The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)
Chapter 9. The innocence of Murat Kurnaz
I am sitting in an upstairs hotel bedroom in Bremen, north Germany, overlooking a school athletics track. The year is 2006. Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish-German, born, brought up and educated in Bremen, has just been released after five years of incarceration in Guantánamo. Before Guantánamo, he was arrested in Pakistan, sold to the Americans for three thousand dollars, held for two months in a US torture centre in Kandahar, electrocuted, beaten senseless, waterboarded and hung from a hook until, for all his great physical strength, he nearly died. However, by the time he had been held in Guantánamo for a year, both his American and German interrogators - two from the BND and one from Germany’s domestic security service - had concluded that he was harmless, naive and no risk to German, American or Israeli interests.
Yet here is a paradox that I cannot begin to reconcile, explain, let alone judge. At the time that I made Kurnaz’s acquaintance, I had no idea that Dr Hanning, my fellow guest at the Ambassador’s table in Bonn, and my host at Pullach, had played any part in Kurnaz’s destiny, let alone a significant one. Now I was hearing that, only weeks previously at a meeting of Germany’s top civil servants and heads of intelligence, Hanning, as Präsident of the BND, had voted, in apparent defiance of the advice given by members of his own Service, against Kurnaz’s return. If Kurnaz should go anywhere, then back to Turkey where he belonged. And more tortuously: that Kurnaz could not be trusted not to have been a terrorist in the past, or not to become one in the future: thus, apparently, Hanning.
In 2004, while Kurnaz was still imprisoned in Guantánamo, the police and security services of the state of Bremen announced that since Kurnaz had failed to renew his permit of residence, which in the meantime had expired - a pardonable omission, you might suppose, given the shortage of pen, ink, postage stamps and writing paper in the cages of Guantánamo - he was henceforth banished from his mother’s home.
Although a court of law briskly overturned Bremen’s edict, Hanning has not to this day publicly altered his position.
But if I think myself back sixty-odd years to the Cold War days when, from a much humbler position, I too was invited to pass judgement on people who for better or worse fell into certain categories - former communist sympathizers, suspected fellow-travellers, secret Party card holders and the rest - I find myself caught in the same impossible bind. Superficially, the young Kurnaz on paper ticked a lot of boxes. In Bremen he had attended a mosque known to propagate radicalism. Before setting out for Pakistan he had sprouted a beard and urged greater Koranic observance on his parents. When he did set out, he did so secretly, without telling his parents - not a good start. His mother was so alarmed that she took herself to the police, protesting that her son had been radicalized in the Abu Bakr mosque, was reading jihadist literature and intended to fight jihad in Chechnya or Pakistan. Other Bremen Turks, for whatever motives, came forward with similar tales. As well they might. Suspicion, despair and mutual recrimination were tearing their community apart. Had not the entire plot against the Twin Towers been hatched by fellow Muslims just up the road in Hamburg? For his part, Kurnaz has consistently maintained that his only purpose in travelling to Pakistan was to advance his Muslim education. That none of the ticked boxes produced a terrorist is a matter of history. Kurnaz committed no crime, and suffered unspeakably for his innocence. But take me back to those days, confront me with the same ticked boxes and a similar climate of fear, and I cannot imagine myself rushing to Kurnaz’s defence.
Seated comfortably in the hotel room in Bremen, sipping coffee, I ask Kurnaz how he managed to communicate with his fellow inmates in adjoining punishment cells, despite the fact that all such communication was forbidden on pain of summary beatings and deprivals, to which Kurnaz was particularly prone on account of both his dogged disposition and huge bulk, which must have fitted poorly into a cage where he could neither sit nor stand for twenty-three hours of each day.
You had to be careful, he says, after the pause for thought that I am getting used to. Not just of the guards, but of other prisoners. You never asked anyone why they were there. You never asked them whether they were Al Qaeda. But when you’re squatting night and day a couple of feet away from another prisoner, it was only natural that sooner or later you try to make contact.
