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Exclusive: Inside Gitmo with Detainee 061

Shortly after German-born Murat Kurnaz arrived at Camp Delta, intelligence reports show the plan was to let him go. What happened?

| Mon Mar. 10, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

FOR KURNAZ, the next two years were a blur of interrogations and hours spent locked in his cell. At one point, he claims guards roused him every few hours, part of a coordinated sleep-deprivation campaign dubbed Operation Sandman. He also says he was subjected to pepper-spray attacks, extreme heat and cold, and sexual humiliation at the hands of a scantily clad female guard, who he says rubbed herself against him.

On occasion, he says, punishments were doled out arbitrarily. Each morning a guard would appear at Kurnaz's cell door and ask him to shove his blanket through the slot. Even when he did so, he claims, he was sometimes accused of not cooperating and given a stint in solitary confinement.

Still, the detainee continued to plead his innocence, telling interrogators at one point that the idea of someone thinking he wanted to fight the Americans "made him feel sick," according to Pentagon intelligence reports. He also offered repeatedly to take a lie detector test. When asked what he would do if released, he said he would bring his wife to Germany and buy a motorcycle.

Then in June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. courts had the authority under federal law to decide whether those held at Guantanamo were rightfully imprisoned. In a bid to keep detainees out of the U.S. justice system, the Bush administration created the Combatant Status Review Tribunals to determine whether detainees had been properly labeled enemy combatants.

Three months later, on September 30, 2004, Kurnaz was led out to one of the interrogation trailers on the fringes of Camp Delta, the main prison complex at Guantanamo. Inside, under the glare of florescent lights, sat three high-ranking military officers at a long table. The "tribunal president," or judge, was in a high-backed chair in the middle. At his side was Kurnaz's "personal representative," who was assigned with helping the detainee argue his case, though he hardly said a word during the proceedings. As for the charges, the only information Kurnaz was given was a summary of the unclassified evidence, which the prosecutor—or "recorder" in Guantanamo parlance—reeled off at the beginning of the hearing. Most of it was circumstantial, like the fact that Kurnaz had flown from Frankfurt to Karachi just three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and that he allegedly received food and lodging from the Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat. (An apolitical movement with more than 70 million members, it has no known terrorist links, but intelligence agencies worry that its strict brand of Sunni Islam may make it an ideal recruiting ground for jihadists.)

But Kurnaz was hit with one more serious allegation, namely that he was "a close associate with, and planned to travel to Pakistan with" Selcuk Bilgin, who the recorder said "later engaged in a suicide bombing." Clearly shaken by this charge, Kurnaz interrupted the session, blurting out, "Where are the explosives? What bombs?" according to transcripts of the hearing, which are not verbatim. The tribunal president responded that the details of Bilgin's fate were classified. Then he asked if the detainee wanted to make a statement. Kurnaz replied, "I am here because Selcuk Bilgin had bombed somebody? I wasn't aware that he had done that." Then he gave a meandering speech, mostly a reprise of things he had said during interrogations.

When he was done, the tribunal president asked him if he had anything else to submit, though it's unclear what more he could have offered; detainees are allowed only limited documentary evidence, and calls for witnesses are generally denied. (Even if prisoners could present more information, it would likely be trumped by the government's evidence, which, under the tribunal rules laid out by the Bush administration, is presumed to be "genuine and accurate.") Kurnaz said simply: "I want to know if I have to stay here, or if I can go home…If I go back home, I will prove that I am innocent."

Later that day, the tribunal determined by a "preponderance of evidence" that Kurnaz had not only been properly designated an enemy combatant, but that he was a member of Al Qaeda. According to the classified summary obtained by Mother Jones, the decision was based almost exclusively on a single memo, written by Brig. General David B. Lacquement shortly before the tribunal convened.

A version of that memo was recently declassified, albeit with large swaths redacted. Among the "suspicious activities" it said Kurnaz engaged in while at Guantanamo: He "covered his ears and prayed loudly during the U.S. national Anthem" and asked how tall a basketball rim was "possibly in an attempt to estimate the heights of the fences." U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green, who reviewed the unredacted version, later wrote that it was "rife with hearsay and lacking in detailed support for its conclusions."

In contrast to Lacquement's memo, at least three assessments in Kurnaz's Pentagon file point to his innocence. Among them is a recently declassified memo, dated May 19, 2003, from Brittain P. Mallow, then commanding general of the Criminal Investigation Task Force, a Pentagon intelligence unit that interrogates and collects information on detainees. It states the "CITF is not aware of evidence that Kurnaz was or is a member of al-Qaida" or that he harbored anyone who "has engaged in, aided or abetted, or conspired to commit acts of terrorism against the U.S." But the tribunal found these exhibits were "not persuasive in that they seemingly corroborated the detainee's testimony." In other words, the Pentagon's own evidence was ignored because it suggested the detainee was innocent.

What of the allegation that Kurnaz's would-be traveling companion, Selcuk Bilgin, carried out a suicide attack? As it turns out, Bilgin is alive and residing in Bremen with his wife and two small children. I tracked him down in early January with three phone calls and a visit to his parents' home, and we met a couple weeks later at his lawyer's office near the city center. A stocky man with large, dark eyes and a wiry beard, he arrived in a white Audi station wagon with car seats in the rear and was wearing olive cargo pants with a thick black jacket that cinched at the waist. Following his arrest in Frankfurt, he explained, he was held for a few days and then released. "After that, two people from the intelligence services came to talk to me," he told me. "Some journalists called. Then I just went on with my life."

Indeed, Bilgin was never charged with any crime, although he was initially suspected of influencing Kurnaz to go to Afghanistan and fight. (Kurnaz's parents also blamed him for their son's ordeal, and the two men no longer speak.)

As for the attack Bilgin was accused of carrying out, identified by the Pentagon as the "Elananutus" bombing, it never registered with the media in Germany or the United States (though there is a record of a November 2003 attack on an Istanbul synagogue, allegedly by a man with a similar sounding name—Gokhan Elaltuntas). The Pentagon never bothered to run that allegation by German police; German intelligence agencies were apparently kept out of the loop, too.

"A suicide bomber?" Jachmann, who led the intelligence gathering on Bilgin and Kurnaz, asked incredulously when I explained the allegations. "As far as we knew, he was living right here in Bremen the whole time."

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