British national Moazzam Begg was a prisoner of the United States for over three years, first at Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, and then at Guantanamo Bay. He was also one of the first six men designated as eligible to be tried by military commissions. He was abruptly released two years ago, and the British authorities cleared him of any involvement in terrorism related activities within hours. He lives with his family in Birmingham, England, and is currently the spokesperson for the activist website Cage Prisoners. Mr. Begg is the author of “Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar”. On March 1, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Begg by telephone.
The Talking Dog: I have always gotten interesting answers to my “where were you on September 11th” question, including at least two attorneys (Josh Dratel, attorney for David Hicks and Andy Patel, attorney for Jose Padilla) who were very close to the World Trade Center, as was I myself. I’ll come back to the 9-11 issue later in the interview, but as this is my usual first question, we know from your book that on 11 September 2001 you were with your family in Kabul, Afghanistan, and later, on 7 July 2005, you were at home in Birmingham, U.K. Can you tell me what your initial reaction was, on each of those dates, when you first heard of the events of those days?
Moazzam Begg: On 11 September I was in Aghanistan. I heard about the events of that day on the radio; there were no televisions. I didn’t see the pictures until a month later when I made it to Pakistan, and I first actually saw how horrible it all was. I was most directly affected by the bombing of Afghanistan, which led to my leaving.
As to 7 July, I was here in Birmingham. I often traveled to London, by train... I had a great feeling of dejection, hoping that Moslems hadn’t done this. Then it became a matter of fear for me... I stopped going by train. I feared being deemed a suspect for further terrorism, as all Moslem people have now become.
The Talking Dog: Too many Americans are willing to just assume that a European Moslem in Afghanistan in 2001 was up to some kind of mischief. Please describe what you were actually doing there. Also, please correct me if I am wrong, but did not a fair number of men doing what amounts to humanitarian work get swept up in the so-called war on terror and ended up at Bagram, Kandahar and/or Guantanamo Bay, where many are still held to this day?
Moazzam Begg: I went to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001. We had planned, funded and supported a school in Kabul– a girl’s school. The program was to go to help, teach, expand and advance and to get some social value. I was also involved in digging some wells and a water project in a drought stricken region in NorthWestern Afghanistan.
The Talking Dog: Did working with a girl’s school make you unpopular with the Taliban?
Moazzam Begg: The school would take girls– my own daughter was to attend the school... the Taliban actually didn’t allow education of females by what they believed to be non-Moslem groups... But the Taliban didn’t stop us, they certainly knew what we were doing. There were quite a few Moslems doing humanitarian work and Moslem NGOs. There were also lots of non-Moslem organizations working in Afghanistan. Of course, after the American bombing, only Moslems were picked up... Like an Al Jazeera camera man [Sami Al Hajj] who had nothing remotely to do with terrorism. But it can certainly be said that a number of those detained by the Americans were doing humanitarian work.
The Talking Dog: We know from your book that after a harrowing escape through Afghanistan, after you were separated from your family, you managed to make it to Pakistan where you were reunited with your family only to end up being picked up after a late-night knock on the door by members of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, apparently after ISI was tipped off by Britain’s MI-5 intelligence service. While I assume I know the answer, let me ask anyway: have you, to this day, ever received any kind of official explanation (or official apology) from the governments of Pakistan, the United Kingdom or the United States concerning the circumstances of your detention or even why you were held in the first place?
Moazzam Begg: I should point out that CIA agents were present right from the beginning. They were dressed– very badly– as locals– but they were there. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my family had brought a habeas corpus petition in the courts in Pakistan. The government there denied knowledge that I was there, even as they were holding me. And no, I have never been given an explanation or an apology from any of those three governments.
The Talking Dog: Many Americans are not cognizant of this, but am I correct that in over two years of detention at Guantanamo Bay, although you could communicate with other prisoners while shouting between cells from time to time, or while you or others were being led in and out of their cells, and you could hear calls to prayer, you were not permitted to see another human being face to face except for interrogators?
