by Julio Godoy
(IPS) BERLIN -- The U.S. military flights illegally transporting Muslim prisoners through Europe to secret detention camps are presenting a particular challenge for the German government.
New reports indicate that the former coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD, after its German name) and the Green Party was informed of the illegal U.S. flights using German territory.
Official documents both in Berlin and in Washington also show that the German government was informed about the illegal detention of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese origin, by U.S. secret services.
In what the U.S. government called "extraordinary rendition operations," CIA agents captured Masri while he was vacationing in Macedonia in 2003, and held him prisoner for more than five months in camps in Albania and Afghanistan.
Masri was released in May 2004 after he was found innocent of the charges against him. He has accused U.S. government officials of torturing him. A judicial inquiry into the kidnapping and the abuses Masri faced is being held in Germany.
U.S. and German official documents have shown that former U.S. ambassador to Berlin Daniel Coats admitted to the German minister of the interior last year, Otto Schily, that the detention of Masri was a mistake.
Masri's lawyer had informed the German head of government, the foreign ministry, and also the Bundesnachrichtendienst (the German domestic intelligence service) that he had been illegally detained, these documents show. That would mean that new foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was then chief of cabinet, was informed of the kidnapping.
Schily, who is no longer member of government, has refused to comment, but Steinmeier has said that he "will deal with (the issue)."
Steinmeier will face questioning by a closed-door parliamentary committee in Berlin on why the government did not share information with the state prosecutor who was investigating the U.S. abuses against Masri.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union launched legal action Tuesday against former CIA director George Tenet and the CIA in Washington for ordering the abduction of Masri.
The controversy comes as a major test for the new German ruling coalition formed by the SPD and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The coalition government, in office less than three weeks, has set out to mend U.S.-German relations following the former German government's opposition to the war in Iraq. Chancellor Angela Merkel now faces opposition calls to defend German sovereignty.
According to official German reports, at least 437 U.S. military flights passed through or over Germany between late 2001 and the summer of 2005. It is not clear whether all these flights were used by U.S. secret services to transport illegally held prisoners from one detention center to another.
Dirk Niebel, general secretary of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), called the secret U.S. flights "a real scandal" and described them as "an affront to German sovereignty."
Niebel has said that both former German foreign minister Joseph Fischer as well as his successor Steinmeier were informed of the flights. "Nobody can believe that (they were) not informed," Niebel said.
Niebel urged former government officials to disclose all information on the flights. "Those who remain silent become accomplices," he said.
Several aircraft used by the U.S. military and secret services flew under the cover of civilian flights, German government sources have said. The U.S. government has so far refused to comment on the reports.
The new German government has set out to improve relations with the United States, after the previous one opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But the U.S. government's attitude is making the task more difficult for Merkel's ruling coalition.
Before the launch of her European tour this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that "the war on terrorism is, frankly, challenging our norms and practices." She said European security, too, was at stake.
"I would hope that our allies would acknowledge that ... when we discover or uncover intelligence, it is very often intelligence that saves European lives," Rice said.
Rice discussed the Masri case with Merkel in Berlin, but the discussion that had been intended to mend U.S.-German relations turned into a diplomatic disaster.
"We are talking about one case where the U.S. has admitted it made a mistake," said Merkel after meeting Rice. "We have to adhere to the rules of democracy and democratic principles."
She added: "I am very glad that the secretary of state has repeated again here that when mistakes happen they must of course be corrected immediately."
But U.S. officials denied that Rice ever admitted such "a mistake." A senior U.S. official accompanying Rice said, "We are not quite sure what was in (Merkel's) head." Rice refused to comment on the case.
The U.S. government faces similar questions elsewhere.
In Italy, the public prosecutor is investigating the case of Egyptian imam Abu Omar, who was allegedly the victim of another "extraordinary rendition" operation. According to the prosecution, CIA agents kidnapped Omar in February 2003 in Milan, and transported him to the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Frankfurt, and later to Egypt.
"The kidnapping of Abu Omar was not only a serious crime against Italian sovereignty and human rights, but it also seriously damaged counterterrorism efforts in Italy and Europe," prosecutor Armando Spataro said before the court in Milan.
"In fact, if Abu Omar had not been kidnapped, he would now be in prison, subject to a regular trial, and we would have probably identified his other accomplices," he said.
Similar questions have been raised in Paris, where according to media reports at least two U.S. secret military flights landed at French military airports in 2002 and 2005.
Spokesperson at the French foreign ministry Jean-Baptiste Mattei told IPS that "it is absolutely possible that such flights took place. We have learned about these flights, which would have been carried out by the CIA, through press reports. Now we are trying to verify the information."
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