German Soldiers Under Fire: New Testimony May Back Kurnaz Torture Claims

By John Goetz and Holger Stark

German-born Turk Murat Kurnaz has long claimed that he was beaten by German special forces troops in Afghanistan after being arrested as a terror suspect by the US. New testimony may prove him right.

Murat Kurnaz says he was beaten by German soldiers in Kandahar.
Getty Images

Murat Kurnaz says he was beaten by German soldiers in Kandahar.

The tent flaps were fluttering in Kandahar's icy wind, the temperature was below freezing and the prisoners, wrapped in thin blankets, were exposed to the Afghan winter. It was a few weeks after the beginning of the American military campaign in Afghanistan. By January 2002, the Taliban appeared to have been defeated, and the US Army had set up a temporary camp in southern Afghanistan where prisoners were to be held.

According to Major Matthew W. Donald, whose 108th Military Police Company had been stationed in Kandahar since early January 2002, the hygienic conditions were at first abominable. There was rarely any hot water, and both prisoners and soldiers were forced to use make-shift latrines. The prisoners were ordered to carry the fecal matter in buckets from the latrines to oil barrels. "The fecal matter was picked up with a truck," says Donald. "The drivers drove through the main gate to the pickup point on the prison grounds." There, says Donald, the barrels were loaded onto the trucks, driven to a point outside the camp and incinerated. Soldiers call the procedure, not uncommon in war zones, "shit burning."

May Have Committed a Crime

Standard war zone memories, perhaps. But the recollections of Major Donald, who now teaches military history at the University of Ohio, could soon play a central role in one of the most sensitive cases in the German judicial system. Since last fall, the prosecutor's office in the southern German town of Tübingen has been attempting to determine whether elite fighters with the Special Forces Command (KSK) mistreated Murat Kurnaz, a prisoner in Kandahar at the time, before he was flown to the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay. A parliamentary investigative committee is examining whether Germany soldiers may have committed a crime in the politically controversial fight against terrorism.

Donald's statements, which were confirmed by a number of witnesses SPIEGEL has interviewed, have reinforced prosecutors' suspicions that the KSK troops deployed in Kandahar in 2002 aren't telling the truth -- and may even have coordinated their responses before questioning. According to Walter Vollmer, the senior prosecutor assigned to the case, the "central issue" of the investigation is whether the trucks, behind which Kurnaz claims he was mistreated, did in fact exist in the camp. The KSK members claimed, almost unanimously, that they had not seen any trucks in the camp. If it turns out that they lied, the possible perpetrators could face charges of inflicting severe bodily injury while in uniform, as well as an investigation into suspected obstruction of justice.

When Kurnaz described his ordeal to members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, in January, after being incarcerated for more than four years in Guantanamo, some were clearly moved. Kurnaz was picked up in October 2001 in Pakistan on suspicion of being involved in terrorist activity and taken initially to a prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Eventually, though, Kurnaz was released in August 2006 for lack of evidence, and an investigation into his case soon began in Berlin. Speaking in a broken voice, Kurnaz, a shipbuilder by trade, told the members of parliament about Guantanamo and about his alleged mistreatment at the hands of German soldiers.

'They Thought it Was Funny'

Kurnaz described in detail how the Americans called him to a fence one evening, where two German soldiers were waiting. One of the soldiers, he claims, called out to him: "It looks like you picked the wrong side." He was then taken behind a truck and ordered to lie on the ground, he says. The two Germans were prepared -- and "were wearing camouflage uniforms." One of them, Kurnaz claims, grabbed him by the hair and shouted at him: "Do you know who we are? We're the German force, the KSK." According to Kurnaz, the German soldier then pushed his face onto the dry desert floor and kicked him in the side before leaving. The soldiers laughed, says Kurnaz. "They thought it was funny."

The investigators believe that Kurnaz's description is credible. According to Michael Pfohl, a senior prosecutor, the former prisoner's testimony was sober and he displayed "no particular eagerness to incriminate anyone." Various details -- about the uniforms, for example -- are true, as is Kurnaz's account of the American GIs' interest in the Germans' G-36 rifles. A few members of the KSK have also confirmed the encounter at the fence and the German soldier's statement: "It looks like you picked the wrong side." Doubts remain, says Pfohl, when it comes to the key question of the case: the existence of the truck, which, according to Kurnaz, had a tank for "emptying the toilets" and behind which the beating supposedly took place.

KSK soldiers are suspected of having lied to cover up their treatment of Murat Kurnaz in Afghanistan.
DDP

KSK soldiers are suspected of having lied to cover up their treatment of Murat Kurnaz in Afghanistan.

In their testimony, almost all of the 21 German special forces soldiers vehemently denied the existence of this type of truck in the prison camp. Staff Sergeant G., for example, says that he "never" saw a truck carrying a tank, and that Kurnaz's claim is "absurd."

Another German sergeant remembers "oil barrels with the fecal matter," but says that the Americans rolled them to a spot outside the prison camp, where the contents were incinerated. According to the sergeant, a latrine vehicle would have made no sense. A number of the elite soldiers have taken the story further, saying that it was not even possible to drive a truck through the main gate. Kurnaz's testimony, says one KSK member, is simply pulled out of a hat.

New Witness Statements

The prosecutors in Tübingen have expressed their concerns about the contradictions presented collectively by the German soldiers. On the other hand, their statements seemed so clear and consistent that the frustrated prosecutors had to terminate their investigation for a time. If there was no truck, they argued, there was no mistreatment. Prosecutors have since resumed their investigation, because a number of new witness statements consistently support Kurnaz's description. The prosecutors have been in contact with three former prisoners in Kandahar since early August, British citizens Asif Iqbal and Ruhal Ahmed, as well as Bahraini citizen Abdullah al-Noami. According to Noami, he personally carried "barrels full of fecal matter to a truck in the camp." The two Britons also confirm the existence of fecal matter trucks in the camp.

Far more serious are the statements made by a number of American soldiers who were stationed in Kandahar, men like Major Donald and Lieutenant Colonel Keith Warman, who arrived at the camp "on Jan. 9 or 10" and commanded the 519th Military Police Battalion. "The fecal matter was taken out of the camp and incinerated," Warman told SPIEGEL, "using a two-and-a-half-ton military truck." According to Warman, the truck was driven through the camp's main gate. Warman remembers the situation in detail, because he was in charge of running the camp in early 2002. "Men from my battalion drove the truck," he says.

Interpreter Athar Zulfiqar, 27, reports that a truck once brought blankets so that the prisoners would not freeze to death. "Trucks," says Zulfiqar, a New Yorker, "were there on a daily basis and were completely normal." Photos taken by the GIs themselves confirm the American soldiers' statements.

Questions about Kurnaz

The new witnesses confirmed the "impression that the statements made by the special forces soldiers were not credible," says Paul Schäfer, a member of Germany's Left Party and a defense expert. According to Schäfer, "there was a general intent by the soldiers to conceal the truth." German Green Party member Winfried Nachtwei, also a defense expert, calls the witnesses' statements "truly new information."

The KSK master sergeant who Kurnaz identified as the alleged perpetrator on a file photo may soon be called to testify once again. When he was questioned the first time about a German prisoner, prosecutors noted that the 32-year-old man became "increasingly nervous." According to prosecutors, the man blushed when they asked him further questions about Kurnaz.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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