Bremen Taliban Guantanamo Prisoner Vexing German Authorities

The German government is preparing to plead for the release of Guantanamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz - yet their own intelligence service is concerned about his possible return to Bremen.

At Camp Delta, Guantanamo, Murat Kurnaz is seen as one of the less troublesome prisoners. Unlike some of his fellow inmates, he doesn’t save his urine in dusty plastic bottles to throw over the guards. Nor has he taken part in the hunger strike that 84 of the prisoners are holding. The Turk from Bremen even assured a US military tribunal, "I hate terrorists. I've lost several years of my life because of Osama Bin Laden." He wants to give the German authorities any information voluntarily "to show that I don’t support terrorism, so that I can sleep peacefully."

This good conduct has done little to help Kurnaz so far. The "Bremen Taliban" has been held prisoner at Guatanamo for four years and whereas almost all the other European terror suspects have been sent back to their homelands -- Britain, France or Sweden -- nothing seems to have moved in Kurnaz's case. That might be about to change. The German government is now making discreet moves together with the Turkish government for his release. Kurnaz is the son of Turkish immigrants and has a Turkish passport, although he was born and raised in Germany. Shortly before Christmas the German embassy in Ankara confidentially sounded out the Turks on whether they would be open to working together for Kurnaz's release. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's  foreign affairs advisor, Christoph Heusgen, explained that the new government would plead for Kurnaz's release on "humanitarian grounds". The Federal Foreign Office has confirmed "contact at a diplomatic level" but would not give any further details. Turkish officials have already hinted that Kurnaz could possibly be free by March.

It's the most movement there has been so far in the case. Until now the Turks have shown little or no interested in Kurnaz. After three years of fruitless contacts with the embassy and consulate  his mother Rabiye finally went to Ankara in the spring of 2005 and spoke directly to an official at the Turkish foreign office, who simply acknowledged that they were aware of the case. "If the Germans don’t get involved," Rabiye Kurnaz complained, "then the Turks won't lift a finger".

Diplomatic Wrangling

Serious involvement on the Turkish side is the key to any possible release of her son. The trained shipbuilder was only 19 years old when he was hauled off a bus in Pakistan at the end of November 2001 by Pakistani police and handed over to the Americans. The Americans informed the German authorities some weeks later and Kurnaz was flown to Guantanamo Bay. Since then Washington has taken the position that Kurnaz has nothing to do to with the Germans - only the Turks are entitled to make any inquiries. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's foreign policy advisor Bernd Mützelberg approached his US counterpart Stephen Hadley in February 2005 during Bush's visit to Mainz on behalf of Kurnaz, two months later the German ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger tried formal diplomatic channels, and the German government's human rights envoy met with his American colleague in Washington in October 2005 -- on each occasion there was no binding answer from the Americans.

The Americans did, however, cunningly offer German intelligence agents access to the "enemy combatant," as he is designated by the US army -- not on humanitarian grounds, but to further shore up the front in the war on terror. The German agents who interrogated Kurnaz for two days also took note of his complaints about his treatment by the Americans who presented him in heavy chains. He later told them that he had been tortured: he said that at one stage a soldier had held a gun to his head and threatened to pull the trigger unless he admitted he was an accomplice of the 9/11 suicide pilot Mohammed Atta.

Since the interrogation the German agents have been convinced that Kurnaz is relatively small fry. They formally told the American officials that "the prisoner has no connection to any al-Qaida cell in Germany." The German Foreign Intelligence Service (BND) was even more pointed with the director of the CIA bureau in Berlin: "The guy is a harmless nutter, let him go."

The reason for Kurnaz's continuing incarceration is apparently a secret memo in his file, coded R-19, in which a military official wrote that Kurnaz is a member of al-Qaida, has connections with terrorists in Germany and wants to fight against US troops in Afghanistan. What is vexing, however, is that the file also contains an evaluation by the Guantanomo interrogators stating that "there is no proof that the prisoner has any connection to al-Qaida."

Kurnaz Return Would be Good PR for Berlin

Apart from such obvious contradictions, there are also very pragmatic considerations behind the German government decision to renew it efforts in the case. With the controversy over CIA flights and the abduction of the German Khaled al-Masri focusing public attention on the Merkel government's position toward US transgressions, a swift resolution of the Kurnaz case would be seen as a political success. At the same time a current ruling by the Bremen administrative court means that the Germans will have to continue to deal with the "Bremen Taliban" in the future.

At the end of November the judge overruled a decision by the Bremen registration office for foreigners, which had withdrawn the Turkish man's right to residency because he had been out of the country for more than six months and had thus failed to renew his residency permit. The judge ruled that as Kurnaz had not chosen to be in Guantanamo he had not been in a position to register.

Unlike the diplomats, the Federal Interior Ministry regards the Kurnaz problem as less a humanitarian one than one of security. When rumours resurfaced last October that his release was imminent, all German security officials were called upon to gather information that would ensure Kurnaz would be refused permission to enter Germany.

The list included details of Kurnaz's habit of using the word "Taliban" as the background logo in his mobile phone, along with quotes from Mohammed Haydar Zammar, the German-Syrian who is currently locked up in Damascus. During his interrogation Zammar, who also recruited the 9/11 pilots, described how he explained Jihad to "two Turks from Bremen" and referred them to the Taliban. One of the descriptions exactly matches that of Kurnaz. Presumably this statement, which remains confidential, is what lies behind the US accusation.

The Interior Ministry had already issued a refusal of entry for Kurnaz in May 2004 that is valid until May 11 2007. If Kurnaz is actually released and makes his way from Ankara to Germany he would be stopped at the border as "a danger to public safety and order" and put on the next flight back to Turkey.

This draconian measure is a way of preventing the scenario that the intelligence service dreads the most: that Murat Kurnaz, who may have left Bremen as a sympathiser but then became truly radicalised in Guantanamo, returns home a martyr and embarks on a promotional tour of German mosques.

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