At the age of 19, Murat Kurnaz vanished into America's shadow prison system in the war on terror. He was from Germany, traveling in Pakistan, and was picked up three months after 9/11. But there seemed to be ample evidence that Kurnaz was an innocent man with no connection to terrorism. The FBI thought so, U.S. intelligence thought so, and German intelligence agreed. But once he was picked up, Kurnaz found himself in a prison system that required no evidence and answered to no one.
The story Kurnaz told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley is a rare look inside that clandestine system of justice, where the government's own secret files reveal that an innocent man lost his liberty, his dignity, his identity, and ultimately five years of his life.
60 Minutes found Murat Kurnaz in Bremen, Germany, where he was born and raised. His parents emigrated there from Turkey. His father works in the Mercedes factory. Kurnaz wasn't particularly religious growing up, but in 2001 he was marrying a Turkish girl who was. And he decided to learn more about Islam.
"I didn't know how to pray. I didn't know anything," Kurnaz says. "So I had to study more about Islam so I could go to the mosque and pray."
In Bremen, he met Islamic missionaries who urged him to go to Pakistan for study. As he was planning the trip, 9/11 happened. He told 60 Minutes he was horrified by the attacks, and had never heard of al Qaeda. He decided to go ahead with his trip anyway.
"You went to Pakistan several weeks after 9/11," Pelley remarks. "Did you begin to think that that wasn't a great idea?"
"Today, I know it wasn't a great idea," Kurnaz says.
Kurnaz told 60 Minutes his story using the English that he learned from his American guards. If he seems a little distant, reserved, you'll understand why as his story unfolds. It begins in 2001, when he was at the end of that trip to Pakistan. He was headed to the airport to fly home to Germany when his bus was stopped at a routine checkpoint.
"They stopped the bus and because of my color, I'm much more different than Pakistani guys," says Kurnaz, who is lighter-skinned. "He looked into the bus and he knocked on my window."
"He" was a Pakistani cop who pulled Kurnaz off the bus. The reason Kurnaz was singled out may always be a mystery. But at the time, the U.S. was paying bounties for suspicious foreigners. Kurnaz, who'd been rambling across Pakistan with Islamic pilgrims, seemed to fit the bill. Kurnaz says that he was told that U.S. intelligence paid $3,000 for him. He ended up bound and shackled on an American military plane.
"I was sure soon as they would find out I'm not a terrorist, they will apologize for it and let me go back home," he says.
But the plane flew him out of Pakistan and to a U.S. base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was mixed with prisoners fresh off the battlefield. His new identity was "number 53." He was kept in an outdoor pen, in sub-freezing weather and interrogated daily.
"They asked me, 'Where is Osama bin Laden,' and if I am from al Qaeda or from Taliban. Questions like that. I told them, 'I don't know where is Osama bin Laden, I never saw him and I don't know anything about al Qaeda. I don't know what it is.' And I spent all my time in Pakistan," he says.
Asked what happened next, Kurnaz says, "I told them just they can call Germany to ask who I am and they can ask anybody in Germany who I am."
Back in Germany, Bremen police were investigating, and what they were hearing made matters worse: Kurnaz's worried mother told them her son had recently become more religious, had grown a beard and was attending a new mosque; schoolmates said that Kurnaz might have been headed to Afghanistan.
"It was just guessing, just fear, no more. But the fear turns into a fact," says attorney Bernhard Docke, who was hired by Kurnaz's mother.
He says there was no reason to suspect Kurnaz knew anything about al Qaeda. But this was weeks after 9/11 and some of the hijackers had been living in Hamburg. "And so close after 9/11, and close after Germany realized that 9/11 started with the Hamburg cell in Germany, everybody in the secret services got crazy," Docke says.