Guantanamo Detainee Germany Rejected Bremen Man's Return

German diplomats are currently negotiating the release of Murat Kurnaz -- a Turk from the north German city of Bremen -- from the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Held for over four years, he was considered innocent early on, prompting Washington to offer his release in late 2002 -- but the Germans didn't want him.
Von Georg Mascolo, Holger Stark und Sven Röbel

Everything was prepared for the return of the prodigal son. The living room was freshly painted in a cheerful yellow, and all the heavy furniture in the house replaced. So were the gloomy dark ceilings, which were absorbing all the light in this 1960s structure, which could easily feel almost as heavy and oppressive as a prison.

When Murat Kurnaz , 24, returns to his parents' house in Bremen's Hemelingen neighborhood after being held for almost four and a half years at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the young Turk should "feel liberated," says his mother, Rabiye. She says that there were times when she was afraid she would suffocate in the 35 square meter (400 square feet) living room, and that her heart felt "tighter and tighter" whenever she thought of Murat in his cell at Guantanamo. She replaced all the furniture in the room, partly to alleviate her own anxiety and partly for her son's return, even though she still doesn't know exactly when he'll be released from the US prison facility built to house terrorist suspects.

She breathes heavily, and then she says that she flips open her mobile phone every morning to kiss the photo of her son she has stored on it, and that she then prays that Murat hasn't "lost his mind" in the faraway prison. Amnesty International has called Guantanamo the "Gulag of our time," a characterization with which Rabiye would probably agree. About all she knows about the place is that prisoners there are sometimes given corn flakes to eat.

But after his long incarceration, Rabiye's son could be returning home within a few weeks. A delegation of German diplomats and security experts led by German envoy Klaus-Peter Gottwald is currently negotiating with the US government over the details of Kurnaz's release, and negotiations have resumed this week.

The transatlantic dialogue revolves around security guarantees and a process that's being planned at the highest levels of government. The US authorities, for whom it is a matter of principle not to allow Guantanamo inmates to leave the country via American airports, wants the German air force to pick up Kurnaz. He'll be handed over on the Guantanamo Bay tarmac, flanked by the jade-green waters of the Caribbean and sandy Cuban beaches. The camp commander will provide Kurnaz with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt for his release and journey into freedom.

Kurnaz owes his upcoming release to a few sentences uttered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to US President George W. Bush during her first official visit to Washington in January. Although Bush reacted as if he were unfamiliar with the Kurnaz case, he did indicate a willingness to negotiate. "Let's talk about it," he told Merkel. Before leaving Washington, Merkel ordered officials at the German embassy to continue applying pressure on the Americans. "Stay on it," she said.

The release of Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born and raised in Bremen, would be a diplomatic triumph for the Merkel administration -- as much as it would be a political disgrace for Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the current foreign minister and former chief of staff of ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder. It is also bound to put pressure on current deputy interior minister and former head of Germany's intelligence agency August Hanning. Reports still classified as top secret show that the administration of former chancellor Schröder already passed up one opportunity to gain the release of the young man from Bremen. The Americans apparently offered to release him in late 2002, but the Germans, who considered Kurnaz a potential threat, wanted to prevent his return.

The government will soon be asked to explain to a special investigative committee of the German parliament, the Bundestag, whether the blame for Kurnaz's prolonged detention rests solely with an inflexible US government, or whether he was kept in Guantanamo because German authorities rejected him -- akin to some package they had decided not to accept. The committee will examine the history of a questionable double-faced game, a game in which Berlin opted for security at the cost of the young man's freedom. Kurnaz has already spent a fifth of his life in what his attorney, Bernhard Docke, calls a "lawless black hole." And German investigators have determined his incarceration there has been unjust.

Not a German citizen 

To this day, the Chancellery in Berlin stresses that Kurnaz is not a German citizen, which means that the government is under no formal obligation to help him. But the government still realized it had a political problem when, on Jan. 9, 2002, it was first informed in a brief memo from the BND intelligence agency that a young man from Bremen named Murat Kurnaz was being held in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

This critical information was quickly passed on to the top ranks within the Chancellery. The department in charge of the country's intelligence services notified then Chancellery chief of staff Steinmeier. The issue, at the time, revolved around whether BND personnel should fly to Guantanamo, where Kurnaz had been taken from Kandahar. That, noted the Chancellery, could be "quite valuable."

