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'Taliban from Bremen'

Diana Fong, Bremen, GermanyJuly 24, 2013

Murat Kurnaz was listening closely when President Obama recently reiterated his promise to close the US prison in Guantanamo Bay. The ex-Guantanamo inmate wants to see actions follow words.

Murat Kurnaz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The stigma of being a former Guantanamo inmate still brands Murat Kurnaz today. Once dubbed by the German tabloids as the "Taliban from Bremen," the German-born Turk has a unique perspective on what it's like to be judged unfairly.

"I have not been in any ordinary prison. I have been in Guantanamo," Kurnaz told DW at a Turkish teahouse in the northern German port city of Bremen.

The allegations that Kurnaz had abetted terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 turned out to be unfounded, but the Taliban label stuck. Even his former appearance - a huge mane of reddish-brown hair and long-flowing red beard - had tainted the public perception of him.

The Murat Kurnaz at the teahouse has a crew cut, a bit of beard stubble and wears a tight T-shirt that accentuates his enormous biceps from regular workouts at the gym. He apologizes for arriving a half-hour late and appears guarded. But after the first cup of tea, he warms up and is eager to speak the colloquial English he learned in the US prison camp.

An old hand with the media

Kurnaz is well-practiced at speaking to the press and, at 31, possesses the serenity and wisdom of a man way beyond his years. He says he has given "thousands" of interviews, but patiently replies to questions he's been asked many times before.

DW: Why did you cut off that beard?

Kurnaz: Lots of small reasons. It wasn't a big deal. I just decided to cut it.

DW: You look good. Do you have any health problems from the torture?

Kurnaz: I have some small injuries, but I can't say if this is from Guantanamo or martial arts training. It's nothing important.

DW: How are you psychologically?

Kurnaz: I do not have any psychological problems, but this does not mean that everyone who is released from Guantanamo is well.

Survivor's guilt

"You could see from the beginning that he is an active human being, not destroyed by torture," said Kurnaz' defense attorney Bernhard Docke.

Kurnaz had been in the wrong place at the wrong time after 9/11.

Murat Kurnaz at the beginning of a session of a German parliamentary investigation committee in Berlin on Jan. 17, 2007 (Photo: Jan Bauer)
This image of Kurnaz did not help the public perception of himImage: AP

At 19 he went on a pilgrimage to Pakistan to learn more about his Muslim faith. Bounty hunters there handed him over to the Americans for $3,000. He was moved to a US prison camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was subjected to electric shocks and water-boarding, a form of torture that simulates drowning, before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the US camp for terror suspects, he was beaten, shackled and confined to a solitary cell under extreme conditions.

Kurnaz' first wife divorced him during his incarceration, but he remarried and is now the devoted father of two little girls. His notoriety made finding steady employment difficult. He has been doing odd jobs, teaching martial arts and working with troubled teenagers. In the past few months, he has also been promoting the film "5 Jahre Leben" ("5 Years") based on his autobiography about the five years spent in US captivity.

"He came back to a regular normal life, and at the same time he never forgot what was going on at Guantanamo. He's got a kind of survivor's guilt, that feeling of responsibility for those he left behind," added Docke.

Besides press interviews and publicity tours, Kurnaz goes on speaking engagements in Germany and abroad on behalf of human rights groups.

"I'm trying to support all kinds of human rights organizations, because I know what they did for me when I was in Guantanamo. There are - the number at Amnesty International is 22 - secret prisons where people are getting tortured around the world. Guantanamo is just one of those which got famous," he said.

Guantanamo hunger strikes

As an inmate, Kurnaz had also taken part in an earlier hunger strike to protest human rights violations in Guantanamo. The current strike, now in its fifth month, shows signs of abating, though the force-feeding continues during this holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown.

Kurnaz used to be in a similar predicament to many of the 166 remaining inmates currently held in Guantanamo. More than half have been cleared for release but remain in limbo since their home countries do not offer the security guarantees that the US requires for letting them go.

A scene from the film "Five Years," in which prison guards drag a prisoner across a compound
Kurnaz' story became the film "Five Years"Image: Zorro Film

The US had no evidence against Kurnaz and had been prepared to release him as early as 2002, but neither Germany nor Turkey had wanted to take responsibility for him, so he languished for another four years in prison.

Due to an old German nationality law based on ethnicity, Kurnaz is a Turkish citizen in spite of being born and bred in Bremen.

It wasn't until Germany's present chancellor, Angela Merkel, was elected that Kurnaz got out of Guantanamo. Merkel had personally negotiated Kurnaz' release with then US President George W. Bush two months after becoming chancellor.

'Actions speak louder than words'

This past May, US President Barack Obama renewed his election promise to shut down Guantanamo when the hunger strike reached a critical point, a pledge he repeated on a state visit to Berlin in June.

Kurnaz believes that the smaller number of truly dangerous terrorists in Cuba could be transferred to a maximum high security prison on the US mainland and the rest could go home or to a third nation.

"If Europe takes some of them, it would make things easier," he said.

But he does not believe the political will to close Guantanamo is there. It's what a man does, not what he says that counts, according to Kurnaz.

"Obama said he wanted to close Guantanamo before the elections. Now five years later, he still does not close it. If he wanted to, he could do it," he said.