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In the Wrong Place for a Long Time

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June 29, 2009

(Originally posted at The Washington Spectator.)

My name is Murat Kurnaz. I am twenty-seven years old. I was born and raised in Germany. Recently, I got married to a kind young woman from a good family, which makes me happy. We rented a nice flat in the Turkish section of my hometown of Bremen, Germany. My life now appears to be hopeful, even normal. But before all of this, from the age of nineteen to twenty-four, I spent five years of my life as a prisoner (or, I often think, as a victim) in American torture camps in Kandahar and Guantánamo Bay.

How did this happen to someone like me, from an honest, hardworking family? Have you ever read stories or seen movies where someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life turns into a nightmare?

I was traveling with a peaceful missionary group, which I had joined to learn to read the Koran and to pray. My family is Muslim, but they did not pray. I wanted to learn these important Muslim rituals because I had just married a devout woman in Turkey (who later divorced me while I was in Guantánamo). Besides, I was young and wanted to travel and see some other part of the world. I left my home in Bremen in the fall of 2001, but before war had broken out in Afghanistan. I didn’t know it at the time, but this decision turned out to be a colossal mistake.

Extraordinary Rendition
Toward the end of my travels in Pakistan, I was on a civilian bus, full of regular Pakistani men and women, headed for the airport to return home to Bremen. At a routine checkpoint, a Pakistani guard pulled me off the bus to ask me questions — he may have thought I was suspicious because of my Western appearance. Next thing I knew, I was in Pakistani detention for weeks; I was interrogated repeatedly, and told them over and over my story. It didn’t matter; they held me hostage and eventually turned me over to the Americans. I remember very well the first question American interrogators asked me: “Have you seen Osama bin Laden?” I answered “Yes”— like everyone else, I had seen him on TV and in the newspapers. But I live in Germany. Of course I’ve never seen him in the flesh.

The Americans shackled and hooded me (the first of hundreds of times this was done to me) and flew me to the American base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I later learned from my American interrogator that they paid the Pakistani police a bounty of only $3,000 for me. This was a cheap price. I know many detainees who were sold to the Americans for bounties. The Americans dropped flyers all over Afghanistan offering lots of money for this. I heard recently that the [former] president of Pakistan wrote a book bragging that he had received almost $300 million from Americans to turn over suspects.

In the American prison camp in Kandahar I was shocked by the awful treatment we received. All my life, I had a very good impression of Americans, so I couldn’t believe Americans would do these kinds of things. It was winter and freezing cold and I just had overalls and no blankets or coat. We slept outside, behind barbed wire fences. Soldiers watched me and the other prisoners with machine guns, and threatened to kill us. They called me “terrorist.” They punched and kicked me. The food I received seemed barely enough to keep me alive. When we needed to go to the bathroom, they gave us buckets. After my first interrogation in Afghanistan, they asked me if I was with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. When I insisted I was not, they got angry. They also tried to get me to sign a piece of paper admitting I was a member of Al Qaeda. I refused. The abuse got worse. Once, a guard dunked my head in a large bucket of water and punched me in the stomach so I would be forced to inhale. One guy used electroshocks on my feet, and joked that it would keep me warm. At one point, I was chained and hung by my wrists for a long time. A doctor sometimes checked if I was okay. Then I would be hung up again in the same position.

The interrogators also accused me of being affiliated with Mohamed Atta. They thought that because we are both from Germany and both Muslims, I must have worked with him. This was ridiculous, and without any basis in reality. But I believe the hanging was punishment for not admitting to this, coercion to try to force me to admit it. The pain from this treatment was beyond belief. I know that others died from this kind of treatment.

From Kandahar, I was transferred to Guantánamo in 2002. In Guantánamo, the conditions and the treatment were barely fit for animals, and certainly not for human beings. I was deprived of sleep and food for long intervals. The guards called the sleep deprival “Operation Sandman.” I was forced to be in solitary confinement for long periods of time for no reason and subjected to extreme cold and heat. I was subjected to religious and sexual humiliation. I was beaten multiple times. The guards forced me to accept medication that I did not want. I was interrogated over and over again, but always with the same questions. I told my story over and over, my name over and over, and details about my family over and over. I quickly got the impression that the interrogations were pointless and not really interested in the truth.

The first time I saw my American lawyer was in October 2004. At first, I did not believe he was a lawyer. There was no law in Guantánamo and the interrogators always lied to us, so I didn’t know what was the truth. But this man brought a handwritten Turkish note from my mother, and so I came to trust him. He told me there was a legal case that my family brought to get me released. I had no idea about this. From 2002 until my lawyer’s visit in 2004 in Guantánamo, I had no idea anyone even knew the camp existed or even that I was alive. After that, I received many postcards from Americans supporting me, and I know there were many other people in America and Germany working to help me get out. I want to thank them for their help.

Crime and Punishment
I always knew I had done nothing wrong. But it has now been proven not only that I’m innocent but that both the U.S. government and the German government knew it all along. In fact, they had discussed my innocence as early as the fall of 2002. The U.S. government asked the Germans if they would take me back, and the Germans said no. They left me to rot in this horrible place for an additional three years. I think that I was eventually released because of the work of my lawyers in the U.S. and in Germany, who proved to the German public that I was innocent and to pressure the new German government to negotiate for my release. If there had been any law in Guantánamo, I would have been released much earlier. Instead, the U.S. just called me an enemy combatant and said I had no rights. I believe my story, with some variations, is true for many others still in Guantánamo.

Since my release, I have written a book about what happened — Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo. I have spoken about my ordeal with many people in different countries — Germany, Belgium, France, U.K., Ireland, Sweden. My impression is that they all were deeply disappointed that this is being done by Americans and angry at America for not living up to its own standards. They all supported the U.S. after 9/11, but now they criticized the U.S. for its hypocrisy and for ignoring the law. I hope the new American president, Barack Obama, sticks to his promise to close Guantánamo, because I worry about some of the other detainees who are in their seventh year there. No human being can endure this treatment and isolation. I know that what was done to me cannot be undone. But will anyone be punished in the U.S. for what was done to me and others?

I might expect a system like Guantánamo to be developed by a poor, tyrannical, or ignorant country. I never would have imagined it would be created by the United States of America. In Germany, we believe that leaders who commit illegal acts must be punished. Is this not what happens in a democracy?

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