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Macedonia

Europe Is Adamant On the Issue of El Masri

Risto Karajkov, Florence, Italy, May 15, 2006

Khaled El Masri told his story to the European Parliament in March. He has accused the C.I.A. of kidnapping him in late 2003 from Macedonia and interrogating him in Afghanistan. (Photo: Gerard Cerles / AFP-Getty Images)

Ignore a problem long enough and it will go away. That seems to have been the strategy of the Macedonian government when it comes to the case of Khaled El Masri.

El Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent was arrested by Macedonian police on New Year's Eve 2003. According to El Masri, he was subsequently handed over to the C.I.A., held illegally in a secret location in Macedonia for three weeks, and then flown to Afghanistan for interrogation.

When the story appeared in the U.S. media late last year, it brought demands for more information from European governments. Macedonian authorities were repeatedly asked for information on the case. They complied. Europe is not convinced however that the Macedonian government has been as forthright as it claims, which could present a serious obstacle to its integration into the European Union.

Last month Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski flew to Strasbourg, France, to speak before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. On the eve of his departure, he tried to dismiss assumptions in the media about the "El Masri question."

"I have been invited to the spring session [of the Parliamentary Assembly] to speak about Macedonia and the region. El Masri is a question which is about to close; the report exists; I have nothing more to add as prime minister," Buckovski said. The issue, in his view, has been exhausted.

Speaking to the press the next day, Rene van der Linden, president of the Parliamentary Assembly, sent a strong message to Buckovski.

"Of course we spoke of El Masri. If Macedonia wants to become a member of the E.U., the closer European family, it must disclose all information to the Council of Europe for the preparation of the final report," said van der Linden. Both the Council and the European Union are preparing reports on the existence of secret C.I.A. prisons in Europe.

The media interpreted van der Linden's statement as a serious warning. Buckovski tried to downplay the significance of van der Linden's comment by noting that when van der Linden asked about El Masri during a session of the Parliamentary Assembly, it was of only marginal importance. In fact, Buckovski said, van der Linden had to be reminded even to ask about El Masri by a member of his staff.

Stories in the Macedonian media reported Buckovski as saying that the idea that the El Masri case could harm Macedonia's integration prospects is wrong, and that van der Linden is not very informed on the topic.

"It is my impression that there is more interest in El Masri in some of our media than in the Council of Europe," Buckovski said.

As much as Buckovski would like to believe otherwise, Europe feels that Macedonia has not come clean on the topic. Indeed, some European diplomats believe Macedonia may be closer to the U.S. than Europe, as is evident in an opinion piece by an anonymous European diplomat that was picked up by the Macedonian press:

"It is clear to everybody that Macedonia couldn't say 'no' to the U.S. and its agents when they probably asked for a favor from the Macedonian authorities in the fight against terrorism. This is a mitigating circumstance for Macedonia. But it is not to its favor the behavior which leads [us] to think that Skopje has more trust in Washington than Brussels," the anonymous European diplomat said.

An investigative committee from the European Union went to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, at the end of April to examine the case further.

"This committee will expect all relevant institutions to present all necessary information regarding the case," said Ervan Fuere, the Union's ambassador to Macedonia.

Macedonia's interior minister, Ljubomir Mihajlovski, was wrongly quoted by the press as saying that he refused to talk to the committee, which raised the ire of European diplomats involved in the investigation. Mihajlovski had already testified before the Council of Europe at the end of March.

Reacting to the incorrect report, the chairman of the committee, Giovanni Fava, said that cooperation was both a moral and a political duty for all concerned. The misunderstanding was later corrected, but the signs are clear that Europe is becoming impatient with the entire story.

According to the president of the European Parliament, Josep Borell, the possible consequences of the El Masri case for Macedonia cannot be discussed before the investigation is completed. A report is due out in June.

In a comment to the press, Terry Davis, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, said Buckovski had answered the committee's questions in detail:

"The analysis has not been completed and that is why I cannot bring out any of the related points we discussed with the prime minister. But I expressed my respect for having answered on time and in a detailed way."

Over the last few months, forthrightness about the case of El Masri has clearly become one of the conditions of European integration for Macedonia, only the Macedonian government is unwilling to admit it. Europe, for its part, has remained adamant.

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