had put on the German authorities not to go ahead with extradition charges against the CIA agents involved in El-Masri’s kidnapping.
El-Marsi said in his written evidence that the European Court of Human Rights relied on US government cables published by WikiLeaks in a ruling announced in December 2012.
The European Court said El-Masri’s account of his abduction, torture and rendition had been “established beyond reasonable doubt”.
It found that Macedonia was responsible for his torture and ill-treatment, both in the country itself and after his transfer to the US authorities.
El Masri said the WikiLeaks cables showed that the US interfered in a judicial investigation in Germany, as well as in Spain where the rendition flight in question travelled from.
“Without dedicated and brave exposure of the state secrets in question, what happened to me would never have been acknowledged and understood,” he said. “The exposure of what happened was necessary, not just for myself, but for law and justice worldwide.”
CIA rendition team
El-Masri said he was kidnapped at the Macedonian border while travelling through Europe on a bus.
He said he was detained without reason, held incommunicado, and severely ill-treated for 23 days. He reported being “handcuffed and blindfolded at Skopje Airport and handed to a CIA rendition team who physically overwhelmed me, cutting off all my clothes except my blindfold”.
He recalled “seven or eight men dressed head to foot in black, wearing black masks” before being “shackled and marched to a waiting aircraft”.
Khalid El-Masri, German citizen kidnapped by the CIA
“I was spread-eagled and my limbs tied to the side of the aircraft. I was given injections and anaesthetic. I was unconscious for most of the journey,” he stated in written evidence.
The plane took El-Masri to a prison in Afghanistan where he was held incommunicado in a concrete cell in winter and “continuously interrogated … humiliated, stripped naked, insulted and threatened”.
When he protested his detention by going on a hunger strike, El Masri said he was “dragged from my cell to the interrogation room, tied to a chair and a tube painfully forced through my nose”.
El-Masri later discovered that the CIA knew his detention was the result of “mistaken identity” but continued to hold him there for several more months.
After that, he described being “taken to an aircraft, blindfolded, ear-muffed and chained to the seat”. The aircraft took him to Albania where his blindfold and handcuffs were removed.
“The men gave me my suitcase and my passport and told me to walk down the road without turning back. I really believed I was going to be shot in the back and that I would die on that road,” said El-Masri. “I was warned as a condition of my release I was never to mention what happened to me and that there would be consequences if I spoke.”
His account has been confirmed in a report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), which found that CIA officers met with El Masri and “related conditions for his release which included: that he would not reveal his experiences to the media or the local authority; that he would accept that his post-release activities would be monitored; and that any breach of his pledge would have consequences”.
El Masri had long struggle to expose facts
El Masri said over the following years, as a result of the secrecy of the states involved, he had a “long struggle to expose even the most basic facts” about his case.
“It was only with the assistance of independent journalists working with WikiLeaks, and later human rights investigators and lawyers, that I was slowly able to build up my credibility and gather evidence to support my story,” he said.
El-Masri said he had been harassed by “being suddenly blocked on the motorway by cars, unknown strangers approaching my children, [and] my complaints to the police leading to their attempting to section me in a hospital for the mentally ill”.
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that El-Masri was “severely beaten, sodomised, shackled, hooded and subjected to total sensory deprivation – carried out in the presence of state officials of Macedonia and within its jurisdiction”.
The court found the aim was “to cause Mr Masri severe pain and suffering to obtain information” and in its view “such treatment amounted to torture, in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights”.
Diplomatic cables revealed US bullying
One of the key investigators was John Goetz, a German journalist who worked for Der Spiegel from 2010-11, who managed to reconstruct the rendition flight and eventually identify “the names of 13 CIA agents involved”.
In a statement to the court that Goetz provided on 16 September in support of El-Masri's testimony, he said: “The investigation into what happened to him was as difficult as anything I have worked on. It was only years later, when WikiLeaks published US diplomatic cables in 2010-11, that I finally found an explanation about why there had been so many difficulties during the investigation.”
He said the cables “revealed the extent of the pressure brought on the German authorities (and in parallel, relevant Spanish authorities) not to act upon the clear evidence of criminal acts by the US even though by then exposed”.
The WikiLeaks cables “threw light on the pressures and bullying techniques brought by the US in more than one country to prevent the prosecution of CIA agents involved”, said Goetz.
In light of a case initiated on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union against the US before the International Criminal Court – the court of last resort when governments will not investigate grave crimes – El-Masri said “threats and intimidation are not diminishing, but expanding for all concerned”.
Goetz said: “The impediments have taken a further and disturbing course to this day, with threat and intimidatory measures being announced by the relevant minister, US Secretary of State Pompeo, threatening retribution upon those parties bringing cases – of which El-Masri’s case is currently one – to the International Criminal Court.”
Read more about Julian Assange’s September extradition hearing at the Old Bailey
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