Moazzam Begg: Well, I did see representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross once every few months. But otherwise, I only saw interrogators and guards. While I had heard of the Moslem chaplain (Captain Yee), I was in solitary confinement and not permitted to meet him, or anyone else, until quite literally the last two months of my imprisonment, when I was put in with Hicks, Hamdan and the others scheduled as eligible to be charged by the military commissions, and I only saw them through several layers of wire mesh. .
The Talking Dog: Did any particular guards or others you encountered (including interrogators or fellow prisoners) make a particular impression on you that you’d like to comment about? I understand at least one female guard has invited you to her home in the U.S. Virgin Islands; are you planning on taking her up on that, and do you anticipate any difficulties from authorities in entering a territory of the United States? On the subject of your captors, let me follow up with an observation you made regarding the materialism of many Americans you encountered (things such as discussing their preferred cars and trucks and so forth). Can you expand on that?
Moazzam Begg: She hasn’t actually invited me to her home, but we remain in contact. The interrogators and guards varied from person to person and from place to place. Bagram was a much harsher regime than even Guantanamo... I came across a number of decent soldiers and interrogators that I would be happy to call friends. At Guantanamo I had a number of conversations, and indeed, interpersonal relationships, with guards that I considered just amazing. I learned an awful lot from these people, and about them.
As to the materialism question, a lot of soldiers joined the Army for financial security... their life's aspirations, in many cases, were material– they wanted a certain kind of car, or a house, or to watch the latest movies– and they were actually oblivious of the situation they were in. Some seemed perfectly content and happy to be completely oblivious of the quite serious situation they were in. To their credit, many left Guantanamo much wiser, with a greatly changed view of what had been their preconceptions. Still, for many, “ignorance was bliss”, and they would rather not know.
Some soldiers became confused from the disconnect between what their superiors were telling them and what they were actually seeing and doing... some were certainly quite opposed to what was taking place in front of them.
The Talking Dog: I understand that images of 9-11, and news concerning Saddam Hussein, were displayed to the detainees. Can you comment on that?
Moazzam Begg: On one occasion, I was shown 9-11 images. Other detainees told me that they were shown such images as well, and told “we were somehow responsible for that”. As to Saddam, there was one day when the sergeant of the guard of the camp read a statement to everyone that Saddam Hussein had been captured... quite out of nowhere.
The Talking Dog: . As the United States Congress debates the possible repeal of portions of the Military Commissions Act that purport to revoke habeas corpus rights, and as the United States Supreme Court considers the appeal of the recent case from the District of Columbia federal circuit court that upheld the Military Commissions Act denial of habeas corpus and dismissed a number of petitions filed by a number of the 395 men still held prisoner at Guantanamo, what would you, from the perspective of all you have undergone, like to tell the American Congress and Supreme Court?
Moazzam Begg: The illusion of habeas corpus was just something to hold on to. To quote, I believe it was Justice Kennedy, “Habeas corpus is a promise to the ear to be broken to the hope... a teasing illusion, like a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will.”
I remember this, that’s how the idea floats– habeas corpus means you get your day in court... But in reality, no one at Guantanamo in reality will ever get to court... this is a game, a charade, an illusion...
U.S. justice at Guantanamo is an oxymoron. The Supreme Court decides that there is a right to be heard– for detainees to present their case in court. And the government doesn’t afford that right. Anywhere else, the government would be in contempt of court. And yet, the court ruling is simply ignored, or sidestepped by the government.
And there is also the inconceivably long time it is all taking. Why is it taking so long? It became understood by detainees that this was all part of the sentence– another means of keeping us locked up... On paper we’re offering you the right to present your cases to court... but in reality, it is nothing but a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will.
The Talking Dog: . There has been some recent controversy here about whether Senator Barack Obama attended a “madrassa” or Islamic religious school while he was a child in Indonesia. I understand that you actually attended a "yeshiva", or Jewish religious school, in your youth in Birmingham. Can you tell me what support you or your family have received from your school friends? To what extent have you received support from the larger British Jewish and Moslem communities, or from other communities within Britain?
