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Gitmo case rankles Germany

By Jeffrey Fleishman

01/27/07 "
Los Angeles Times" -- -- BERLIN -- A tale of torture and imprisonment told by a man with a scratchy voice and a beard flowing to his waist has shaken the German parliament and sparked an intelligence agency scandal that has engulfed Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The case of spies and leaked documents has pointed up the injustices that can arise in the fight against terrorism. It has revealed to this nation, a frequent critic of Washington's treatment of suspected militants, that its own officials may have let an innocent German resident languish for years in a Guantanamo, Cuba, prison cell.

The case began in 2001 when Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turk, was suspected of being a militant. He was detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where, he says, American interrogators hung him from chains. He was transferred to Guantanamo and held until last August, when he was released. He was never charged with a crime.

Intelligence documents cited by German media suggest Kurnaz could have been freed years earlier.

The files indicate that the CIA offered to release Kurnaz and return him to Germany in 2002. One German intelligence operative noted that the 24-year-old shipbuilder might be persuaded to turn informer and infiltrate radical Islamic networks. At the time Kurnaz's fate was being decided, Steinmeier oversaw German spy agencies as chief of staff to then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Harrowing testimony

Documents being examined by a special committee of parliament allege that Steinmeier and August Hanning, the former foreign intelligence director, rejected the U.S. offer. It is unclear why the Germans apparently balked, but American officials have said in recent months that foreign nationals detained in Guantanamo often are not freed because their home countries fear they may be extremists and don't want them back.

The chance to have Kurnaz released "should have been taken," said lawmaker Max Stadler, a member of the special committee.

Steinmeier, who became Chancellor Angela Merkel's foreign minister in 2005, has denied the U.S. planned to send Kurnaz to Germany.

"I am not aware of ... such an official offer," he said this week. He is expected to testify before the special committee in March.

The documents suggest there were at least informal discussions between U.S. and German intelligence officials on releasing Kurnaz. Some lawmakers and commentators have blamed Steinmeier for ignoring Kurnaz's predicament because the young man, although born and raised in Germany, has retained his Turkish citizenship.

"To ask why we should bother about this Turk at all is inhuman," said Siegfried Kauder, chairman of the special committee. "After all, Kurnaz grew up in Germany. And if the government thought they shouldn't be concerned, they should have informed Kurnaz's lawyer so that he'd be able to seek help elsewhere."

Kurnaz had been a media curiosity to many lawmakers until last week when, his unruly red beard splayed across his chest, he testified before the committee. He said he was beaten by American and German interrogators, forced to sleep naked on the floor and held in an isolation cell. Lawmakers described the testimony as harrowing and credible.

"We need to ask ourselves how it could happen that we moved away from the state of justice after 9/11," Cem Ozdemir, a German representative to the European Union, said.

The case is not the only spy scandal damaging the reputation of the former Schroeder government, which opposed the Iraq war and the CIA's handling of suspected militants. Recent disclosures suggest a close intelligence relationship between the U.S. and Germany that included collaborating on another detained German resident and providing U.S. forces with potential military targets in Baghdad during the invasion in 2003.

`Cold-hearted'

These disclosures, along with Germany's role as a flyover country for U.S. planes transporting suspected terrorists, have angered the public. Writing in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper Thursday, journalist Andreas Foerster said the actions of Steinmeier and former intelligence officials in the Kurnaz case were "cold-hearted and anti-constitutional."

Merkel so far has supported Steinmeier, who has emerged as a key negotiator in Middle East peace efforts and the standoff over Iran's uranium enrichment. If Steinmeier is forced to resign, Germany's fragile coalition government will be in crisis just as the country has assumed the European Union's rotating presidency.

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