Five Years of Mistaken Imprisonment

Five Years of Mistaken Imprisonment


At first, Murat Kurnaz’s voice stubbornly refused to come through. The satellite connection faltered, and the first Guantanamo detainee to ever share his experiences before Congress began to testify — soundlessly.

It was a fitting metaphor for the five years Kurnaz lost during his silent ordeal in Guantanamo. A German national, like up to 95% of other Guantanamo detainees, in 2001 Kurnaz was sold into U.S. custody by bounty hunters–in his case, the Pakistani police. His charges? Affiliation with a nonviolent Muslim missionary group (which has 40 million members) and friendship with a suspected suicide bomber (who, as it turned out, is very much alive, living in Germany, and nothing of the kind).Not surprisingly, as recently declassified documents show, U.S. officials figured out Kurnaz was innocent of any terrorist activities by January 2002. “I told my story over and over,” said Kurnaz, who testified on Tuesday after technical setbacks via satellite link from Germany. “My name over and over.” But it was only in 2006, after six months of negotiations in which German chancellor Angela Merkel had to directly intercede, that Kurnaz was released.

Instead, he was kept inside Guantanamo for years and tortured. As the members listening blanched, he recalled being shackled by his wrists and hoisted into the air–a practice the Spanish Inquisition used to dislocate victims’ shoulders, and a tactic lawyers later testified had been used on others at Gitmo. At one point, said Kurnaz, he hung like that for five days, with doctors only intermittently releasing him to ensure that he could survive.

If he signed a manufactured confession of guilt, Kurnaz recalled, he would have been been freed. He never signed.

Yet even after being flown back to Germany blindfolded and in shackles, Kurnaz was comparatively lucky. Currently, as witnesses later testified, fully 30 of Guantanamo detainees have been declared innocent–like Kurnaz–and cleared for release, but are unable to return home to countries like Tunisia and China for fear of torture and execution. Meanwhile–because it would be embarrassing, surely, to create a refugee category for those caught up in the dragnet of terrorist witch-hunting–the United States refuses to grant them asylum. Instead, they remain in limbo at Guantanamo, where they are kept and in some cases–as emerged this week-–”softened up” for visiting Chinese interrogators.

Listening to Kurnaz’s testimony, even steadfast Gitmo defender Rep. Rohrabacher was moved to admit that “mistakes were made.” Nevertheless, he insisted, the U.S. has been “at war with radical Islam” ever since the smoke first began to rise over Ground Zero–and sometimes in war, “mistakes are made.”

Hearing Kurnaz’s testimony, Rep. Nadler, who district covers Ground Zero, responded with a cold kind of anger. Knowingly keeping the innocent detained, forcing false confessions–these acts, he said, aren’t mistakes, but acts “unworthy of a nation of laws.” By then, the afternoon had waned, and most of the audience had trickled out. Those that remained gave him a quiet flicker of applause.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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