Ausgabe 17/2008

'A Fatal Shopping Trip' US Military Detains German Citizen in Afghanistan

For the past three months, the United States military has detained a German citizen in Afghanistan on suspicion of terrorism. German security experts are convinced that the man, who has a history of psychological problems, is innocent.

By and

A German soldier on patrol near Bagram in Afghanistan: The US military is holding a German citizen on suspicions of terrorism in Bagram.

A German soldier on patrol near Bagram in Afghanistan: The US military is holding a German citizen on suspicions of terrorism in Bagram.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva operates according to an iron rule: If members of its supreme governing body, the Assembly, suspect that a country is guilty of violating human rights, they do not comment publicly on the matter. The Assembly, whose current membership consists of 18 Swiss citizens, is adamant when it comes to upholding its principles of neutrality and independence. This independence has enabled it to remain the only internationally established controlling body for international humanitarian law.

Thus it comes as no surprise that the ICRC is refusing to comment on a case it has pursued for months. An employee of the aid organization visited Gholam Ghaus Z., a German citizen, at the US air base in Bagram near Kabul, where he has been held under inhumane conditions since early January. The Americans believe that the 41-year-old man is a terrorist. As part of its investigation, the ICRC contacted the man's relatives living in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The case has become a political issue and threatens to strain German-American relations unless the US military releases the man soon. German security experts are convinced that the man, who has languished in a prison for no discernible reason for the past three months, is in fact innocent. But, as in most such cases, even the German security experts have "minimal residual doubts."

Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has carefully investigated the man, who is from Afghanistan but holds a German passport and lives in the western German city of Wuppertal. They have also investigated the unmarried man's family members and acquaintances, but have not found any evidence of extremist activities or dubious contacts with Islamists. Now the German government wants to prevent the incident from "turning into another Kurnaz case," say officials in Berlin.

The name Kurnaz is synonymous with a traumatic experience for security experts at both the German Chancellery and Foreign Ministry. German authorities are at least partly responsible for the fact that Murat Kurnaz, a 26-year-old native of the northern German city of Bremen who was held for four-and-a-half years in US military prisons, including the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, was not able to return to Germany until the summer of 2006 -- even though US investigators' suspicions that Kurnaz was a terrorist were not confirmed. The Kurnaz affair led to the creation of two investigative committees in the German parliament, and his fate recently attracted attention in the US after the CBS television network broadcast an almost 15-minute report about Kurnaz.

In the case of Gholam Z., now in detention in Afghanistan, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is doing his utmost to avoid being once again branded as a "heartless technocrat," as the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung described him in relation to the Kurnaz case. As the then head of the Chancellery, Steinmeier in 2002 agreed with the German Interior Ministry's decision to refuse to allow Kurnaz, who is a German resident but holds Turkish citizenship, to return to Germany.

During a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels in early March, Steinmeier took up the Afghan-born German's cause with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice promised to look into the case. An intensive diplomatic dialogue between the two countries' embassies in Washington and Berlin has been underway ever since.

Gholam Z. claims that he traveled to the Afghan capital Kabul to visit members of his widely scattered family in early January. While he was there, he heard that Western-quality goods could be obtained in a supermarket on the grounds of a US military base in Kabul, and that he, as a German citizen, could go shopping there without any problems.

Gholam Z. borrowed a relative's car to go on what a security expert has called his "fatal shopping trip," during which he planned to buy a razor, among other items. According to his version of events, he drove up to the military base on Jan. 4, showed the guard his German passport in its red cover and was then allowed to pass through several security checkpoints without incident.

But then US soldiers must have suddenly noticed Gholam Z., and he was detained. To the soldiers, it looked like a terrorist had managed to enter the well-guarded camp by posing as part of a group of visitors. It was the sort of suspicion that would automatically put guards on edge, as the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan had increased substantially during the year 2007.

The Americans searched Gholam Z.'s clothing and found cash in various currencies, with a total value of about €1,000 ($1,580), as well as telephone cards from several countries. For the US military, these items were strong evidence that they were dealing with an Islamist terrorist who was part of an international network.

Gholam Z. was also carrying a brochure for London's Tower Bridge, fueling suspicions that the landmark could be the target of an attack.

US military interrogators spent hours trying to extract information from the presumed terrorist. They refused to believe his attempts at an explanation. He had not planned an attack on Tower Bridge, he told them, but had merely visited relatives in London and gone on a sightseeing trip that included the landmark. But the man's story seemed confused to the interrogators.

The US military interrogators also considered the suspect's justification for the foreign currency he was carrying to be implausible. He told them that he had stopped in Iran on the way to Afghanistan, where he had sold a large number of used mobile phones from Germany.

The soldiers locked him up and continued to interrogate him, but without yielding any results. They also refused to allow the German to contact a lawyer.

The Americans did, however, notify Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). The Germans got to work as soon as they learned about the case. They were anxious to avoid accusations, as in the Kurnaz case, that they had done too little to verify information supporting the innocence or guilt of a German citizen who the Americans suspected of terrorism.

BND officials were allowed to question Gholam Z. at the prison in Bagram, while back in Germany specialists from the Cologne-based Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution promptly launched a detailed investigation into the man's life. They discovered that he had long been in therapy for psychological problems, and that he had eventually been allowed to take early retirement because of his illness. Gholam Z. apparently still suffers from emotional disorders today. This could explain his allegedly unusual behavior in the US military supermarket and during his interrogations.

Most significantly, there was no information in the intelligence agencies' databases that could suggest any ties to extremists or terrorists. "The whole thing was totally clean," says a high-ranking security expert.

But totally clean apparently isn't clean enough for the US military in Afghanistan, which is under permanent threat of attack. The Americans dealt with the man from Wuppertal in the same way they had proceeded in other cases where innocent people had come under suspicion -- they kept Gholam Z. locked up.

As in the Kurnaz case, a painstaking diplomatic haggling has begun over conditions for Gholam Z.'s possible release. US authorities insist that the German government provide them with "comprehensive security guarantees" for the period following his release.

But the US demands, says a security expert, basically entail "complete surveillance" -- something Berlin is not willing to do. It remains unclear whether, and when, the Afghan-born German will be released from the US military prison at Bagram.

According to one of the German officials familiar with the case, the detainee was at least spared one thing, namely "disappearing indefinitely in Guantanamo, like Kurnaz."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


© DER SPIEGEL 17/2008
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