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Guantanamo Tales: Murat Kurnaz in the German Media

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Germany has a new superstar. With the publication of his new book "Five Years of My Life: a Report from Guantanamo" ["Fünf Jahre Meines Lebens: ein Bericht aus Guantanamo"], the former Guantanamo inmate Murat Kurnaz has been all over the German media. Even before the book's official release on April 23, there had already been a feature spread on the Web site of the popular weekly Stern, an empathetic review on the rival Spiegel-Online, and reports featuring the star author himself on both of Germany's public television networks ARD and ZDF. Typically glowing reviews in all of Germany's major papers quickly followed. In light of such a media barrage, it is little wonder that just two weeks after the release date, Kurnaz's book, co-authored by the German journalist and sometime novelist Helmut Kuhn, had rocketed to 14th place on the Spiegel's hardcover bestseller list for non-fiction.
But is it non-fiction? Some basic facts of Kurnaz's itinerary are undisputed. Just three weeks after the September 11 attacks, on Oct. 3, 2001, the then-19-year-old native of Bremen flew from Frankfurt to Karachi, Pakistan. Kurnaz, who had fallen under the influence of the fundamentalist Tablighi Jamaat movement, has claimed that the purpose of his trip to Pakistan was merely to study the Quran. As for the prima facie suspicious timing, Kurnaz has stressed that at the time of his departure the war in neighboring Afghanistan had not yet begun. The latter point is widely repeated without comment in the German media, even though a cursory look at contemporary press reports reminds us that by late September Taliban sympathizers in Pakistan were already calling for jihad in anticipation of an impending American-led intervention. (See, for example, this report from the Telegraph on a mass rally in Peshawar, an Islamist stronghold not far from the Afghan border, which Kurnaz is known to have visited.)

On Oct. 7, American and British forces initiated air strikes against targets in Afghanistan. Sometime around mid-November, Pakistani security forces arrested Kurnaz following a security check of passengers traveling on a bus in the vicinity of Peshawar. The Pakistanis turn Kurnaz over to American military authorities, who continued to hold him as a suspected al-Qaida or Qaida-affiliated fighter. In January 2002, Kurnaz was transferred from an American military base in Afghanistan to the newly established Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.

Initially, and indeed for several years after his seizure, Kurnaz's fate sparked little interest from German authorities. The indifference displayed by the then "red-green" coalition government is now the subject of controversy in Germany, though it is in fact unremarkable in light of certain continuing archaisms of German citizenship law. Like tens of thousands of other persons of Turkish descent who were born and live in Germany, Murat Kurnaz does not hold German citizenship. Inasmuch as he was a Turkish citizen, German authorities appear to have concluded that he was Turkey's problem. They had, moreover, an additional motivation for adopting this attitude: In light of a series of findings linking Kurnaz to the Islamic extremist scene in Germany, Germany's own Federal Office of Criminal Investigations (BKA) had classified Kurnaz as a security risk. (See the accompanying blog post "The German BKA Dossier on Murat Kurnaz.")

In August 2006, reportedly following the direct intervention of new German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his behalf, Kurnaz was released from Guantanamo and returned to Germany. The American government's willingness to release him is widely interpreted in the German media as evidence of his "innocence." Indeed, it is commonly asserted that American authorities had cleared him of all suspicion of connections to terrorism already in 2002. This claim is plainly contradicted by a 2004 Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) ruling that on the basis of both classified and unclassified materials upheld his classification as a Qaida-linked "enemy combatant."

It is clear, however, that the fascination that Kurnaz holds for the German media consists not in the facts of his case, but rather in his leveling of seemingly ever more outrageous and implausible accusations of torture and abuse against the United States. The unquestioning repetition by the German media of these atrocity stories -- like their unquestioning repetition of analogous claims made by alleged extraordinary rendition "victim" Khaled Al-Masri -- helps to explain the climate of hatred and distrust toward the United States that reigns among the German public today.

Claims that he was beaten and subjected to electroshock by his American captors are a regular part of Kurnaz's repertoire, as are charges of Quran desecration. But his accusations also include far more inventive fare, such as the claim that American medical personnel at Guantanamo made a regular practice of amputating the healthy body parts of inmates. Thus in a report first aired on April 19 on ARD-affiliate Radio Bremen TV, Kurnaz explained:

Almost every time that someone had to go to the medical center and was away for a few days, he usually came back with a body part missing. I saw this with my own eyes: that one or another of my neighbors was taken to the medical center and then came back and something had been amputated. Even though he had not been sick and it wasn't necessary. For instance, fingers that were perfectly healthy.

Kurnaz repeats the same charge in his book, though oddly enough there it is also matter of larger and more fundamental body parts: namely, limbs. On Kurnaz's account, American doctors are supposed to have amputated both legs of a Saudi inmate before returning him to his "cage" on bandaged stumps oozing blood and puss. Characteristic of the German reception of Kurnaz's book, the account is repeated in horrified tones -- but without the slightest hint that it might require verification -- by Yassin Musharbash in his review of "Five Years of My Life" in der Spiegel. "Desperate, the man seeks to climb onto the pail that served as toilet," Musharbash writes, assuming Kurnaz's role of narrator, "But the guards beat him instead of helping him."

In a report that aired on April 20 on the ZDF news magazine "Aspekte," Kurnaz claimed that at Guantanamo "There was every kind of torture that one could imagine and even some that one could not imagine. There were also people who died from the torture." He also claimed to have witnessed "a man who was over 100 years old" being beaten by guards.