For a moment, in the spring of 2002, it almost seemed as though the case could be resolved at the top levels of government. On Jan. 31, Schröder traveled to Washington to meet with Bush. Chancellery officials considered taking up the Kurnaz case with the Americans, and Schröder's advisors provided the delegation with all the necessary details. But they ultimately decided against it, concerned that it could unnecessarily aggravate relations between the two countries. Instead, the chancellor simply mentioned "initial problems" at Guantanamo to Bush, adding that he was convinced that international law was being observed. After the Americans also neglected to mention the Kurnaz case, the first opportunity for his freedom had passed.

But soon Kurnaz gained a high-ranking advocate. Schröder's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, had promised a "foreign policy oriented on human rights" when he took office, so he decided to take the matter into his own hands. At first, Fischer's deputy Gunter Pleuger even considered sending a diplomat, a member of the consular division, to Guantanamo with the BND officials. The German Foreign Ministry hoped to use this approach to gain its own impressions of the secretive camp. But the diplomats quickly realized that such a plan presented both an opportunity and a risk. After all, if the Germans were to gain first-hand knowledge of conditions in the island prison, they might become practically obligated to voice their sharpest criticism. The diplomats vetoed the idea and the official remained in Berlin.

Spooks in control 

The Americans, for their part, quickly made it clear that the game with the Germans would be played out in the foggy intelligence service realm -- not at the level of refined diplomacy. An official at the US embassy in Berlin coolly informed Fischer's legal department that the US government intended to restrict the sharing of information about Guantanamo detainees to concerned governments -- in Kurnaz's case that meant the Turks. At a stroke, the German Foreign Ministry was removed from the playing field.

However, this restriction did not apply to intelligence officials, who took over control of the case from then on. The American assigned to the case was CIA agent Steve H., who was to accompany a German delegation to Guantanamo. The agent, who worked at the sealed-off US embassy in Berlin, came off as a real-life version of the self-confident TV hero Jack Bauer from the series "24." Steve H. spoke passable German, enabling him to discuss Guantanamo with the Germans, although they were unable to change his strong opinions about it.

On Sep. 21, 2002, the CIA agent accompanied German intelligence officials as they flew to Washington and from there to Guantanamo. The delegation consisted of a division head at Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the BfV; a Pakistan expert from the foreign intelligence agency BND meant to assess Kurnaz's story; and a BND analyst with psychological training. The Germans sat behind a plain desk when they met with Kurnaz, who was brought in shackled in chains. It was a precaution taken by the American military personnel in case the prisoner became troublesome. But Kurnaz was anything but difficult, greeting the Germans as if they were old friends. He was both "relieved" and "very cooperative," as the officials recall. "I don't belong in this place," he told them, quickly adding: "I am innocent."

Kurnaz told the Germans that he had been poorly treated, that the cells were "too small" and the exercise periods (15 minutes, twice a week) "too short." The Germans listened to Kurnaz's complaints without comment, with a video camera recording the interrogation. The CIA agent, sitting disguised in the room, also listened to the prisoner's story. Part of the plan was that Kurnaz was to be kept in the dark about the CIA's presence, in an effort to encourage him to open up to the Germans. But his story ultimately revealed only one thing: his insignificance.

Prisoner "JJJFA" -- Kurnaz's name in Guantanamo -- spent two days telling his story. He told the Germans how he had traveled throughout Pakistan, from Lahore to Karachi, and then to Islamabad and Peshawar. The young Muslim from Germany, on a mission to find his own identity, wanted to attend a religious school and learn about the Koran. But when his fellow Muslims refused to admit him since he hadn't registered in advance, Kurnaz began traveling aimlessly around the country.

According to Kurnaz, a young, English-speaking man approached him in Peshawar and took him to a village to meet a few friends. The two spent a day walking around the village, but the man's friends never materialized. On the way back to Peshawar, Kurnaz said, he was arrested by the Pakistani military, blindfolded and taken to a prison. Kurnaz told the German officials that he saw Afghanistan for the first time when the US military flew him to the southern city of Kandahar.

The intelligence delegation returned to Germany with devastating conclusions. The analysts were firmly convinced that Kurnaz was innocent. According to the still classified report the BND officials submitted to the Chancellery, the experts had "reached the conclusion that Kurnaz was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he had nothing to do with terrorism and al-Qaida." The two BND analysts considered Kurnaz to be a young man of "average intelligence and below-average education," who had left "to some extent, the impression of an immature man with naïve views." They believed that the man was at best a Taliban sympathizer.

