German Debate over Guantanamo Prisoners 'They Need our Undiscriminating Help'

Should Germany take prisoners from Guantanamo? Bernhard Docke, who is the attorney for former prisoner Murat Kurnaz, argues the country has a responsibility to do so. He also warns against villifying the victims of the terror prison.

A prisoner at Guantanmo: "Many ended up in Guantanamo without any concrete suspicions against them, which is why only few of them were prosecuted."

A prisoner at Guantanmo: "Many ended up in Guantanamo without any concrete suspicions against them, which is why only few of them were prosecuted."

In Europe, serious discussions have begun at the highest government levels about accepting prisoners from Guantanamo if, after his inauguration, United States President-elect Barack Obama closes the highly controversial prison camp for suspected terrorists, as he is expected to. Officials in Portugal and Germany are openly discussing options for taking on prisoners who have been deemed innocent but cannot returned to their home countries because they face persecution, torture or death.

According to a report in the Washington Post, officials from six European states have contacted Obama's transition team to discuss the issue. The paper also quoted unnamed American and European officials saying the incoming administration did not want to hold any talks on Guantanamo until after Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration. Many European countries, including Germany, were highly critical of torture and violations of international law that took place at Guantanamo. But there has also been domestic criticism in Europe of the indirect role European countries played in the detainment and incarceration of suspected terrorists. German airports, for example, were used in extraordinary renditions operations run by the CIA that involved the secret transportation of suspected terrorists to Guantanamo, to secret US-run prisons or to third countries that permit torture. As critics have noted, governments either supported the operations or at the very least tolerated them.

SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Bernhard Docke, the attorney who represents former Guantanamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz -- a Turkish citizen born and raised in Germany who spent four-and-a-half years at the notorious prison camp and was released in 2006. Despite the fact that there was significant evidence to suggest his innocence, top-ranking German politicians -- including current Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was chief of staff to then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the time -- fought against his release and return to Germany.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The German government has signalled it is prepared to take prisoners from the US prison camp Guantanamo. What is your response to this step?

Docke: I welcome it, it's overdue. During the release of Murat Kurnaz the US had tried in vain to get rid of several of the prisoners stranded in Guantanamo. For some in the German government, even Mr. Kurnaz was too much. The prisoners being talked about now have been regarded as innocent even by the US for a long time. They spent years in a system of torture that deprived them of their rights, under illegal conditions. Their path out of Guantanamo must be eased.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The initiative in Germany is coming from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whom you accused of having done too little to get your client Murat Kurnaz back to Germany. Do you believe Steinmeier is being motivated by humanitarian considerations?

Docke: I don't know what motivates him. Of course it's intriguing to a certain extent that he of all people has come up with the proposal. But heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 righteous people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Not everyone backs the government's statement. The interior minister of the city-state of Berlin, Eberhard Körting, said he didn't want to help because the ideology of the Guantanamo inmates was "abhorrent."

Docke: It's simply preposterous to sit here in one's comfortable chair and presume to judge individual people who have been detained illegally for seven years under inhuman conditions. A large number of the prisoners weren't arrested by the US military or in combat actions but were passed on to the Americans by bounty hunters. The Americans weren't able to check who was being simply foisted on them and who actually had done something wrong. Many ended up in Guantanamo without any concrete suspicions against them, which is why only few of them were prosecuted. The Americans wanted to show the population that there were being successful in the war on terror. But that was a distorted picture and we shouldn't import it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: After seven years in Guantanamo, is it possible that someone who was considered innocent in 2002 could by now have become dangerous?

Docke: That kind of misgiving has a sense of meanness to it -- if you have treated innocent people like animals, then you shouldn't set them free. What would your alternative be? A country that observes the rule of law has no other alternative. The people whose release we are now dealing with have been incarcerated for seven years because either their country of origin is refusing to take them or they are threatened with torture or death there. How people deal with Guantanamo, the harm being done there and what is destroying them, can only be answered on an individual basis. One must address these problems, but they cannot be allowed to hinder the releases.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was your experience with Murat Kurnaz?

Docke: Distorted images of him were also circulated. Of course he bears a grudge against the Bush administration and those in Germany who failed him. But it's a civilized grudge, a justifiable one. It's a grudge that has nothing to do with violence. Despite his experiences, Mr. Kurnaz has a very differentiated view of the United States. He knows, for example, that American human rights organizations helped to secure his release. He has since reintegrated into Germany and is establishing new roots despite his bad experiences.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Germans are currently debating which groups of former inmates one would most like to bring to Germany. There's been much talk of the Uighurs, Muslims from China's Xinjang province. Stateless inmates have also been named. Does it make sense to draw distinctions between the groups?

Docke: We should be careful not to start a bureaucratic feud. Regardless who they are, they need our help without discrimination. They require treatment by doctors, psychologists and carers so that they can successfully overcome the shock of a new living situation. Mr. Kurnaz himself suffered from real socio-cultural jetlag when he returned. It was hard enough for him to understand that his freedom wasn't just a daydream. It is a humanitarian imperative to help these people. Didn't we just celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights?

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash


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