- Michael E. Miller
New York, April 6 – Murat Kurnaz spent five years in a cramped cell in Guantánamo, an innocent man sold into captivity for $3,000. His story, one of circumstance and mistaken identity in the “war on terror,” bears all the marks of a tragic novel.
Sadly, however, there is nothing fictitious about it.
Kurnaz’s story was the subject of a panel discussion at the New York Public Library on Friday. Though freed in 2006, Kurnaz is still considered an “enemy combatant” by the United States—a label that his lawyers reject but that nonetheless bars him from the country.
The approximately two hundred people that attended the ticketed event heard actor and playwright Wallace Shawn read passages from Kurnaz’s newly published memoir, “Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo.” Interspersed with comments by the panel’s five other discussants—including Kurnaz’s lawyers and the Muslim chaplain from Guantánamo—these passages traced the arch of Kurnaz’s ordeal.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, Kurnaz, then only 19 years old, left his native city of Bremen, Germany, to study Islamic scripture in Pakistan. He had just been engaged and wanted to learn more about his responsibilities as a husband and a Muslim. But shortly before leaving Pakistan, Kurnaz was pulled off of a bus and thrown into a secret U.S. prison in Afghanistan. Two months later, he was sent to the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where a guard later told him that U.S. authorities had paid $3,000 for him.
He spent five years in Guantánamo, most of them without access to a lawyer. In his memoir, Kurnaz says that his guards routinely abused him, using electric shocks, sleep deprivation, and beatings in an effort to draw information from him. They pried him with questions, such as “Where is Osama?” before determining, as early as 2002, that he was an innocent man. Kurnaz was not released until August of 2006.
One of Kurnaz’s lawyers, Baher Azmy, called his imprisonment “absurd enough to make Kafka blush.”
“He was unable to see the evidence that was the basis for him being labeled an ‘enemy combatant,’” he said. “It’s impossible to shake that designation.” To this day, the U.S. government will not admit that it “released” Kurnaz because to do so would be to admit his innocence, and their mistake, Azmy said.
Azmy and Kurnaz’s German lawyer, Bernhard Docke, described the tremendous difficulty of freeing a man who had been disappeared into Guantánamo.
“All the legal means which ought to be self-evident for a state based on the rule of law were denied,” Docke said. “He was kept incommunicado for years” with no idea of the charges against him.
Philippe Sands, an essayist and professor of international law, also spoke on the panel. In “The Green Light,” an exposé in this month’s Vanity Fair, Sands shows how the Bush administration’s legal reasoning allowed for the abuse of Guantánamo inmates, including Kurnaz.
“Murat Kurnaz arrived at Guantánamo at a very crucial moment,” Sands said. His transfer from Afghanistan to Cuba coincided with Bush’s presidential order “that none of the detainees would have rights under the Geneva Convention,” he said.
The result was that the “rulebook was wiped clean” as far as detainees’ rights.
Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Right and the event’s moderator, pointed out that approximately 275 detainees remain in Guantánamo, “with the U.S. still planning death penalty charges against a number of them.” Around 600 Guantánamo detainees have already been released, in large part due to the Center’s efforts.
The panelists were quick to point out that all Guantánamo detainees, regardless of guilt or innocence, deserve a fair trial—something Kurnaz never received. It was not until 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the detainees had the right to see civilian lawyers, that Kurnaz met with Azmy. It took two more years for Kurnaz to be set free, despite the holes in the evidence against him. American authorities accused him of being the friend of a suicide bomber. His friend, it turned out later, was alive and well.
“In Guantánamo, the only decisions that ever mattered were those made by the military,” Azmy said. “It’s an enormously arbitrary process.”
Docke, the lawyer hired by Kurnaz’s mother in Germany, said that Germany was also responsible in his client’s wrongful imprisonment. German interrogators visited Kurnaz in Guantánamo in September of 2002 and decided, like the Americans, that he was most likely innocent.
“The door was half open in the fall of 2002 to get him back,” Docke said. Instead, the German administration at the time canceled Kurnaz’s right to stay in Germany. Born in Bremen to Turkish parents, Kurnaz is nonetheless a Turkish citizen under German law.
A recent Seton Hall study found that the Bush administration’s depiction of Guantánamo detainees clashes with U.S. military records. According to the study, only six percent of the detainees were captured by U.S. forces; 90 percent of them were turned over to the U.S. by the Aghani Northern Alliance, often in exchange for money. Only eight percent were alleged to be members of Al Qaeda.
In an interview after the event, Docke said that the Military Commissions Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2006, barred Kurnaz from seeking compensation from the U.S. government. His case looks more promising in Germany, though Kurnaz’s Turkish citizenship complicates things.
“In my mind, Germany bears a political and moral responsibility for his time in Guantánamo,” Docke said. “We are now considering a lawsuit.”
When Kurnaz returned to Germany after his release, he discovered that his fiancé had left him and that his country had deported him while he was in Guantánamo.
“He is doing pretty well, considering the hell he went through,” Docke said. But having lost five years of his life to a case of mistaken identity, having suffered beatings and electro-shocks on a daily basis, Kurnaz’s readjustment to freedom is no easy task. His story is a reminder of the dangerous ambiguities involved in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
Kurnaz may need counseling to overcome the years of abuse, Docke said.
“Somewhere in his body or brain, you have this dark history of Guantánamo.”