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BERLIN — A German human rights group has filed a criminal complaint against Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, a CIA official who allegedly authorized torture of suspected al Qaeda militants. The complaint, submitted in federal court on Monday, presents proof of Bikowsky’s involvement in the torture of German citizen Khaled El Masri and asks that she be prosecuted in Germany. It also puts Bikowsky, nicknamed the “Queen of Torture,” in the spotlight of European efforts to hold CIA officials accountable for allegations of abuse.
In 2003, Macedonian agents, mistaking El Masri for a suspected member of the 9/11 plot, seized the Kuwaiti-born car salesman as he was on his way to Skopje, the capital, for vacation, holding him for 23 days. Even after a CIA official warned her that El Masri was a victim of mistaken identity, Bikowsky, then deputy head of the CIA’s Alec Station — the unit in charge of tracking Osama bin Laden — insisted on having El Masri flown to Afghanistan for further questioning. After four months in Afghanistan, where he was violently interrogated, El Masri was put on a CIA flight to Albania and returned to Germany. “There are already arrest warrants in Germany for the air crew who flew El Masri to Afghanistan so we’re simply following the chain of command,” said Andreas Schüller, head of the International Crimes and Accountability Program at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Berlin-based human rights legal organization that submitted the complaint against Bikowsky.
In the complaint, which was filed in July and has been seen by Al Jazeera America, the ECCHR asks the prosecutor to launch a criminal investigation into Bikowsky. The complaint notes that the U.S. Senate’s torture report, released in December last year, contains evidence linking Bikowsky to El Masri’s rendition and torture. “The CIA director … decided that no further action was warranted against XXX, then the deputy chief of ALEC Station, who advocated for al-Masri’s [sic] rendition,” the Senate report stated in a passage included in the ECCHR’s complaint. The allegations are consistent with findings by investigative reporters. In December last year, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported that Bikowsky “gleefully participated in torture sessions,” and “falsely told congressional overseers that the torture worked.”
Should the German federal prosecutor decide not to launch a criminal investigation, ECCHR will file a criminal complaint with the state prosecutor in Munich, whose office eight years ago issued arrest warrants against 13 CIA officials involved in El Masri’s disappearance and detention.
“If the prosecutors are inclined to take up a case of human rights abuse by foreign officials, there’s scope in Germany for broad investigations into human rights abuses under universal jurisdiction,” explained Benjamin Ward, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia. “That could have a very important effect and make officials implicated in abuse reluctant to travel to other countries.” Though ordinary citizens can file criminal complaints, nonprofits staffed by legal experts have better chances at success.
Germany’s Code of Crimes against International Law, which came into effect in 2002, makes Germany one of few countries that allow prosecutors to investigate human rights crimes committed abroad; the accused is not required to be present in Germany. German prosecutors could, in other words, pursue cases of human rights abuse linked to CIA officials in Afghanistan and Guantánamo even if the crimes have minimal connection to Germany. “The critical question is the political will,” said Ward. “Are the prosecutors willing to go where the evidence takes them? Private investigations by groups like the ECCHR are unlikely to directly lead to prosecutions, because state interests are involved. But NGOs’ efforts to bring these abuses to light have encouraged prosecutors to open investigations.” Frauke Köhler, the spokeswoman for the German federal prosecutor’s office, said that officials began reviewing potential cases as soon as the Senate torture report was released. “The ECCHR’s criminal complaint is part of this investigation,” Köhler explained.
The ECCHR is, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in the United States, the Swiss group TRIAL, and Redress in the UK, one of several organizations most active in pursuing legal investigations into human rights violations. A decade ago, the group filed largely symbolic criminal complaints against George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and former CIA Director George Tenet. But it is now going after mid-level officials, who are easier to link to the abuse. “Our goal is that by operating on different levels we’ll be able to pull the net tighter around perpetrators of human rights abuse,” explained Schüller. (The CIA declined to comment for this story.) The ECCHR and the CCR have filed an expert opinion in support of France’s decision to open an investigation into former Guantánamo commander Geoffrey Miller. Earlier this year, the National Court in Paris summoned Miller to respond to allegations of torture.
Schüller said the ECCHR plans to file several additional complaints by the beginning of next year. A criminal complaint alone does not result in an arrest warrant, but if the ECCHR learns that Bikowsky is planning to travel internationally it will contact foreign border agencies to ask for her detention. “The complaint makes it impossible for Bikowsky to serve overseas,” said Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer and lecturer at Columbia University. Though no Western official has been arrested on the basis of a criminal complaint alone, earlier this month former CIA official Sabrina De Sousa, who had been convicted in absentia by an Italian court, was detained trying to enter Portugal. The court found De Sousa guilty of involvement in the detention of radical preacher Abu Omar in Milan in 2003. A total of 26 U.S. officials have been convicted in absentia by Italian courts for human rights abuse connected to renditions. According to Horton, the CIA has already banned 22 officials involved in torture from traveling abroad.
While the Senate torture report has provided human rights organizations with new evidence, the European Court of Human Rights has established a legal precedent that works in favor of victims of human rights abuses. In a 2012 ruling, the ECHR sided with El Masri, who filed a complaint against Macedonia’s interior ministry. “Historically a cloak of legal immunity has been cast around intelligence operatives due to the risk of actions being revealed in court that could harm intelligence operations,” noted Horton. “What’s happening now is that human rights groups are saying that while the courts can’t dig into everything there’s an exception for crimes against humanity.”