Because of his lack of contacts, the intelligence agencies ultimately discarded the idea, hatched by both the Germans and the Americans, of releasing Kurnaz and having him work as an informant. During their interrogation, the German intelligence officials gained the impression that Kurnaz, a former trainee in the shipbuilding industry, would be willing to go along with their plan. But Hanning and Heinz Fromm, the German BfV domestic intelligence chief, vetoed the project after the delegation returned to Germany, arguing that someone without connections would hardly be useful as an informant.

The Americans -- the CIA, at any rate -- held a similar view of Kurnaz's role. During a stopover in Washington on the German delegation's trip home, the CIA informed the Germans that it had good news. According to a five-page BfV memo dated Oct. 8, 2002, Kurnaz could "expect to be part of the first group to be released. This could take place in the near future." The BND had issued a similar report to the Chancellery on Oct. 2, 2002, optimistically writing: "The head of the interrogation group's request to US officials to release Kurnaz as soon as possible apparently met with a positive reception. On the last day of their visit, the BND representatives were told that a preliminary decision had been made to return Kurnaz to Germany by November of this year."

The German agents involved in the interrogation had no objections to Kurnaz's return. "With likelihood bordering on certainty," concludes the BND official in charge of the delegation, "Kurnaz, if released, poses no risk to German, American or Israeli security interests."

It seemed that Kurnaz was practically on his way home. This impression was reinforced when the Americans asked the Germans where they wanted the prisoner sent: Germany or Turkey?

Continue reading about Kurnaz's fate on Page 2.

Until this point, the Turks had paid practically no attention to Kurnaz. They had little interest in a de facto German who could possibly cause problems in Turkey, so they signaled to the Americans that they weren't especially enthusiastic about accepting the young man from Bremen. Now the ball was in the Germans' court. Kurnaz's future was decided on Oct. 29, 2002, about a month after a general election in Germany.

Every Tuesday at 10 a.m., the so-called intelligence situation report takes place on the fourth floor of the Chancellery. Intelligence officials, as well as representatives from the interior, foreign and justice ministries, participate in the meeting. The head of the BND is usually the first to speak. Hanning, who is fond of using laser pointers and interspersing his presentations with overhead slides showing locations where terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is believed to have been, is an eloquent, convincing speaker.

After the situation meeting, a handpicked group of top officials, including the heads of the BND, the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) and the BfV, hold a separate meeting in a seventh-floor conference room. The room has a clear view of the Reichstag, which is adorned with fluttering black, red and gold German flags. It is during this second  that the truly top-secret decisions in German security policy are discussed. On the Tuesday in question, the issue on the table was the inquiry from the Americans: Where should Kurnaz be sent?

Hanning argued for deportation to Turkey, not to Germany, and even suggested barring Kurnaz from ever entering the country again. The objective was to prevent him from returning to his former surroundings. The Chancellery and the Interior Ministry agreed with this assessment. After all, they argued, a Guantanamo returnee could quickly turn into a martyr and a security problem, possibly even a propaganda disaster.

The German government now admits that officials from the BfV wrote a letter on Nov. 8, 2002, informing the CIA that Germany had decided not to accept Kurnaz: "From the German perspective, there is a desire for Murat Kurnaz not to return to Germany following a possible release."

American disbelief

The Americans could hardly believe what they were hearing at first. According to an internal BND memo, the "federal government's decision" not to allow Kurnaz to be deported to Germany "was met with disbelief on the part of the Americans, who argued that the release had been planned, both because of the inability to prove his guilt and in the interest of good cooperation."

While the security experts had apparently reached their decisions on Kurnaz's immediate future, his release had become the subject of a diplomatic tug-of-war, because the Foreign Ministry had yet to be informed of Berlin's decision. Fischer took up the case with his American counterpart, then Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Washington on Nov. 19, 2003. Although Powell and Fischer were on good terms, Powell told the German foreign minister that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his Bush administration rival, was in charge at Guantanamo -- and that there was no sign of any change in the Defense Department's position on Kurnaz.

The diplomats could only speculate over why the US authorities were suddenly taking such an inflexible approach. Perhaps hard-liners had prevailed at the Pentagon, or perhaps Washington was simply showing its disappointment over Berlin's earlier rejection of the prisoner. In any event, the earlier offer of release was no longer on the table. Indeed, the Americans suddenly went out of their way to come up with reasons to justify Kurnaz's continued detention. At a military hearing in September 2004, they accused him of being a friend of a Turkish suicide bomber named Gökhan Elaltuntas -- a mistake that the German government's criminal investigators quickly cleared up. Then the Pentagon's "Office of Detainee Affairs" claimed that Kurnaz was a devoted al-Qaida supporter, supposedly one of those men Rumsfeld calls "the world's best-trained killers."

