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A German Turk's Guantanamo Story

Mark Landler and Souad Mekhennet
International Herald Tribune
November 4, 2006
 
During the four and a half years he languished in American prison camps in Afghanistan and Cuba, Murat Kurnaz claims to have been beaten, locked for months in isolation cells, dunked under water, sexually humiliated, and hung from the ceiling by chains, claims the Pentagon denies. But investigators eventually decided not to hold him any longer on suspicion of being a terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda, and in late August, he was released, the result of secret negotiations between the United States and Germany, where he was born 24 years ago to a Turkish family. Now back home in Bremen, absolved of any German inquiry, he is struggling to make sense of his odyssey. He blames not just his American captors but also the German government, which according to internal German intelligence documents turned down an offer by the United States to send him home in late 2002. "The first time, the Americans kept me in Guantanamo; the second time, the Germans did," Kurnaz said during an interview, speaking English, which he learned during his captivity at the camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "They did the same as the American government."
 
Kurnaz's tale of wrongful imprisonment reinforces the worst suspicions of many Europeans about the detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo. The camp remains a symbol of the clashing approaches of the United States and Europe to the threat of terror. But his account pointedly calls into question Germany's role, suggesting the Germans decided to abandon him because he was a Turkish citizen, though born and living in Germany, and even contributed to his ordeal. With these charges, the Kurnaz case has ignited a political firestorm in Germany, raising questions about whether this country has sacrificed its principles in supporting the American-led campaign against terrorism.
 
Kurnaz's troubles stem from a poorly timed visit to Pakistan in October 2001, a month after terrorists rammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The next month he was pulled off a bus in Pakistan, and by January 2002, sent to an American prison in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.
 
While there, he said, German soldiers slammed his head on the ground and kicked him, while American soldiers who were watching laughed. The German Defense Ministry said there was no evidence its soldiers mistreated Kurnaz. The ministry had denied its soldiers were even active in southern Afghanistan but later conceded they had been there and had had contact with Kurnaz.
 
"I was born in Germany, I live in Germany," he said. "It's hard to see something like that from Germans, to be treated like that by Germans. You think the government of your country will help you."
 
And a spokesman for the Pentagon, Lieutenant Commander Chito Peppler, said Kurnaz was treated humanely in Afghanistan and Cuba. He was allowed to exercise, as well as to send and receive letters.
 
The Pentagon spokesman said Kurnaz was released after lengthy discussions with the German government, "when the United States determined that conditions were appropriate for his transfer."
 
A stocky man with flowing reddish brown hair and a bushy beard, Kurnaz described his experience in a matter-of-fact tone, leavened with flashes of mordant humor. Only when he talked about Germany did his speech become halting, the words measured out painfully. "The soldier grabbed my hair and pulled back my head," Kurnaz recalled. "He asked, 'Do you know who we are? We are the German force, K.S.K.'" The acronym refers to an elite army unit.
 
"He hit my head, and then either he or his friend kicked me, and everyone laughed," Kurnaz said.
 
Kurnaz's years in prison, and the charge of mistreatment by two governments has created an uproar in Germany. "In this case, it was the moral obligation of Germany to do something," said Cem Ozdemir, a German member of the European Parliament, which is investigating the detention of suspected terrorists. "They chose to close their eyes, and didn't do anything," Ozdemir said. "It leaves a serious question of what would happen to other German Turks, if something similar were to happen."
 
The German Foreign Ministry declined to comment on secret government documents that were forwarded to Parliament as part of a review of the Kurnaz case that say Germany rejected an American offer to return him to Germany. The documents were seen by a New York Times reporter.
 
In one, the intelligence agency recommended rejecting the American offer to return him to Germany; suggesting that he should go to Turkey instead. A second document refers to that decision.
 
The Germans say the Americans were puzzled by the German attitude. With public criticism mounting, the German Parliament has opened its formal investigation into how the government handled Kurnaz's case. The Defense Ministry has begun its own investigation.
 
Propelled by public anger, the case has become a lingering headache for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. She set the wheels in motion for Kurnaz's release by raising his case in a meeting in January with President George W. Bush. But the previous government's dealings involve the current foreign minister, Frank- Walter Steinmeier, who was then chief of staff to Gerhard Schroder. Schroder said recently he knew nothing about the case while he was chancellor, a claim that drew a sardonic response from Kurnaz. "Smart guy," he said.
 
Kurnaz planned to make his trip to Pakistan in late 2001 with a Turkish friend from Bremen, Selcuk Bilgin, to immerse himself in Islam.
 
Bilgin was detained at Frankfurt airport on Oct. 3, 2001, when the authorities found the record of an unrelated misdemeanor charge, and Kurnaz set off alone. Once in Pakistan, he traveled from mosque to mosque under the auspices of Tablighi Jamaat, a South Asian Islamic missionary group that is active in Europe.
 
Kurnaz, whose family is not deeply religious, said he was attracted to the group because of the work it did with drug users and homeless people. Having married in Turkey that summer, Kurnaz said he felt this was his last chance to travel and study Islam before settling down.
 
At the time, he said, he believed there was little danger in going to Pakistan since he did not plan to cross into Afghanistan. In Peshawar, however, Pakistani police detained Kurnaz during a routine roadside check.
 
According to his account, he was later turned over to the Americans for a bounty that he was told totaled of $3,000. Kurnaz said he was then moved to Kandahar, which he recalls as the darkest period of his confinement.
 
"It was the beginning, so there were absolutely no rules," he said of his early captivity by the Americans. "They had the right to do anything. They used to beat us every time. They did use electro- shocks. They dived my head in the water." American officials who interrogated Kurnaz accused him of being a terrorist and a member of Al Qaeda, he said. They asked him if he knew Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian hijacker who plotted the Sept. 11 attacks in Hamburg, only an hour's train from Bremen.

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