Our latest edition is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Prison Guards and Politicians

The next German president once blocked the release and return of an innocent Guantanamo Bay detainee.

A campaign ad for Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2009. Cyril Wermers / Flickr

Barack Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay “detention camp” during his first presidential campaign, but failed to deliver when in office. Today, forty-one people are still officially held captive. At its beginning, the camp in the east of the Cuban island, opened in 2002, was in a process of substantial expansion. Still, in its first year, George W. Bush’s administration did release a small number of captives.

Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born and raised in the German city of Bremen, could have been among them. Some months after January 2002, when Kurnaz was taken to Guantanamo, it was clear to intelligence operatives from both the United States and Germany that they were dealing with an innocent man.

However, in autumn 2002, instead of pushing for his release, the German government initiated measures to ban Kurnaz from reentering the country. Chair of the decisive meeting was Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then head of the chancellery under Gerhard Schröder and until last month the country’s foreign minister. For four more years Kurnaz had to remain in Guantanamo, where he experienced, in his own words, “beatings, endless solitary confinement, freezing temperatures and extreme heat, days of forced sleeplessness,” among other abuses.

This Sunday, Frank-Walter Steinmeier will reach the peak of his political career. The German governing parties — Merkel’s conservative CDU, its conservative “sister party” CSU, and Steinmeier’s Social Democrats — agreed to nominate him to be the next president. Even though the federal president is the head of state, the officeholder is not popularly elected. Instead, a special parliamentary body, the Federal Convention, chooses the winning candidate. Accordingly, the German president has mainly a representative role, with only minor powers.

Certainly, though, the president is important to the German public. Not only does the officeholder represent the country; beyond the day-to-day routine of party politics, the president should both initiate and oversee fundamental debates in society. A famous example is the 2010 statement by former president Christian Wulff that “Islam belongs to Germany” — a message which was not repeated by the outgoing head of state, Joachim Gauck.

In the words of the German constitutional court, the president should have a “geistig-moralische Wirkung,” perhaps best translated as “intellectual-moral effect.” Steinmeier’s actions towards Murat Kurnaz are in stark contrast to such a setting of ethical standards.

Who Is Frank-Walter Steinmeier?

At the age of nineteen, Frank-Walter Steinmeier became a member of the Social Democratic Party. This eldest son of a working-class family has made a remarkable career. A doctor of law, Steinmeier became a civil servant in Lower Saxony, where Gerhard Schröder served as prime minister in the 1990s. Quickly, Steinmeier became Schröder’s closest ally and followed his mentor to national politics.

When Schröder became chancellor of a red-green government in 1998, Steinmeier immediately held key positions and was soon head of the chancellery. Together with the chancellor, Steinmeier was part of the right-wing “Third Way” forces within the SPD, chiefly responsible for the Agenda 2010 welfare state cuts.

The Agenda 2010, among others, symbolized the German Social Democrats’ turn to the right, giving rise to the opposition Die Linke. In 2005, Schröder was voted out of office, though by a surprisingly close margin. The SPD became junior partner of Merkel’s CDU and Steinmeier was appointed foreign minister.

Four years later, as the Social Democrats’ chancellor candidate, he only achieved 23 percent of the vote, his party’s worst result at national parliamentary elections in the post–World War II era. Nevertheless, Steinmeier is currently the most popular politician in Germany. His high approval rankings also come from his actions in international politics, where his representation of “German” interests as foreign minister was thought to stand above the daily conflicts of domestic politics.

As foreign minister, Steinmeier made some moves that contradict his usually diplomatic style. He called for the removal of US nuclear bombs from German territory and denounced NATO maneuvers at its “eastern border” as ”saber-rattling” against Russia. He described Donald Trump as a “preacher of hate” and refrained from congratulating him on his election.

In line with the “rules” of diplomacy, though, in the context of the “refugee crisis” and the EU deal with Turkey, Steinmeier was critical of a Bundestag resolution that condemned the genocide against the Armenians.

As a private man, he is a big fan of the football team Schalke 04, sponsored by Gazprom, the majority owner of the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream, for which former chancellor Schröder currently works. In 2010, when his wife fell critically ill, Steinmeier temporarily left the political stage and donated a kidney to her.

If Steinmeier serves two full consecutive terms as president, he will remain Germany’s head of state until 2027. Given the nature of the office, Steinmeier’s popularity is likely to remain fairly stable over this period.

In many years of public service, no political affair, major or minor, has seriously curtailed his political standing. This also holds true for his handling of the “case” of Murat Kurnaz.

Who Is Murat Kurnaz?

Also at the age of nineteen, in October 2001, Murat Kurnaz traveled to Pakistan, unaware that he would not return to Germany for almost five years.

Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen, had always lived in Bremen, where he was a shipbuilder’s apprentice. In Pakistan, he wanted to study his religion at an Islamic school, before his Turkish wife moved to Germany.

A few weeks later, on his way to the airport to head to Germany, he was arrested by the Pakistani police and transferred to the US Army. He was later told that a $3,000 reward was offered for the capture of terrorist suspects, and someone had likely fingered him as a terrorist in order to collect the bounty.

First, Kurnaz was brought to Kandahar in the south of Afghanistan, where the US military fought the Taliban. Upon arrival, he realized that he was close to a battle scene as he could hear the sound of incoming rockets.

At first, Kurnaz was still hopeful that a proper investigation would reveal his innocence and end his ordeal.

However, no one was interested in the truth: his “interrogations” consisted of beatings, torture, and accusations of being a terrorist. Acts of torture against Kurnaz included electric shocks, “water treatment” and hanging him up by his arms for days.

In January 2002, Kurnaz was taken to Guantanamo, where he lived in different cages for the next four and a half years. Only in October 2004 was he allowed to speak to a lawyer. Similar to Kandahar, punches and kicks would be the standard treatment Kurnaz received in Guantanamo. “I almost don’t count them anymore as torture, but as everyday life,” he stated in an interview.

These and other acts of violence, often in combination with pepper spray, followed arbitrary interpretations of “misbehavior.” Further human rights violations included torture through extensive sleep deprivation, as well as extreme heat, extreme cold, or lack of oxygen in isolation chambers. The regular interrogations also included physical and psychological violence and always revolved around the same issues.

Kurnaz avoided the camp doctors after the healthy body parts of some captives, such as fingers or teeth, were amputated. Interviewed for the documentary 5 Jahre Leben about his experiences in Guantanamo he commented that “[t]he reality is so brutal that you can barely show it.”

After Kurnaz regained his freedom in 2006, the German public soon learned how its government abstained from saving the Turkish citizen in previous years, despite information about his innocence

In September 2002, German agents, both from the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service) and from the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution), traveled to Guantanamo to interrogate Kurnaz. Reported insights included statements that Kurnaz was “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and did not pose a security risk, “with a probability bordering on certainty.”

According to them, Kurnaz did not travel to Pakistan to fight together with the Taliban and he did not have contacts to them or to Al Qaeda. “The US regards the innocence of Murat Kurnaz as proved. He is to be released in about six to eight weeks.”

However, at a meeting of major domestic security officials (the Präsidentenrunde) on October 29, 2002, the German government decided against following up on the United States’s statements about Kurnaz’s innocence to release him. The chair of this body was the head of the chancellery, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. For four more years, Kurnaz had to stay in what Amnesty International once called “the gulag of our time.”

Although the participants of the Präsidentenrunde were among the few individuals outside of the United States who could have made a difference in Kurnaz’s fate, Steinmeier and his colleagues decided not to push for his return. They actually decided to make his life more difficult by actively taking measures to ban Kurnaz from returning to Germany in case of a release.

In the following years, a low-profile political and legal skirmish over the validity of Kurnaz’s residence permit evolved. (Unsurprisingly, he had not applied for its extension while being held captive in Guantanamo.) Steinmeier has not been responsible for the human rights violations against Kurnaz in the first place, but he shares political responsibility for their continuation.

Even when torture in Guantanamo already made worldwide headlines, many within the SPD-led government refrained from working on Kurnaz’s return. It was an intervention of the new chancellor Angela Merkel which preceded his release in August 2006, underlining the possibility of an alternative approach to the one of the previous German government.

In the New York Times, Kurnaz describes his flight home:

I left Guantánamo Bay much as I had arrived almost five years earlier — shackled hand-to-waist, waist-to-ankles, and ankles to a bolt on the airplane floor. My ears and eyes were goggled, my head hooded, and even though I was the only detainee on the flight this time, I was drugged and guarded by at least 10 soldiers.

A Most Wanted Man

“It has surprised me that he has such a successful career despite everything that he has to take responsibility for,” said Kurnaz in December 2008, when Steinmeier was the SPD’s candidate for chancellor. Back then, the attention of the German media had already drifted away from Kurnaz’s case.

It has, however, drawn the attention of British spy novelist John le Carré, who met Murat Kurnaz soon after his release. The author used parts of Kurnaz’s story in A Most Wanted Man, a novel set in Hamburg, the city where Mohamed Atta planned the September 11 attacks.

The novel revolves around the physically and mentally destroyed Issa, a Russian-Chechen refugee, who enters Germany illegally. There, he becomes a target of secret services. Ultimately, US forces kidnap him on German soil, together with Dr Abdullah, a religious scholar and philanthropist suspected of financing terrorism — actions tolerated by German intelligence.