When talks began in Washington in early 2006, US State Department legal advisor John Bellinger claimed that Kurnaz had fought in the battle of Tora Bora and helped secure Osama bin Laden's escape. This was clearly nonsense, and the story never came up again during the ensuing negotiations. Officials from the Pentagon have conducted the talks for the Americans, and in early February they submitted a threat assessment on Kurnaz classified as "top secret." The document reads as if the man were Bin Laden's closest associate. The US delegation also submitted a recent photograph of the prisoner.

Creating the enemy 

Since then, the Germans have been asking themselves whether the West hasn't created the enemy it believed it was fighting at Guantanamo. In the photo, Kurnaz sports an enormous beard covering his powerful chest. His eyes seem sinister. His US attorney, Baher Azmy, who was recently allowed to visit him, says that Kurnaz fills his empty days with two things: religion and exercise. The hours he spends exercising in his cell have even prompted camp guards to refer to him as the "push-up guy."

Kurnaz also spends countless hours studying the Koran. His Arabic, which he has learned from other prisoners, is now so good that he is reading the book in its original version. He knows entire Suras by heart, and he turns to Mecca to pray five times a day. "Religion," says Azmy, "is especially important to him."

Azmy has also had coffee with Kurnaz, who drinks his with several spoons of sugar to make it taste like his mother's Turkish mocha. The two have met four times, for a total of 50 hours. "He has become a different person," says the attorney, who is still convinced that his client is harmless.

Azmy is also familiar with Kurnaz's view of the Germans, whom the prisoner believes treated him poorly. According to Kurnaz, the German officials who came to the camp told him "we don't want you back in Germany," and that he should stop complaining -- after all, he was spending time "in the Caribbean." Whether Kurnaz's accusations are true is another story, but they certainly reflect the impression of Germany he has since formed.

Has a confused youth from Bremen, a young man who apparently had difficulties with women and alcohol and admired the Taliban from afar, turned into a dangerous radical, as the Pentagon claims? "This is the dilemma the Germans must now confront," says Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA unit that was hunting for Osama bin Laden. "We locked up the harmless foot soldiers, and now no one knows what detention has done to these people."

Because of these fears, the Pentagon only wants to release Kurnaz in return for security guaranties that the prisoner may not "pose a threat to the international community." As Bush explained to Chancellor Merkel in the Oval Office, he cannot "simply let these people go."

To satisfy these demands, the German officials will be required, like a group of schoolboys, to explain to Washington how exactly they plan to keep the released prisoner under control. The Americans would prefer to see constant observation, together with a German promise not to allow Kurnaz to leave Germany. But the Chancellery has rejected this, even countering that Kurnaz will not even be punished. The relevant department in the Interior Ministry has already estimated the number of personnel around-the-clock observation would require, concluding that that number is too high, especially before the soccer World Cup being held in Germany this summer.

No hurry for release

This explains why the negotiators are in no particular hurry. Each week that passes without Kurnaz being released is also a week without problems. Indeed, the Germans clearly wouldn't mind if he didn't arrive in Germany until after the World Cup finals in July. Deporting him to Ankara also remains an option. The Turks are being kept abreast of the matter, but they too are unsure what to expect.

Bernhard Docke, Kurnaz's German attorney, is concerned that "four and a half years of being held in a cage take their toll on people." Docke believes the Schröder administration is partly responsible, and calls the "absence of support from German policy" one of the "darkest moments in the case."

From his office window, Docke has an expansive view of Bremen's Wallanlagen park. Rabiye Kurnaz occasionally drops by for a chat. Docke has almost become a friend of the family, although he has never actually met his client. All he knows about prisoner "JJJFA" comes from stories or from the 36 ring binders stacked on the shelves in his office. His next plan is to arrange for medical and psychological care for Kurnaz, as well as for "a quiet place, so that Murat can get his bearings again."

Rabiye Kurnaz recently received a letter that now lies on the lace tablecloth on the living room table. It's from a nun in a Bavarian convent. Each evening, the nun reports, the sisters at the convent include Murat, a devout Muslim, in their prayers. They pray for his release.

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan.

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