There is nothing especially noteworthy as such about these claims. It is standard practice for former Guantanamo inmates to make wild accusations concerning the conditions of their confinement -- even if Kurnaz's accusations are perhaps somewhat wilder than the rest. What is especially noteworthy, however, is the German media's utter lack of critical distance toward Kurnaz's account of his detention. Musharbash's eagerness to assume Kurnaz's role as narrator in his Spiegel review is symptomatic in this connection. The identification with Kurnaz is, if anything, even more complete in the Stern report on "Five Years of My Life" -- which is hardly surprising, since it is in fact the book's Afterword, written by Stern reporters Uli Rauss und Oliver Schröm. The subtitle to Musharbash's review reads "Beatings, Amputations, Torture: for over five years Murat Kuraz lived in an environment in which daily life was a torment" -- as if all of this was proven fact. And Musharbash asserts that it is: namely, on the authority of . . . Rauss and Schröm.

In the televised reports too, the reporters themselves take an active role in narrating the horrors that Kurnaz is supposed to have suffered. In the manner of a Greek chorus, they complement and complete the discourse of the hero of the piece, lending his account of events a seemingly transcendent aura of veracity. In the report by Radio Bremen TV, for example, Kurnaz and reporter Rainer Kahrs together invoke the conditions that are supposed to have obtained in solitary confinement at Guantanamo:

Kurnaz: It is extremely dark. Absolutely no light. You can't see anything. You never see natural light . . . and you don't see artificial light either. . . .

Kahrs: Even under the best circumstances, Kurnaz recounts, sleeping was not so simple in the cell. When he had barely nodded off, the guards would bang on the door. And up above the bed, a loudly buzzing air conditioner blew ice-cold air into the [isolation] cell 24 hours a day.

Kurnaz: I had shorts on . . . . Nothing else. . . . Sometimes they let us keep our pants and t-shirts in solitary confinement. Then they usually tortured us with heat.

Kahrs narrates his lines in the indicative, yet again as if Kurnaz's claims were unquestionable statements of fact. (Towards the end of the report, nonetheless, Kahrs asks Kurnaz "is it all true?". To this question, Kurnaz -- in a response whose unintended irony appears lost on the interviewer -- replies: "Of course, it's all true. It's all nothing but the truth and even many things that no one ever knew about: it is simply more than nothing but the truth.")

The "Greek choral" technique is, however, even more pronounced and, so to say, "perfected" in the "Aspekte" report from ZDF. "Aspekte" host Luzia Braun first sets the stage by describing Kurnaz's experience in American captivity as nothing less than a sort of "martyrdom" and pronouncing Kurnaz a "victim of torture" who, moreover, had had "nothing to do with terrorism." Then reporter Felicitas von Twickel takes over, sharing the narration of the stages of this "martyrdom" with the alleged "martyr" himself -- who appears to be not only very much alive, but even in robust health. For added dramatic effect, fictional "re-enactments" excerpted from Michael Winterbottom's anti-Guantanamo film "The Road to Guantanamo" are interspersed into the report. Here, for example, as narrated by "Kurnaz/von Twickel" or "von Twickel/Kurnaz," the "torture" applied to inmates in solitary confinement is supposed to have consisted of oxygen deprivation:

Von Twickel: In Camp X-Ray, one is only allowed to be seated. If the prisoner stands up or speaks to someone in the neighboring cell, the "Immediate Reaction Force" intervenes: shock troops that after beating the prisoner drag him away -- to solitary confinement. Days, weeks in a cell, sometimes without sufficient oxygen.

Kurnaz: One had really just enough air to stay alive, such that most of the time one had to be unconscious.

The ZDF report does not even bother to specify that "Kurnaz says" that he was days or weeks in solitary confinement without sufficient oxygen. The disembodied voice of Felicitas von Twickel simply declares it to be so.

It is striking that none of the German media here cited seek to balance their reports by obtaining comment from the U.S. military on Kurnaz's allegations. Presented by World Politics Review with a selection of Kurnaz's claims as excerpted from the Radio Bremen TV and ZDF reports, a Pentagon spokesperson dismissed them as "fictitious." "We should all remember," U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey D. Gordon continued, pointing to the so-called "Manchester Manual","that al-Qaida training manuals encourage their members to lie, to make abuse allegations in order to garner public sympathy, whether it's for their release or even after they're gone, just to undermine the mission of what we're doing in the United States."

It is possible that Kurnaz is indeed, as Cmdr. Gordon suggests, playing by the al-Qaida playbook. But it is equally possible that he is playing rather to the German gallery: saying what his German handlers and interviewers -- and apparently some significant part of the German public -- want to hear. How else is one to explain the following bizarre nugget from the ZDF report as narrated by Felicitas von Twickel?: "Perfidious American soldiers [in Guantanamo] threaten to do to the Bremen-born Turk what the Nazis did to the Jews." Is it really plausible that it would occur to an American soldier to say such a thing? Or is this rather deliberately concocted balm for the German soul: encouraging the German public to draw forced analogies between wildly disparate historical events and thereby to diminish the enormity of the crimes for which Germany itself owes its sad renown?

John Rosenthal is a WPR contributing editor. He wrote at length on European opposition to the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in "The Road to Condemning Guantanamo" in The Claremont Review of Books. Guy Taylor provided additional reporting for this article.

Image: The cover of Murat Kurnaz's book, "Five Years of My Life: a Report from Guantanamo" ["Fünf Jahre Meines Lebens: ein Bericht aus Guantanamo"].