After the hijacking, a US agent lectures Bachmann, a critical German agent played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the book’s movie adaption, on extraordinary rendition. The German only responds by saying, “He’s innocent.” “Bullshit,” his counterpart answers. “Issa Karpov was 100 percent complicit, and a couple of weeks from now, if he lasts that long, he’ll admit it.”

However, it is not Issa, but another character of the book that comes closest to Kurnaz — Melik. Like Kurnaz, he is a young Turkish citizen who grew up in Germany, is strong and confident, and is interested in martial arts.

At the beginning of A Most Wanted Man, Melik hosts the stranger Issa unwillingly, due to the pressure from Leyla, his hospitable mother. While Issa and Dr Abdullah are kidnapped, Melik and Leyla attend a wedding in Turkey. For hosting the “terrorist” Issa, both will be detained in Turkey, and their German residence permit is revoked.

A Delicate Truth

Despite this attention, Steinmeier’s political ambitions seemingly have not been constrained by the Kurnaz case. In early 2007, though, it seemed like it might.

Parliamentary committees and the mass media debated matters such as the involvement of German soldiers in torturing Kurnaz in Kandahar, his alleged ties to terrorists, the efforts of the previous Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer on the case, and to what degree the government of Turkey (Kurnaz’s country of citizenship) demanded his release.

The crucial issue, however, was Steinmeier’s responsibility for the continuation of Kurnaz’s captivity. Steinmeier’s defense was ambivalent. On the one hand, he argued that there was no official offer of the United States to take Kurnaz back. “The long history of suffering of Mr Kurnaz in Guantanamo is shocking. That does not leave me unmoved.”

On the other hand, he made it clear that he “would not make a different decision today,” saying, “You only have to imagine what would happen if there had been an attack, and afterwards it turned out that we could have prevented it.”

The response of a European Parliament committee was very different. On January 30, 2007, it reported that “according to confidential institutional information, the German Government did not accept the US offer, made in 2002, to release Murat Kurnaz from Guantánamo,” and “that on many occasions since 2002, Murat Kurnaz’s lawyer was told by the German government that it was impossible to open negotiations with the US government on his release because Murat Kurnaz was a Turkish citizen.”

According to the European Parliament committee, “all investigations concluded, as early as the end of October 2002, that Murat Kurnaz posed no terrorist threat.” Ultimately, parts of this proposal for a resolution of the European Parliament were watered down. On February 14, 2007, the European Parliament adopted a “resolution on the alleged use of European countries by the CIA for the transportation and illegal detention of prisoners.” The “US offer, made in 2002, to release Murat Kurnaz” became “a prospect” which “was not accepted by the German authorities.”

The German Social Democrats overwhelmingly backed their foreign minister. One of them was Otto Schilly, a law-and-order politician and minister of the interior in 2002. Many other politicians were far more critical of the actions of the German government: some demanded an apology, others also the resignation of Steinmeier.

Beyond party politics, the then-secretary general of Amnesty International in Germany, Barbara Lochbihler, and the then-United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, stressed the “co-responsibility” of the German government for Kurnaz’s fate. Ultimately, Steinmeier survived as foreign minister.

Steinmeier’s Example

The record of recent German presidents is considerably less than stellar. In 2010 President Horst Köhler, a former director of the International Monetary Fund, resigned after public criticism of his call to link German “military commitment” to “interests” such as “free trade routes.” His resignation came as a surprise. Some observers hint that Merkel’s pressure to sign the European Stability Mechanism instantly, without time to examine its constitutionality, was Köhler’s actual motive for resigning. His successor Wulff quit after less than two years in office, after allegations of corruption and threats to journalists not to publish related stories.

The overwhelming opinion among German journalists is that Steinmeier will set a different, better example. As a commentator of Der Spiegel asks and answers: “What is right? What is wrong? The president needs to offer guidance, he needs to be a role model. Steinmeier can do that.”

A broad public discussion over whether Steinmeier’s actions towards Kurnaz correspond to the “role model” function of his office is currently missing from German political debate. Not only Steinmeier and his Social Democrats have kept silent on the issue. For Angela Merkel, Steinmeier’s nomination is the “decision of reason.” After his selection started to make media headlines on November 14, Kurnaz demanded an apology from Germany’s likely next president. When asked about such a move, Martin Schäfer, spokesperson of the foreign ministry, responded that “the events surrounding Mister Kurnaz date back many years.”

After this short November episode, public remembrance of the ordeal of Murat Kurnaz quickly faded away. But despite the likely huge majority in the Federal Convention that Steinmeier will receive on Sunday, electing him as the twelfth president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germans would do well to continue to raise the question.