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One Muslim's Odyssey to Guantánamo

June 5, 2005
New York Times
One Muslim's Odyssey to Guantánamo

By RICHARD BERNSTEIN


BREMEN, Germany - About two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the Pakistani police picked up Murat Kurnaz, a 19-year-old Muslim from Germany who was traveling by bus near the city of Peshawar.

The police turned Mr. Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born in Germany, over to the American military in Pakistan, who in turn transferred him to Afghanistan, and he was held as a terrorist suspect.

Mr. Kurnaz, it seemed, had chosen a poor time to go to Pakistan, just as the American war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban was getting started. Could he have been a Muslim fighter, recruited to help the enemy? The fact that he was a religious young Muslim from this city in northern Germany, only an hour's train ride from Hamburg, where the main plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks had lived, apparently supported the American suspicions that he was.

Indeed, Mr. Kurnaz's lawyer in the United States said that interrogators in Afghanistan seemed convinced that he was an associate of Mohamed Atta, who is believed to have piloted one of the hijacked planes flown into the World Trade Center.

Though no link to Mr. Atta was ever found, Mr. Kurnaz was sent to the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been held for about three years now as an enemy combatant, specifically accused of being a member or ally of Al Qaeda or its terrorist network. The evidence against him is that, while he was traveling in Pakistan, he was the guest of a militant Islamic group said to have supported terrorist acts against the United States.

In addition, Mr. Kurnaz was known to have intended to travel to Pakistan with a close friend, Selcuk Bilgin, another Turkish citizen from Bremen. And Mr. Bilgin, according to an American military tribunal's findings on Mr. Kurnaz, later carried out a suicide bombing.

But in recent months, as details of the charges against Mr. Kurnaz have come to be known, German officials here in Bremen who have investigated both Mr. Kurnaz and Mr. Bilgin have reacted to the American conclusions about Mr. Kurnaz with astonished incredulity.

The most striking element in the picture is that, contrary to the American assumption about Mr. Bilgin having carried out a suicide bombing, the Germans say that claim is demonstrably false.

"He lives here," Uwe Picard, the Bremen criminal prosecutor who carried out the German investigation into Mr. Bilgin, said in an interview in his office here. "He is still alive."

Moreover, even American documents indicated that much of the evidence on Mr. Kurnaz actually seemed more to exonerate him than to incriminate him. The decision of the three-member Guantánamo tribunal that found Mr. Kurnaz to be an enemy combatant last September refers to classified material in his file and indicates that that is where the reputed links to Al Qaeda would be documented.

But a Federal District Court judge, Joyce Hens Green, in reviewing Mr. Kurnaz's case early this year, found that there was only a single document, called R-19, that incriminates Mr. Kurnaz as a member of Al Qaeda. About this material she concludes, "Not only is the document rife with hearsay and lacking in detailed support for its conclusions, but it is also in direct conflict with classified exculpatory documents."

Judge Green's summary of the classified file was briefly unclassified earlier this year and reported on by The Washington Post in March. It contained several intelligence reports that exonerated Mr. Kurnaz of the very charges the Guantánamo tribunal made against him.

There is one report by the Command Intelligence Task Force, the intelligence unit of the Southern Command whose responsibility includes Guantánamo, that said, "CITF has no definite link/evidence of detainee having an association with Al Qaeda or making any specific threat against the United States."

Yet, Mr. Kurnaz remains in detention in Guantánamo, and the three-member Combatant Status Review Tribunal that heard his case last year concluded, "By a preponderance of the evidence, Mr. Kurnaz meets the criteria to be designated as an enemy combatant." It is a designation that means in theory that Mr. Kurnaz can be kept in prison until President Bush declares that the campaign against terrorism is over.

Asked the reasons for the determination in the Kurnaz case, a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Alvin Plexico, said, "The bottom line is that we have a Combatant Status Review Tribunal to review all this information, and they have come to the conclusion that he is an enemy combatant, and they are certainly in a better position to judge than you and I are."

But an investigation of Mr. Kurnaz's case reveals no evidence that he ever fought against the United States or planned to.

