Meeting Murat Kurnaz: A Visit with a Man Wrongly Detained at Guantanamo

By Cem Özdemir

Murat Kurnaz was detained in the United States detention camp at Guantánamo, Cuba, for almost five years and released three weeks ago. Cem Özdemir, a member of the European Parliament, visited Kurnaz at his home in Bremen and reports back about a German man of Turkish origin who appears to be anything but a fanatic.

Twenty-four-year-old Murat Kurnaz spent five years as a detainee in the US military camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He was wrongly identified as an accomplice of the Taliban and recently released.
AP / Radio Bremen TV

Twenty-four-year-old Murat Kurnaz spent five years as a detainee in the US military camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He was wrongly identified as an accomplice of the Taliban and recently released.

How does one talk about the emotions stirred up by a meeting with someone who has spent five years of his life in a detention camp, living in scandalous and ignoble conditions? How does one express one's sense of what that person must have experienced? The man in question is now 24 years old. During a period of almost five years -- a period during which I married, became a father and was elected into the European Parliament -- this man was effectively stripped of his rights and had to live in complete isolation, in conditions that have driven other detainees to commit suicide.

Murat Kurnaz once had a "normal" life too. He wanted to start a family in Germany, along with his Turkish fiancé. He had completed his apprenticeship as a shipbuilder. He played guitar in his free time and liked sports -- like many other people his age. Then he travelled to Pakistan in the fall of 2001, apparently in order to devote time to his religious faith and expand his knowledge about Islam by visiting religious schools. He was "in the wrong place at the wrong time," is what insiders in Washington say -- sometimes cynically, sometimes laconically. They know Kurnaz was innocent when he was apprehended and detained. The United States -- and Germany -- discovered quite quickly that the accusations against Kurnaz were groundless. And yet he was not released.

I had prepared myself to meet a broken man. But Kurnaz doesn't think he needs psychological counselling. My impression during the visit was that he hasn't lost his sense of humor. His eyes are alert, and he's curious about life and the future. It's as if he knows no one will ever give him back the years he lost, but that he can do some catching up. He could find work that allows him to use his language skills: He speaks English and Arabic in addition to German and Turkish. That would seem to be another important step out of isolation.

"May it be over"

"Gecmis olsun" -- those are the Turkish words I say to his mother, Rabiye Kurnaz. The expression literally means "May it be over." But it's the Turkish equivalent of "Get well soon!" "Gecmis olsun" -- that's what I say to a mother who has spent five long years struggling for her son's release, backed by the lawyers Bernhard Docke und Baher Azmy. They struggled for Kurnaz's release at a time when the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 radically transformed our perception of the threat Islamic terrorism poses to democracy, freedom and security. It was a time when Germany's governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens openly expressed its criticisms of US President George W. Bush's policies -- while at the same time looking the other way, apparently, when it came to the methods the CIA and European states used in the struggle against terrorism. And if the German government did look, that raises the question of why it and other European states didn't act on what they saw.

Whoever thought a system of secret prisons was impossible -- a system involving kidnappings of real and presumed al-Qaida members all over the world, the rendition of detainees to countries that practice torture and an extreme violation of international law via the suspension of the Geneva Conventions, all of this with the active support or at least tacit acceptance of numerous European governments in the "civilized" world -- has learned they were wrong.

That's why investigative committees in the European Parliament and the German Bundestag currently dealing with the "Kurnaz case" -- along with special investigator Dick Marty of the Council of Europe -- have good reason to do what they are doing. Would it not have been possible to get Murat Kurnaz out of Guantánamo sooner? And what does the "Kurnaz case" mean for the human rights legacy of the government under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder?

What role did Turkey play?

What is also striking, however, is that so far hardly anyone has questioned the role played by Turkey. Murat Kurnaz is a Turkish citizen, after all, and has a right to diplomatic protection from that country. After his interrogation in Guantánamo, a visitor from Ankara told Kurnaz that Turkey couldn't help him for as long as he was detained by the US.