There was first the minuscule hand basin, but that was for the more general sort of contact. At an agreed hour - he was not willing to say how the hour was agreed, since many of his fellow enemy combatants were still incarcerated* - they would refrain from using their hand basins and whisper down the plug hole. You couldn’t hear actual words, but the collective rumble that came back gave a sense of belonging.
Then there was the polystyrene soup cup that was put in your food-trap with a chunk of old bread beside it. You drank the soup, then you broke a thumbnail-sized piece off the lip of the cup and hoped the guard wouldn’t make anything of it. Then with your fingernail, which you had let grow for the purpose, you made an indentation in Arabic from the Koran. You kept back a bit of your bread, chewed it into a pellet and let it harden. You pulled a thread out of your jump suit, bound one end of the thread round the pellet of bread, and the other round the piece of polystyrene. Using the pellet as a weight, you tossed it through the bars to your neighbour, who then drew the cotton thread and the piece of polystyrene into his cage.
And, in due course, you’d get a letter back.
For an innocent man who even by the elusive legal standards of Guantánamo is held to have been wrongfully imprisoned for five years and is now at last to be sent home, it was only right and proper that Kurnaz should be awarded his own dedicated aeroplane to transport him from Guantánamo to Ramstein Air Base in Germany on his release. For the journey, he was provided with clean underclothes, a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt. For his further comfort, ten US soldiers were detailed to watch over him on the flight, and when he was handed over to the German reception party, the American officer in command offered his German opposite number a less weighty, more convenient pair of handcuffs for Kurnaz’s onward journey, to which the German officer, to his eternal glory, replied:
‘He has committed no crime. Here in Germany he is a free man.’
This was not, however, August Hanning’s view.
In 2002, Hanning had denounced Kurnaz as a menace to German security. Since then, his reasons for overriding the German and American interrogators had not to my knowledge been explained. Nevertheless, five years later, in 2007, speaking now in his capacity as intelligence supremo in the Ministry of the Interior, Hanning not only repeated his opposition to Kurnaz’s residence in Germany - an active issue, given that Kurnaz was by now back on German soil - but castigated the BND interrogators, who had formerly been under his direct command and had declared Kurnaz harmless, for exceeding their competence.
And when I myself emerged, if belatedly, as a supporter of Kurnaz’s cause, Hanning, whom I continue to hold in high regard, gave me a friendly warning that my sympathy was misplaced, but offered no reason. And since no such reason has ever come to public light, or to the knowledge of Kurnaz’s respected lawyer, I felt unable to follow his advice. So was there perhaps a higher cause? I almost want to believe so. Was the demonization of Kurnaz a political necessity of some sort? Was Hanning, whom I know as an honourable man, falling on his sword?
Not long ago, Kurnaz came to England to promote the book he had written about his experiences.* It had been well received in Germany and translated into a number of languages. I had given it an enthusiastic endorsement. Before beginning his tour, he spent time with us in Hampstead, where at the suggestion of Philippe Sands QC, the human rights lawyer, he was invited without notice to speak to the pupils of University College School. He accepted, and spoke as he always speaks: simply and carefully, in the fluent English he taught himself in Guantánamo, not least at the hands of his inquisitors. To a packed audience of mixed students of different beliefs or none, he said that his Muslim faith alone had enabled him to survive. He refused to blame his guards or his torturers. As usual, he made no mention of Hanning or any other German official or politician who had militated against his return. He explained how, on his release, he had given his jailers his home address in Germany for the day when the burden of what they had done became too heavy for them. Only when he is describing his obligation to the fellow prisoners he has left behind does he betray emotion. He will never be silent, he says, for as long as there is one man left in Guantánamo. When he had finished, there was such a rush to shake his hand that an orderly queue had to be formed.
In my novel A Most Wanted Man there is a German-born Turkish man of Murat’s age, religion and background. He is called Melik, and he pays a similar price for sins he did not commit. In his bulk, speech and manner he bears a strong resemblance to Murat Kurnaz.