Guantánamo holds family at bay
Mother, lawyer, try to learn more about Kurnaz, one of an estimated 20 European detainees at Camp X-Ray.
BREMEN, GERMANY — The impersonal white postcards bearing the return address "Camp X-Ray" stopped arriving more than a year ago.
Rabiye Kurnaz took little comfort from the short, vague messages she received from her son, who has been a detainee at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay for nearly two years, but they let her know he was alive. Since then, Mrs. Kurnaz has all but given up trying to contact Murat or understand why he's being held.
"My youngest son often asks, 'What is he doing there, mama?' " says Rabiye Kurnaz. "And I have to answer: 'I don't know.' "
Neither do Mr. Kurnaz's friends, his lawyer, nor German investigators. Since January 2002, Kurnaz, who just turned 22, has been one of more than 600 prisoners held in legal limbo. A German resident alien, born and raised in western Germany, yet holding Turkish citizenship, is one of an estimated 20 Europeans at Guantánamo Bay.
Their detention has been a flashpoint in the transatlantic relationship virtually since the camp's inception. Senior diplomats and judges, as well as human rights groups, have not minced their words in criticizing both the camp and treatment of prisoners.
Last fall, the European Parliament took the Bush administration to task for denying prisoners access to legal review.
"Even the worst criminals must have the right to a fair trial," said Graham Watson, who heads the liberal democrat group in the parliament.
In November, the US Supreme Court agreed to review a case brought on behalf of 16 Guantánamo Bay defendants challenging the Bush administration's right to hold them without due process. In the coming weeks, Kurnaz's lawyer, Bernhard Docke, will decide whether to add his client's name to the list of prisoners who have filed suit.
The Court's decision has already produced some results, say lawyers for the detainees. Since November, 60 prisoners have been freed, according to the Pentagon, which says the releases are simply part of an ongoing process. By comparison, 44 were released between October 2002 and July 2003.
Among the recent releases were five British prisoners, two of whom are named in the suit before the Supreme Court. The Spanish, Danish, and Russian governments have also lobbied successfully for the release of their citizens.
But for the past two years, Mr. Docke, Kurnaz's slight, bespectacled human rights lawyer, has been able to do little more than gather information on his client in 10 thick binders.
"I'm in an absurd situation," says Docke, sitting in his airy, bright Bremen office. "I don't know the charges, my client, or whom to sue. It's something between Kafka and Orwell."
As perplexing is Kurnaz's path from well-adjusted teen to "Detainee JJJFA."
The eldest of four children, he was spoiled by his mother and father, who live in a simple, three-level brick home not far from the DaimlerChrysler plant where his father works.
He fitted seamlessly into the multicultural landscape of the city, whose shipyards and car plants attracted thousands of Turkish "guest workers" invited by the German government to work in the 1960s and 1970s. The city had many sons like Murat, who mixed Friday prayers at the mosque with Saturday night discos and German girlfriends.
Together with his friend Selcuk Bilgin, he developed a liking for dogs and lifting weights at the local gym.
"It helped his self-confidence," says Fuat Avsar, the gym owner who became a sort of big brother to Kurnaz. "Then, a few months before the World Trade Center attacks, things changed."
The 19-year-old stopped attending the family mosque, opting instead for a Moroccan mosque that was not on the radar screen of local law enforcement until Kurnaz's capture. Since then, the Abu Bakr Mosque has been watched by agents from Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Prosecutors launched an investigation of an Imam at the mosque following Kurnaz's capture, suspecting him of pushing young Muslims into attending militant Koranic schools in Pakistan. The investigation was eventually called off, but the mosque remains under observation.
A German investigator interviewed in 2002 about Kurnaz said it was at Abu Bakr that Kurnaz found the "true Islam" he was looking for. He grew a beard and began selling videotapes at his gym, documenting Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslim women and children during the Bosnian War.
"This happened in less than a few weeks," says Mr. Avsar, who told Kurnaz he wasn't allowed in the gym anymore. "Then, suddenly, he was gone."
On Oct. 3, 2001, Rabiye Kurnaz woke up to find her son's bed empty. Already wary of the changes in her son, she remembered him saying he wanted to travel to Pakistan to "see and live the Koran," and began to worry. A call to Bilgin's wife confirmed her fears: Bilgin and Kurnaz were on their way to Karachi.
Border guards stopped Bilgin at Frankfurt airport because of a warrant for an unpaid fine. Kurnaz went on without him.
Rabiye Kurnaz received a phone call from her son in November, saying he was planning on extending his trip one month. The next correspondence was from a prison camp in Afghanistan, where he was being held by US forces.
German investigators familiar with the case said Kurnaz was going from madrassah to madrassah in Pakistan before being arrested and turned over to the Americans somewhere near the Karachi airport in late November. They doubt, however, that he ever made it to Afghanistan, much less get involved in any fighting, according to the investigator, who did not want to be named.
Since the two postcards, Rabiye Kurnaz has received nothing more from her son. German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer sent an apologetic note two years ago that his hands were tied, because Kurnaz is a citizen of Turkey. The Foreign Ministry in Ankara told Rabiye Kurnaz in February that they would begin lobbying on his behalf, two years after she had begun bombarding them with e-mails and letters.
After the US government's release of the British prisoners two weeks ago, Rabiye half-hoped Murat would be next. She began cleaning up his room, now filled with bicycles and storage boxes, and packed a suitcase in case she needed to travel. Kurnaz wasn't released. His younger brother has since eaten the chocolates she had bought for him. Rabiye Kurnaz remains resolute.
"I'm definitely hopeful that he'll come home," says Kurnaz. "I just don't know when, and in what state."