Ex-Terror Detainee Says U.S. Tortured Him
60 Minutes (CBS)
March 30, 2008
Tells 60 Minutes he was held underwater, shocked and suspended from the ceiling
(CBS) At the age of 19, Murat Kurnaz vanished into America's
shadow prison system in the war on terror. He was from Germany,
traveling in Pakistan, and was picked up three months after 9/11. But
there seemed to be ample evidence that Kurnaz was an innocent man with
no connection to terrorism. The FBI thought so, U.S. intelligence thought so, and German intelligence agreed. But once he was picked up, Kurnaz found himself in a prison system that required no evidence and answered to no one.
The story Kurnaz told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley is a rare look inside that clandestine system of justice, where the government's own secret files reveal that an innocent man lost his liberty, his dignity, his identity, and ultimately five years of his life.
60 Minutes found Murat Kurnaz in Bremen, Germany, where
he was born and raised. His parents emigrated there from Turkey. His
father works in the Mercedes factory. Kurnaz wasn’t particularly
religious growing up, but in 2001 he was marrying a Turkish girl who
was. And he decided to learn more about Islam.
"I didn't know how to pray. I didn't know anything," Kurnaz says.
"So I had to study more about Islam so I could go to the mosque and
In Bremen, he met Islamic missionaries who urged him to go to Pakistan for study. As he was planning the trip, 9/11 happened. He told 60 Minutes he was horrified by the attacks, and had never heard of al Qaeda. He decided to go ahead with his trip anyway.
"You went to Pakistan several weeks after 9/11," Pelley remarks. "Did you begin to think that that wasn't a great idea?"
"Today, I know it wasn't a great idea," Kurnaz says.
Kurnaz told 60 Minutes his story using the English
that he learned from his American guards. If he seems a little distant,
reserved, you'll understand why as his story unfolds. It begins in
2001, when he was at the end of that trip to Pakistan. He was headed to
the airport to fly home to Germany when his bus was stopped at a
"They stopped the bus and because of my color, I’m much more
different than Pakistani guys," says Kurnaz, who is lighter-skinned.
"He looked into the bus and he knocked on my window."
"He" was a Pakistani cop who pulled Kurnaz off the bus. The reason
Kurnaz was singled out may always be a mystery. But at the time, the
U.S. was paying bounties for suspicious foreigners. Kurnaz, who'd been
rambling across Pakistan with Islamic pilgrims, seemed to fit the bill.
Kurnaz says that he was told that U.S. intelligence paid $3,000 for
him. He ended up bound and shackled on an American military plane.
"I was sure soon as they would find out I'm not a terrorist, they will apologize for it and let me go back home," he says.
But the plane flew him out of Pakistan and to a U.S. base in
Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was mixed with prisoners fresh off the
battlefield. His new identity was "number 53." He was kept in an
outdoor pen, in sub-freezing weather and interrogated daily.
"They asked me, 'Where is Osama bin Laden,' and if I am from al
Qaeda or from Taliban. Questions like that. I told them, 'I don't know
where is Osama bin Laden, I never saw him and I don't know anything
about al Qaeda. I don't know what it is.' And I spent all my time in
Pakistan," he says.
Asked what happened next, Kurnaz says, "I told them just they can
call Germany to ask who I am and they can ask anybody in Germany who I
Back in Germany, Bremen police were investigating, and what they
were hearing made matters worse: Kurnaz's worried mother told them her
son had recently become more religious, had grown a beard and was
attending a new mosque; schoolmates said that Kurnaz might have been
headed to Afghanistan.
"It was just guessing, just fear, no more. But the fear turns into
a fact," says attorney Bernhard Docke, who was hired by Kurnaz’s
He says there was no reason to suspect Kurnaz knew anything about
al Qaeda. But this was weeks after 9/11 and some of the hijackers had
been living in Hamburg. "And so close after 9/11, and close after
Germany realized that 9/11 started with the Hamburg cell in Germany,
everybody in the secret services got crazy," Docke says.
Docke says the police report was sent to the Americans. And
Kurnaz claims his interrogations at Kandahar turned to torture. He told
60 Minutes that American troops held his head underwater.
"They used to beat me when my head is underwater. They beat me into my stomach and everything," he says.
"They were hitting you in the stomach while you're head was underwater so that you'd have to take a breath?" Pelley asks,
"Right. I had to drink. I had to…how you say it?" Kurnaz replies.
"Inhale. Inhale the water," Pelley says.
"I had to inhale the water. Right," Kurnaz says.
Kurnaz says the Americans used a device to shock him with
electricity that made his body go numb. And he says he was hoisted up
on chains suspended by his arms from the ceiling of an aircraft hangar
for five days.
"Every five or six hours they came and pulled me back down. And the
doctor came to watch if I can still survive to not. He looked into my
eyes. He checked my heart. And when he said okay, then they pulled me
back up," Kurnaz says.
"The point of the doctor's visit was not to treat you. It was to
see if you could take another six hours hanging from the ceiling?"
"Right," Kurnaz says.
"I suspect you know that the U.S. military will deny this happened.
