Ticket to Freedom US To Release German Resident from Guantanamo

After months of negotiations, the German government has secured the release of a Bremen resident who has been held at Guantanamo since 2001. German officials say Murat Kurnaz has no connection to terrorism or al-Qaida.

An undated photo of Murat Kurnaz.

An undated photo of Murat Kurnaz.

For the past five years, Murat Kurnaz has been living in a kind of pergatory. Snagged in Pakistan in 2001, he was captured by the United States military and taken to Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, where he has been held ever since without charges or a trial. Now, however, high-level negotiations have secured the release and transfer back to Germany of the man once dubbed the "Bremen Taliban."

After six months of intense negotiations, German and American officials struck a deal in Washington last week that would see the release of Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born in Germany. Because Germany does not grant instant citizenship to the children of foreign immigrants, Berlin was not technically responsible for the prisoner -- a fact that greatly complicated Kurnaz's situation. However, several discussions between United States President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and months of talks between diplomats paved the way for the current deal.

The Americans believed that then-19-year-old Kurnaz was a member of al-Qaida and, until recently, claims by German intelligence, security officials and diplomats that he was innocent fell on deaf ears in Washington. His detainment has been a source of tension in German-American relations and the issue was even raised again by Merkel during Bush's recent visit to Stralsund, Germany.

After Kurnaz's detainment, a delegation of German intelligence officials travelled to Gunatanamo in 2002 to interrogate the trained ship-builder, who was raised in the western German city of Bremen. They left convinced that he was a man of "average intelligence with below-average scholastic achievement." They concluded that he had merely been the "wrong place at the wrong time" and that he had "nothing to do with terrorism, let alone al-Qaida." The agents told American officials that Kurnaz has "no connection to any al-Qaida cell in Germany." The German foreign intelligence agency, BND, was more pointed in its discussions with the director of the CIA's Berlin office: "The guy is a harmless nut job, let him go."

Nevertheless, German officials are partly to blame for Kurnaz's long-term detainment. In 2002, the German government rejected an offer made by the Pentagon to transfer the Turk to Germany, saying they didn't want to permit him to return to the country. Afterwards, the issue was dropped for years and the first serious discussions aimed at obtaining his release began last autumn.

The German government had come under intense scrutiny over CIA flights through Europe believed to be carrying suspected terrorists as well as the erroneous kidnapping of Khaled al-Masri, a naturalized German of Lebanese descent. A quick resolution on the Kurnaz case, the government concluded, would be seen domestically as a political success.

Meanwhile, Washington's new openness came as a result of heavy criticism of Guantanamo –- where most prisoners are being held indefinitely without charges or trial -- from abroad. The facility has become a major political burden for Washington, and the Bush administration is seeking to reduce the number of prisoners as quickly as it can.

During initial negotiations, Allen Leotta of the Pentagon's Office for Prisoner Questions, painted the picture of a highly dangerous extremist who had been part of a "Bremen terror cell." A group of experts, he said, had recently recommended that he not be released. US emissaries also presented a photograph of an scowling Kurnaz with a full-length beard covering his chest.

US officials said they would only consider releasing Kurnaz if German officials could guarantee that he would not present a danger in the future. They demanded that his movement be restricted, that he be required to register with the police and that he be put under 24-hour surveillance as well as the confiscation of his passport. They also wanted criminal proceedings. But the delegation never submitted a single piece of evidence suggesting Kurnaz was guilty of anything.

In the end, all German diplomats had to do to secure his release was agree to continue conducting surveillance of activity within the Islamist community in Germany.

With reporting by Holger Stark and George Mascolo

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