War on Terror Stuck in Guantanamo

Murat Kurnaz from Bremen, Germany is imprisoned in Guantanamo. The United States accuses him of being associated with a suicide bomber. The only problem? The suicide bomber is still alive and living as a free man in Germany. Kurnaz, though, remains behind bars.


Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born in Bremen, Germany, is among the hundreds of suspected al-Qaida or Taliban rebels being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
AP

Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born in Bremen, Germany, is among the hundreds of suspected al-Qaida or Taliban rebels being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay holds its hearings at Camp Delta in a run-down barracks building with red carpeting and iron rings embedded in the floor to which the prisoners can be chained like dogs.

Despite the heat and the iron chain, it was a good day for prisoner Murat Kurnaz, 22, when he sat down on a white plastic chair on September 30. For the first time since his arrest, Kurnaz, a shipbuilder from Germany who has become known as the "Bremen Taliban," felt a breath of hope.

After being held for three years in isolation at the notorious American prison camp, without being charged or receiving a hearing, Kurnaz was encountering a court for the first time. The truth would finally be revealed: Is he, as the Americans believe, a member of al-Qaida? Or is he a victim of American capriciousness?

Kurnaz sat facing justice in the form of three officers, an Air Force colonel and lieutenant colonel, and a Navy corvette captain. The military board is known as Tribunal Panel 5, and its job is to decide whether Kurnaz should continue to be classified as an "enemy combatant." The air-conditioner hummed quietly in the background as the prosecutors presented their principal charge: The US government is not accusing the Turk from Bremen of being involved in terrorist activities himself. Kurnaz was placed in chains because the Americans are suspicious of his friend, Selçuk B.

"The prisoner is a close associate of an individual with whom he planned to travel to Pakistan, and who was later involved in a suicide attack," one of the officers argued. Selçuk was "presumably" a "suicide attacker."

Kurnaz sat perplexed. He had not heard from Selçuk in a long time. Three years ago, he and his friend had planned to fly to Karachi, but Selçuk was arrested in Frankfurt. The alleged Bremen Taliban was flabbergasted: "Where are the explosives? What bombs?" And, finally, he repeated the charge, incredulously: "I am here because Selçuk is supposed to have blown somebody up?"

The Murat Kurnaz case shows that the Americans, in their "war on terror," have veered far from constitutional principles. It serves as an example of how flimsy the evidence is in some cases, and demonstrates the extent to which prejudices and suspicions can hamper any willingness to conduct clean investigations.

Alive and well in Germany

Selçuk, 28, the supposed suicide attacker, may be all kinds of things, but he isn't a martyr. After German Border Guard officers prevented him from traveling to Pakistan on Oct. 3, 2001, Selçuk returned to Bremen, where he now lives as a free man. At the time, he was not permitted to leave the country because he had not paid a negligence fine. His Turkish sheepdog had bitten a passerby.

To clarify Selçuk's true role, the Americans didn't even have to believe Guantanamo prisoner Kurnaz' claims. All they had to do was ask a few questions in Bremen. They could have asked District Attorney Uwe Picard, for example, who has been in charge of the Kurnaz/Selçuk file for the past three years. Picard investigated the vicinity, had apartments searched and he says that no proof was found. There are many indications that Kurnaz and Selçuk belonged to a group of young Muslims who sympathized with the Taliban. They spoke openly of jihad and referred to attacks against Americans as "the will of Allah." However, it appears that all they can be accused of are words; the investigation against Selçuk has now been closed.

A call to the residents' registration office would also have helped. Selçuk, who is unemployed, is correctly recorded in the register, which shows his new marital status (married, one son) and old address in Hemelingen: a 1970s red brick, multi-family building with satellite dishes attached to its outside wall and an Aldi supermarket across the street. Last week, Selçuk, who usually wears traditional clothing out of religious conviction, was in bed with a fever, and was being taken care of by his brother-in-law. "When he heard the story, he laughed out loud and said: 'That can't possibly be true,'" says his attorney, Gerhard Baisch.

Selçuk and Kurnaz met in the late 1990s in the working-class neighborhood of Hemelingen. They walked their dogs together and worked out together in the weight room at the local gym.

After Kurnaz's arrest, Selçuk told DER SPIEGEL that the two men had often discussed religion between the dog park and the gym. At the time, Selçuk says, Murat had just "begun to take his Muslim faith seriously -- he stopped drinking and began praying."

