The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A German man held captive in the CIA’s secret prisons gives first interview in 8 years

Khalid el-Masri, a German-Lebanese man found to have been wrongfully detained by the CIA in 2004, stands for a portrait in Vienna on Sept. 13. (Souad Mekhennet/The Washington Post)

In early 2004, Khalid el-Masri, a German and Lebanese citizen, was turned over to the CIA by the authorities in Macedonia where he had been detained while trying to enter the country on a short trip. He was taken to Afghanistan and spent several months in the CIA’s then-secret interrogation program.

Reports by the CIA’s inspector general and the Senate Intelligence Committee later found that Masri had been wrongfully detained and that the agency was too slow to rectify its mistake. While in CIA custody, Masri said he was brutally interrogated. After several months at a “black site” in Afghanistan, Masri was flown back to Europe and released at night on an empty road in Albania.

[Senate report about CIA program details brutality, dishonesty]

Upon his return to Germany, he had several serious brushes with the law, including arson and assault charges, and he was sentenced to two years in prison. His lawyers blamed the incidents on psychiatric problems related to his time in CIA custody. In 2012, Masri won a case against Macedonia in the European Court of Human Rights and was awarded 60,000 euros in compensation.

Now 52, he is living in straitened circumstances in Vienna. This is his first interview since 2007. He spoke with Post correspondent Souad Mekhennet, who first wrote about Masri in 2005 for the New York Times.


WP: The Senate Intelligence Committee study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program stated that you’ve been wrongfully detained. Does it feel like an important victory to you?

Masri: First of all this information is coming out way too late. Second, compared to what has happened to me and my family in Germany after my return, the sins and crimes of the CIA seem now just like small things to me.

WP: What did happen in Germany?

Masri: I lost everything there. I feel that I was trapped by German authorities. My family and I were left alone and even felt threatened and finally we all had to leave Germany, because it was unbearable for us to stay there.

WP: The Senate report says that the CIA took you to a fake border point, released you and also gave you $18,500.

Masri: I want to see the person who claims that he or she has given me the money. If they say something like this, I want to see this person face to face and then we can talk.

WP: Another man, whose case was mentioned in the Senate Intelligence Committee report, is the Algerian Laith Saidi, who had been in the same detention center as you. Are you still in touch with him?

Masri: No, I am not in touch with him anymore. Several months after his release, he did call me and we spoke to each other. He was supposed to be one of the main witnesses in my case at the European Court. But there was a visa issue, and he wasn’t able to travel with his lawyer.

WP: What happened to you in Afghanistan?

Masri: I have been humiliated, insulted and threatened, also stripped naked. There were beatings during the interrogations. I wasn’t in a real cell; it was very dirty. I had one plastic bucket as toilet; the food and water was dirty.

WP: When we met the first time after your release, you said you wanted an explanation and apology from the U.S.? Have you ever received an explanation why you were targeted, and an apology or compensation?

Masri: No, I have not received an apology, no explanation or compensations from the U.S or Germany. I feel that my family and I actually have been punished instead. Because I spoke up after my return, went to the media and requested an explanation.

WP: But the European Court for Human Rights has convicted Macedonia for its role and asked them to pay you compensation?

Masri: I did not ask them to exchange what has happened to me for money. I want to have answers from Macedonia and not money. Why did Macedonia decide to stop me? Have they informed the Germans? All these are questions I need to know [the answers].

WP: In the context of human rights and given your own experiences, how do you see the U.S. and Europe today?

Masri: People in the West are the last ones in the world that should talk about human rights. Look what they have done to me and others. There have been no consequences for those responsible. On one hand they are great in pointing at others and criticize them, but then they don’t want to look inside and have accountability for human rights crimes.

WP: What about the human rights organizations and NGOs who were supporting you?

Masri: Yes, they were all there, when my story broke. But when my family and I needed help and support, they were all gone. It seemed as if they all just wanted to use me for their own interests, also to be in the media and enjoy moments of fame. But where were they, when my wife, children and I needed help and were punished for speaking up and asking for justice? Then, when the Senate report came out ... yet again some people were trying to benefit from my case. But to be blunt I don’t allow any organization — no matter if in Europe or the U.S — to speak or act on my behalf.

WP: I remember when I spoke last to your wife, she said you had nightmares and nervous breakdowns. Have you ever received any help from Germany?

Masri: No, I never received any help, nor did my family. The only thing we received from the Germans was pressure and humiliation, no help or support. It was as if people had no empathy for us.

WP: You spent time in prison because you attacked the mayor of the city Neu Ulm where you were living. Why did you attack him?

Masri: Actually since my return from Afghanistan, I spent five years in jail and also seven months in psychiatry. I slapped him in his face, yes. This was after a series of things that had taken place. I tried to burn down one department store before that and was released on bail. And then I felt that people weren't listening to me and my family’s fears and problems. To the contrary, the police came in the night and arrested me in front of my family and handcuffed me. Then I went with my kids to the mayor. I wanted to talk to him but he refused, so I went into the office and slapped him in his face.

WP: Why is your family not living with you anymore?

Masri: They were harassed and followed while I was in prison. My wife asked a friend to go to the police and help, but they haven't done much. Then all of a sudden, I received a letter from the children protection service. They would take away the kids from us. So I wrote back to them; I swear by God, if you touch one of my children, I will attack a whole school with your kids. They tried to blackmail me with my family and tried to use it as a method to put pressure on me. That’s why my family left for Germany.

WP: There have been reports recently in Germany that you have joined the Islamic State.

Masri: I don’t want to talk about this now. I will talk about it when the time is right. I don’t allow anyone to tell me what I can do or can’t or where to go or not. Not after what they have done to me. Why should I give an explanation for such rumors or accusations? I am a free person and can do whatever I think is right.

WP: Have you ever thought about joining the Islamic State?

Masri: That’s something I will keep to myself.

WP: You live in Austria today, why?

Masri: Because I can’t live in Germany now. I feel people are still harassing me there.

WP: Do you have a job in Austria?

Masri: No, I was looking for work, but without luck. Then I asked for asylum but was told I wouldn’t get any support, not even a bed. Then I went to a home for the homeless, and it was awful. And now I try to stay here and there with people I know. This is where my life is right now. Only because I asked for the truth, justice and my right as a human being. My family and I have been punished. This is what it looks like.

Read more:

The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program

20 key findings about CIA interrogations

At CIA, mistakes by officers are often overlooked