The Story of Guantánamo Detainee Murat Kurnaz
Murat Kurnaz is a twenty-five year old German resident of Turkish descent. While studying Islam in Pakistan in 2001, Murat was pulled off of a civilian bus at a routine bus stop, and questioned by local authorities. Those authorities proceeded to detain him for several days no more suspicion than that Murat was a foreigner traveling in Pakistan. At a time when the Pakistani government was facing enormous pressure to assist the United States in responding to the attacks of 9/11, the Pakistani authorities transferred Murat to U.S. custody for what U.S. interrogators told Murat was $3,000. He spent a harrowing couple of months in the U.S. prison camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he suffered severe forms of abuse, including shackling, sleep deprivation, water torture and electrocution. He was transferred to the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay in early 2002 and designated a so-called “enemy combatant.” He was prisoner number 061.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Rasul v. Bush, in which the Court held that Guantánamo detainees could challenge the lawfulness of their detentions, CSJ Professor Baher Azmy and the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of Murat and his mother, who acted as his “next friend.” The filing of this petition started a process in which the CSJ was able to demonstrate that Murat was innocent of any wrongdoing that could remotely support his detention in Guantánamo.
In January 2005, a federal district judge in D.C., Joyce Hens Green, ruled in In re Guantánamo Bay Detainee Cases, that the Guantánamo detainees enjoyed basic constitutional rights and that the Combatant Status Review Tribunals implemented by the military in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling to “adjudicate” the detainees’ enemy combatant designation. That decision is currently on appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court, captioned Boumediene v. Bush. Judge Green took particular note of the Kurnaz case, citing it as an example of the profound injustice of the military’s CSRT system. For example, she noted that the military’s charges against Murat – (1) that his friend in Germany, Selcuk Bilgin, had “engaged in a suicide bombing” and (2) that Murat had merely “associated with” a multi-million member Islamic missionary group in Pakistan – could not be squared with the most basic elements of fairness or due process because there was no evidence at all that Murat had any knowledge of, let alone that he participated in, any alleged wrongdoing. Later, the CSJ was able to demonstrate that Selcuk Bilgin was actually alive and could not have engaged in any suicide bombing and that the missionary group Murat traveled with is in no way involved with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
In addition, Judge Green cited no less than five statements in Murat’s classified file which was submitted under seal to counsel and the court, which demonstrated that U.S. officials themselves had concluded that Murat had no connections to the Taliban, al Qaeda or any other terrorist threat, and that the Germans had confirmed to the U.S. that he had no connections to al Qaeda in Germany. The Department of Defense insisted upon redacting as a national security secret, all of the statements in Judge Green’s opinion regarding Murat’s innocence. In July 2006, in response to the CSJ’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in the Southern District of New York, the government finally unclassified these portions of Judge Green’s decisions, as well as other exculpatory documents in the Kurnaz file.
Like all the detainees in Guantánamo, Murat was never given an opportunity to challenge his enemy combatant designation in a court of law. Nevertheless, in part because of revelations about his known innocence, and in part because the German government, after years of refusing to advocate in any way on Murat’s behalf, finally commenced negotiations for his release, Murat was finally released home to Germany in August 2006. He had spent five years in U.S. custody without being charged, or tried, for any wrongdoing.