Our Very Own Axis of Evil in Guantánamo

A former prisoner describes the foul essence of the Bush presidency

If the deciders at the White House, the Justice Department, and the CIA who are responsible for war crimes ever face the equivalent of the Nuremberg trials—or at least an unsparing Congressional investigation—an essential witness against them will be Murat Kurnaz. His book, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo (Palgrave MacMillan), has just been published.

CBS's 60 Minutes, keeping Edward R. Murrow's legacy alive, provided an introduction to Kurnaz on March 30, with Scott Pelley detailing how, three months after 9/11, this German citizen "found himself in a [U.S.] prison system that required no evidence and answered to no one"—even though a secret government file eventually revealed "information from the FBI, German intelligence and even the U.S. military pointing to his innocence." Even then, he was kept in his cage.

The tortures inflicted on Murat Kurnaz—first in a CIA "black site" in Afghanistan, later at Guantánamo Bay—included "holding his head under water, administering electric shocks to the soles of his feet, and hanging him suspended from the ceiling of an aircraft hangar and kept alive by doctors." Kurnaz recalls that every five or six hours, he was pulled down, "and the doctor came. He looked into my eyes. He checked my heart and when he said, 'OK,' then they pulled me back up."

As I've pointed out here before, there has been no Congressional investigation, with subpoenas, of the war crimes committed by American doctors and psychologists in the prisons of Guantánamo, Iraq, and the CIA's "black sites" all over the world as they advised our torturers on how they could most effectively continue to practice their craft.

How did Murat Kurnaz become one of the thousands of victims—which include captured American citizens—of the unleashed "dark side" (to quote Dick Cheney) of our "war on terror"?

At 19, Kurnaz traveled to Pakistan to learn more about his Muslim faith by studying the Koran at various mosques. Three months after 9/11, on a bus to a Pakistani airport to return home, he was pulled over by a cop at a checkpoint. During that period, America was offering bounties in Pakistan and Afghanistan for alleged terrorism suspects, who were grabbed by the local police or militias and turned over to us. Kurnaz says he later found out from an American interrogator that U.S. taxpayers paid Pakistan $3,000 for him.

On a CIA plane, shackled and chained—"The only thing I could move was my head"—Kurnaz began his five-year journey into the hell of American justice. American torturers attended to him, first at a U.S. base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as "number 53," and then at the internationally notorious legal black hole at Guantánamo.

Kurnaz was one of the first of the "enemy combatants" at Guantánamo that Bush figured could be made to disappear without going to a judge. Kurnaz got the standard treatment: beatings, sleep deprivation, and special month-long spells of solitary confinement in a sealed cell without ventilation.

"It's dark inside, no lights," says the Gitmo alumnus. "And they can punish you in isolation with very strong air conditioners. They can turn it very, very cold or very hot."

The prisoner, who for years heard nothing at all from or about the world outside, was often chained in his cell to a bolt in the floor as he wondered whether his family—or anyone—knew he was there.

I doubt if John McCain will have time to read Five Years of My Life before November, but since he's called for the closing of Guantánamo because of the blight it casts throughout the globe on the reputation of this Land of the Free, I suggest that an aide show him a passage from page 157 to give him some ammunition the next time he urges his supporter in the Oval Office—the creator-in-chief of this Kafka-like penal colony—to close it down: "Nothing in the camp is . . . the way the U.S. Army says it is and as it has been reported, filmed and photographed by journalists.There are cages and interrogation rooms specifically constructed for the media. In media reports, you often see things on the bunks that I never once had in Guantánamo: a backgammon board, for example, or books or a bar of chocolate." (Emphasis added.)

But we've been told about—and I have reported on—the hunger strikes by prisoners. Kurnaz stayed on one for 20 days, the last two or three without water. When a uniformed guard with the word "Doctor" on a badge on his chest asked him if he finally would eat, Kurnaz declined. Then, as he later reported: "They gagged me and shoved a tube up my nose, stopping several times because the tube filled with blood." After being fed, as it were, Kurnaz was put on a stretcher and was beaten while being interrogated. For days after, weak and then feverish, he couldn't get up, lost consciousness, and wound up in a medical ward, his hands and feet in chains.

The feeding tubes were removed: "I could sit up. I could eat. I had survived. I could even hear music. The guards were listening to rock music."

One might say that Hitler's guards were somewhat more refined in their tastes: After a hard day at the concentration camp, they would relax by listening to Mozart and Beethoven.

Next week: How Murat Kurnaz was finally able to leave Guantánamo after getting a civilian lawyer, Baher Azmy, a professor of constitutional law at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, who proved from the Defense Department's own records that most of the "worst of the worst" (as Donald Rumsfeld once described the Guantánamo inmates) had no connection with Al Qaeda or any of the world's other terrorist organizations.

While working on Kurnaz's defense, Azmy discovered that his client—who, he says, looked as though he'd been "shipwrecked" when he first saw him—had been the subject of a secret report that U.S. military intelligence had written six months after Kurnaz had been caged in Guantánamo: "Criminal Investigation Task Force has no definite link or evidence of detainee having an association with al-Qaeda or making any specific threat toward the U.S." And German intelligence reported to their superiors that "USA considers Murat Kurnaz's innocence to be proven. He is to be released in approximately six to eight weeks."

That was in 2002. Kurnaz wasn't let go for another three and a half years. Aren't you proud to be an American?

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