In Bremen's Abu-Bakr mosque, the two men met Kurd Ali M., a presumable recruiter for the Pakistani missionary movement Tabligh-i-Jamaat. The two friends were impressed by Ali M.'s "100 percent willingness to help," says Selçuk, and he changed their lives. Suddenly they began talking about the plight of their fellow Muslims in Chechnya and the role of the US "as a capitalist power in the world." The American files mention Kurnaz' contact with Tabligh-i-Jamaat as a second charge, next to his friendship with Selçuk.

After the 2001 summer vacation, Selçuk says, the two men decided to travel to Pakistan together, where they planned to search for the "true Islam." He bought a round-trip ticket to Pakistan for a flight departing on Oct. 3, 2001. The plan was to spend four weeks in Pakistan.

Exactly why the Americans consider Selçuk a martyr will probably remain their secret. Perhaps the US military received some information from the Pakistanis, or perhaps an allied intelligence service or some shady bounty hunter gave them a false tip, as Kurnaz' attorney, Bernhard Docke, believes. It is also possible, as German investigators suspect, that the US interrogators simply made a mistake when they mistook a photograph of a real suicide attacker for Selçuk. Kurnaz will probably never find out. Turning to the chairman of the tribunal, one of the military officers mysteriously said: "Sir, I do not believe that I can respond to that question in this hearing."

A holiday or terrorist's training mission?

Scores of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are still awaiting their day before the military tribunal.
AP

Scores of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are still awaiting their day before the military tribunal.

Instead, Kurnaz was supposed to testify before the tribunal. He did so at length, but there was little mention of jihad in his testimony, most of which was devoted to the tourist highlights of his six-week trip to Pakistan. He said he was fascinated by the snake charmers and their poisonous cobras, by the ninja and kung fu fighters at Pakistani marketplaces. "You can't see those kinds of things in Germany," Kurnaz told the military officers. "After all, I couldn't sit around in the mosque 24 hours a day."

At the end of his odyssey, the religious student was presumably turned in by other Muslims, who apparently thought the reddish-blond foreigner was a spy.

This is supported by the circumstances of his arrest during the third week of November 2001, during the first few days of Ramadan. "The Pakistanis," Kurnaz said, "pulled me from the bus to talk to me. They said they wanted to check my papers." According to Kurnaz, a man wearing a turban stood in front of him and asked him whether he was a journalist or an American, and then they took him to the prison. "The next thing I knew, I had been placed into chains and my eyes were covered." After about a week, Kurnaz was turned over to the Americans, and after being held at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan for a few months, he was flown to Guantanamo.

Kurnaz, who once preferred lifting weights over going to school, defended himself at the hearing in Camp Delta. He has spent his three years at Guantanamo learning English. Because he now speaks the language of his jailers fluently, the Americans were impressed and the interpreter was hardly needed. "I hate terrorists," Kurnaz dictated to the astonished officers. "I lost several years of my life here because of Osama Bin Laden. His religious views are not an accurate reflection of Islam." He told the Americans that, as a sign of his reformation, upon returning to Germany he would "notify the authorities if he received any information about terrorist plans."

The "detainee from Germany," as the Americans call the prisoner, gets along well with the guards. He wears the white uniform reserved for cooperative prisoners, instead of the orange overalls worn by presumably dangerous prisoners. He told the interrogators his story early on, and was rewarded with his own prayer rug, a plastic chess game and a bed in one of the group dormitories.

Two weeks ago, in an air-conditioned building with special cells containing plastic desks for attorney visits, Kurnaz was permitted to meet with his American attorney, Baher Azmy, for the first time. For four days, they sat together for six hours a day, and each day Kurnaz repeated the demand he had also posed to US military personnel: "I would like to know whether I must stay here or whether I am allowed to go home."

Unmoved by the facts, however, the tribunal arrived at its own conclusion. "The prisoner," the US military officer succinctly note on a slim sheet of paper, "is correctly classified as an enemy combatant. In particular, the tribunal finds that the prisoner is a member of al-Qaida." The decision is signed by the president of the tribunal, whose name is blacked out.

A senior official of the US Department of Defense confirmed the ruling on October 15. However, the Pentagon has promised to review each "enemy combatant" case once more. According to the Pentagon, anyone found to be harmless and of no further value to the intelligence agencies will be allowed to go home.

Perhaps the best way to summarize Kurnaz's case is in his own words, spoken during his hearing in a flight of naiveté: "I was 19 when I took my trip to Pakistan. It was probably the wrong time to go."

GEORG MASCOLO, SVEN RÖBEL, HOLGER STARK

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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