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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 pray."

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 routine checkpoint.

"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 am."

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 mother.

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?" Pelley asks.

"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 conditions.

"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 says.

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 American lawyer.

"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.

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