Just a few days after his release and return to his German hometown of Bremen, the Turkish general consulate in nearby Hanover got in touch with Kurnaz -- but not in order to join me in wishing him and his mother "gecmis olsun." Instead, the consulate reminded Kurnaz of his duty as a Turkish citizen -- that of doing his military service in Turkey. Whether the relationship between the rights and the duties associated with citizenship hasn't become oddly disproportionate in this case is a question Turkey should answer for itself.

But the bureaucratic rat race didn't end with Kurnaz's visit to the consulate. He still has to visit several government offices in Bremen in order to secure his permanent German residency permit. It's only following a November 2005 decision by Germany's constitutional court -- the highest legal instance in the country -- that Kurnaz can even be certain he hasn't already forfeited his residency permit. Because that's exactly what Bremen Interior Minister Thomas Röwekamp of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party claimed he had done. Röwekamp added the incredible explanation that Kurnaz had missed the deadline for making a formal request for the extension of his permit, as required by law -- as if Bremen's alien registration office had a branch office at Guantánamo.

"There are plenty of nice people in the United States."

I'm not able to draw up a conclusive profile of Murat Kurnaz following our personal meeting, nor am I able to explain what the ultimate reason for his decision to go to Pakistan in October of 2001 was. But he doesn't correspond with my idea of a fanatic or even a martyr: He doesn't seem like someone who poses a threat either to me as a person with a Muslim background or to my Jewish and Christian friends. Must a 24-year-old who speaks in the calm and collected manner of a religious elder and sports a mighty beard be immediately perceived as a religious fundamentalist or something even worse than that?

Perhaps Kurnaz's search for self-fulfilment has simply led him to be fascinated by the mystical elements of Islam. I know people who read Hermann Hesse's novel "Siddhartha" and then began searching for the truth in India, the country whose culture Hesse's novel portrays.

It's striking how both Kurnaz and his mother are quick to curb even the faintest stirring of anti-American sentiment. After all, the two of them would certainly seem to have good reason to be anti-American. His mother recently said in an interview that she is, of course, "angry because they've imprisoned so many innocent people, who have to suffer without having done anything. But there are also plenty of nice people in the US. I can't be angry at everyone."

No one has asked him whether he wants to make a public statement

She hasn't forgotten that US citizens supported her in her struggle for her son's freedom. The present US government has destroyed many things, including the reputation of the United States and our faith in the methods chosen by it in the war on terror. But it is also Rabiye Kurnaz, of all people, who reminds us that there is also another United States -- the one represented by Joyce Green, the US federal judge who condemned Kurnaz's detention as illegal.

How will the story of Murat Kurnaz continue? The German government opposition has invited him to speak before the Bundestag's investigative committee; the opposition is planning to use him as a weapon against both the former and the current German governments. Invitations to speak before the investigative commission are binding -- they cannot legally be refused. But no one from the commission has asked Kurnaz or his lawyer whether he is even capable of making a statement in courtroom-like situation such a short time after his release. Nor has anyone asked him whether he wants to face the German public. His lawyer is doing his best to shield him from the public so he and his family can be at peace. The decision of when to speak about his experience of detainment, and to whom, should be left to Murat Kurnaz himself.

As I say goodbye to the Kurnaz family, which is now fully assembled in the living room, I ask myself when the last time was that Rabiye Kurnaz went on vacation. Have the wounds already healed -- the ones caused by having to read that her son was now the "Bremen Taliban"? How much has she suffered -- both psychologically and financially -- just to get through this ordeal? As the one who never gave up on her son and struggled for him, she deserves our respect.

Cem Özdemir is a representative of the German Green Party in the European Parliament in Brussels. He is the vice chairman of the special investigative commission formed to clarify the extent of the German government's complicity with illegal CIA activities in Europe.

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