The U.S. military will deny that you were shocked. It will deny your
head was held in a bucket of water. It will deny that you hung from a
ceiling for days at a time," Pelley remarks.
"Doesn't matter whatever they will say. The truth will not change," Kurnaz says.
"And you're telling me in this interview that this is the truth?" Pelley asks.
"This is the truth," Kurnaz insists.
Kurnaz isn't alone in these allegations: other freed prisoners have
described electric shocks at Kandahar, and even U.S. troops have
admitted beating prisoners who were hanging by their arms. Kurnaz's
story fits a pattern.
After six weeks in Afghanistan, Kurnaz was loaded onto another
plane, this time bound for Guantanamo. The Pentagon labeled the
prisoners "unlawful enemy combatants." They didn’t have the rights of
prisoners of war and were beyond the reach of any court.
At Guantanamo Kurnaz says he endured endless months of
interrogations, beatings at the hands of soldiers in riot gear, and
physical cruelty which included going without sleep for weeks and
solitary confinement for up to a month in cells that were sealed
without ventilation or were set up to punish him with extreme
"It's dark inside. No lights. And they can punish you in isolation
by coldness or by the heat. They have special air conditioners over
there. Very strong. They can turn it very cold or very hot," Kurnaz
He says it went on year after year, always the same questions about
al Qaeda, and the endless effort to break his will. He heard nothing
from the outside and wondered whether anyone knew that he was there.
Then, in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo
prisoners did have the right to lawyers. And to his complete surprise,
one day Kurnaz was told he had a visitor. It was Baher Azmy, an
"He was chained to a bolt in the floor around his ankle," Azmy
says, recalling his first meeting with Kurnaz. "And had an absolutely
enormous beard that had marked the years that he was in detention. He
looked like someone who had been shipwrecked, which, of course, in a
sense, he really was."
Azmy is a professor at the Seton Hall Law School. He dug into the
case and found that the military seemed to have invented some of the
charges. Military prosecutors said one of Kurnaz’s friends was a
suicide bomber, but the friend turned up alive and well in Germany.
"How could they have gotten that so wrong? I mean, you're either a
suicide bomber or you're not. There's no in between," Pelley remarks.
"This goes to the utter preposterousness of the government’s legal
process that they established in Guantanamo, this tribunal system that
was supposed to differentiate from enemy combatant and civilian. So in
order to justify that he was an enemy combatant, they simply made up an
allegation about someone he was associated with," Azmy says.
But far worse than the false charges was the secret government file that Azmy uncovered.
Six months after Kurnaz reached Guantanamo, U.S. military
intelligence had written, "criminal investigation task force has no
definite link [or] evidence of detainee having an association with al
Qaeda or making any specific threat toward the U.S."
At the same time, German intelligence agents wrote their
government, saying, "USA considers Murat Kurnaz’s innocence to be
proven. He is to be released in approximately six to eight weeks."
But Azmy says Kurnaz was kept at Guantanamo Bay for three and a half years after this memo was written in 2002.
They kept him, Kurnaz says, by inventing new charges. In a
makeshift courthouse, Kurnaz claims that a military judge charged that
Kurnaz had been picked up near Osama bin Laden's hideout in Afghanistan
while fighting for the Taliban. Ironic, since it was the U.S. that flew
him to Afghanistan to begin with.
"Have you ever in your legal career run across anything like this?" Pelley asks Baher Azmy.
"In my legal career, no," Azmy says. "But in Guantanamo, no
detainee has ever been able to genuinely present evidence before a
neutral judge. And so as absurd as Murat Kurnaz's case is, I assure you
there are many, many dozens just as tenuous."
And a U.S. federal judge agreed. She ruled the Guantanamo military
tribunals violated the prisoners' right to a defense, and she singled
out Kurnaz's case as an example.
60 Minutes asked the Department of Defense to talk to us about Kurnaz. Instead they sent 60 Minutes
a statement, calling his allegations "unsubstantiated" and
"outlandish," adding that claims that the U.S. military "engaged in
regular and systematic torture of detainees cannot withstand even the
slightest scrutiny." The statement didn’t address why Kurnaz was held
to begin with. (Click here to read the full Department of Defense statement.)
The break in Kurnaz’s case came when the German chancellor asked
President Bush for his release. In August 2006, a plane came to take
Kurnaz home. On the way out he was asked to sign a confession his
captors had written for him saying he’d been al Qaeda all along. He
refused. On the plane he was chained and surrounded by soldiers. But by
the end of the flight, he was free.
"There's a picture of you hugging your mother. Tell me about that moment," Pelley asks.
"She wouldn't let me go. She wouldn't let me, anymore. She just
hugged me. Of course, she was so happy, she cried. And I would go to my
father and my brothers, also, but she didn't let me. And they had to
wait," Kurnaz remembers.
He was 19 when he went in, 24 when he returned to Bremen. His wife had divorced him. Kurnaz has written a book, just translated into English called "Five Years Of My Life." And he told 60 Minutes he wanted to visit the United States, but can't because the U.S. still considers him to be an unlawful enemy combatant.
Get original here