Germany's parliament on Thursday agreed to create a special committee to investigate allegations made by Murat Kurnaz, the innocent man once dubbed the "Bremen Taliban," that he was abused by elite German soldiers while being held in an American prison in Afghanistan. The decision came after the German Defense Ministry conceded to members of parliament that two members of the Bundeswehr's elite force had come into contact with Kurnaz while he was being held in Kandahar in January 2002.
Twenty-three-year-old Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen who was born and raised in the German city of Bremen, has accused members of the elite and secret German Special Commando Forces (Kommando Spezialkräfte, or KSK) of torturing him in Afghanistan. But Defense Ministry officials said no evidence has been found of abuse. So far, 60 KSK soldiers have been interviewed by investigators, and none have yielded any proof of Kurnaz's most inflammatory claims.
The admission that German soldiers had contact with Kurnaz at all, however, was new -- press reports until now had relied only on Kurnaz's version of the story. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported that word of a German-speaking prisoner in Afghanistan was handed up as high as the German chancellery, while Gerhard Schröder was still in office. Germany's current foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was Schröder's closest aid at the time.
But the paper named no source, and German officials claim that word of a German-speaking prisoner stopped at military headquarters in Potsdam. Instead of reaching politicians in Berlin, a member of the German parliament's Defense Committee said on Wednesday, "The trail just disappears."
An awkward, murky case
The Kurnaz case is awkward for both the American and German governments because a United States court recently ruled that there was no evidence that Kurnaz had links to Islamic radicals in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Earlier this week, German investigators dropped their own investigation, concluding that Kurnaz had no connections to any terrorist group.
He was detained in Pakistan in October 2001, turned over to the US military and held first in Afghanistan, where German soldiers talked to him, before being flown to the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in January 2002. He was released in August 2006 and now lives in Bremen in northern Germany.
He told the German magazine Stern this month that he was abused by two German soldiers while in custody in Kandahar. "I was forced to lie down, hands tied behind my back," he said. "One guy pulled me up by the hair. 'Do you know who we are?' He wanted to brag. 'We are the German forces.' Anyway, he hit my head against the ground, and the Americans thought this was funny." Kurnaz also said he was abused by American soldiers at the detention facility with, among other things, electrical shocks.
According to witnesses interviewed by German investigators, German soldiers did taunt Kurnaz, saying, "You were on the wrong side."
Any allegation of mistreatment by German soldiers in the War on Terror is sensitive in Germany. Ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder took a public stand against the Iraq war in 2003 -- but evidence has since emerged of his government's tacit participation, including cooperation between the German and American intelligence services and the possible tolerance of secret CIA flights used to spirit suspected terrorists away to secret prisons. If Kurnaz's charge is proven, it might suggest that the German government itself had participated in some of the excesses in the War on Terror that have generated massive criticism against Washington.