Though Mr. Kurnaz was born in Bremen he has remained a Turkish citizen because his parents, who came to Germany as guest workers from Turkey more than three decades ago, never became German citizens.

He grew up in Bremen in a largely secular Muslim family. But when he became 17 or 18, Mr. Kurnaz became more religiously observant, his mother, Rubiye Kurnaz, said in an interview in his lawyer's office in Bremen. He grew a beard, she said, and began going to a largely Arab mosque, rather than the Turkish mosque that his family attended. He also began to criticize other members of his family for what he saw as their lack of piety.

Three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Kurnaz decided to go to Pakistan. The purpose of his trip, according to his German lawyer, Bernard Docke, was to deepen his knowledge of Islam. Mr. Bilgin intended to accompany him on this trip.

As things turned out, Mr. Bilgin was stopped from leaving Germany by the border police because he had failed to pay a fine for an unrelated misdemeanor. According to Mr. Picard, the prosecutor, when the police called Mr. Bilgin's family to see if the fine could be paid so Mr. Bilgin could leave, one of the family members said that they did not want him going to Pakistan for fear that he would join a Muslim group there fighting against the United States.

It was this comment that prompted Mr. Picard's investigation into Mr. Bilgin and the Abu Bakr mosque that he and Mr. Kurnaz attended.

"Of course, we were concerned with the possibility that Murat Kurnaz had been radicalized by a preacher at the mosque," Mr. Picard said. According to some officials, German intelligence has identified one member of the Abu Bakr mosque as having recruited fighters for pro-Qaeda groups, which would seem to justify an effort to find out if Mr. Kurnaz was one of them.

But Mr. Picard said his investigation of the mosque, which included interrogations of the suspected recruiter and a search of his home, produced no evidence of terrorist connections or of any attempts to recruit Muslims there to fight against the United States.

"We get rumors sometimes that they preach hatred there," Mr. Picard said of the Abu Bakr mosque. "But there is no proof."

Though Mr. Bilgin was prevented from leaving Germany, Mr. Kurnaz did go to Pakistan on Oct. 3, 2001. About three weeks later, he was arrested by the Pakistani police in a routine check of a passenger bus near the northern city of Peshawar. According to Mr. Docke, the Pakistani police held Mr. Kurnaz for about a week and then turned him over to the American military in Pakistan. From there, Mr. Kurnaz was taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and eventually transferred to Guantánamo, where he has been since.

"For us what is very important," Mr. Docke said, "is that he had no weapons when he was arrested, that he was arrested in Pakistan, not on the battlefield in Afghanistan, and he was arrested by the Pakistani police during a routine check of a bus."

But his very presence in Pakistan raised suspicions among American military interrogators, and so did the fact that, by his own account, he was the guest in Pakistan of an Islamic group, Tablighi Jamaat. The group, which is based mostly in Pakistan and Bangladesh and keeps up an energetic fundamentalist missionary drive in many European countries, was described by the Guantánamo tribunal as a supporter of terrorism. That link, and Mr. Kurnaz's association with Mr. Bilgin, are the two unclassified charges made against him to support the tribunal's conclusion that he is an "enemy combatant."

Furthermore, the tribunal's findings listed no particulars of how Tablighi Jamaat is thought to have supported terrorism against the United States. Some experts say it has no record of supporting terrorism or Islamic militancy, but others have said it supported the mujahedeen fighting Russians in Afghanistan and aids Muslim separatists in Kashmir. The tribunal's decision on Mr. Kurnaz only refers to the fact that he received free food, lodging and schooling from the group.

As for Mr. Kurnaz's travels from mosque to mosque in Pakistan, some people who make such trips come into contact with more militant schools of Islam, and counterterrorism experts have noted that some of those who are attracted to the group move on to more militant groups.

But one expert on Tablighi, Jamal J. Elias, a professor of religion at Amherst College, wrote in a letter that Mr. Kurnaz's travels were exactly the sort of activity that the group undertakes in its efforts to encourage greater Muslim piety and that nothing he was reported to have done with the group indicated that he was being recruited as a terrorist.

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