Moazzam Begg: I have indeed... I think in terms of friends, and a broader community rather than separate communities. People of all backgrounds stand together for what they think is right. I have actually received more support from non-Moslems– the British Moslem community is quite a small minority. I have certainly received support from the Jewish community– many people have been extremely sympathetic and supportive.
While there is the Israel-Palestinian issue (indeed, my wife is Palestinian), this is NOT a Jewish-Moslem problem– this is a regional problem with its own unique issues.
The Talking Dog: Have you received support from elsewhere– be it Middle Eastern or other American communities, and can you tell me what? One specific question I have is whether, for example, the September 11th families have ever contacted you or other detainees’ families (perhaps objecting to a grave injustice being maintained supposedly in the names of they and their loved ones)?
Moazzam Begg: I have not had direct contact with the September 11 families... but my father did, when he came to the United States. A few expressed solidarity with us, and the injustice we were facing. In many ways, this is all quite difficult for me to do this... many detainees, no, all of them actually, disagreed with what the perpetrators of September the 11th did... killing innocent people... We were all certainly sympathetic with the victims and their families.
But what is to be done in response? What has been done- the invasion of two countries now, has completely overshadowed it. You do not reply to the deaths of 2,700 people with the deaths of hundreds of thousands. I find I can get more done speaking to the present soldiers than I can to politicians.
The Talking Dog: Your book documents numerous instances of abuse you suffered in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Cuba, in categories I’ll describe as “physical”, “psychological” and “religious/spiritual” (and of course, these may overlap). If it isn’t too painful, could you identify one or two instances of each category that you suffered that still strike you as most indicative of your ordeal?
Moazzam Begg: I will never forget what transpired in Bagram... this is the base that was bombed just the day before yesterday.. I was held there for a year. I was hog-tied– left in painful positions or hours, interrogated, kicked, beaten,... but I remember the screaming of a woman in the next cell, and I was led to believe that she was my wife.
I witnessed the deaths (or the beatings that led to the deaths) of two detainees at Bagram... this will never go away.
I met a number of former Irish prisoners... they were interned for years without trial, held in hoods, subjected to white noise– the commonality of their experience with mine was remarkable... just replace Northern Ireland with Guantanamo and it was almost virtually the same.
The Talking Dog: Your book mentions a number of encounters with your legal team, which included the Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer Gitanjali Gutierrez whom you met in Cuba, Clive Stafford Smith, an English lawyer who has also worked extensively in the United States, notably on death penalty cases, as well as Guantanamo matters, and of course, your own solicitor, the famous English human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce. You noted that Clive had a relatively different approach from Gita– Clive basically said that the U.S. legal system would be very hard to get anywhere with– what was called for amounted to somehow embarrassing the American government into releasing people. At over 5 years into the open ended detentions, I am certainly struck at how remarkably ineffective the American legal system has proven to be when confronted with a rather basic overreach by the American executive, and this has been true of citizens (Padilla), legal residents (Al-Marri) or simply those swept up anywhere and everywhere, such as the Guantanamo detainees and those held elsewhere. Clive seemed to understand our system... which, even after over 20 years in it, I had previously thought better of. Do you have a comment on this?
Moazzam Begg: Yes, Clive threw a bunch of legal papers on the table in front of me and said “This crap won’t work. You just have to embarrass these bastards.”
The iguana happens to be a protected species at Guantanamo. If you hurt or kill an iguana, you can be fined $10,000. Detainees– human beings– have less rights there than iguanas.
The only admitted Al Qaeda member there (Mr. Al Bahlul, who has refused a lawyer for the military commissions) told us that the legal system was all a facade, a veneer– the goal was simply detention by any means, and the illusion of the legal system was part of it. Many refused to participate with lawyers.
I was trying to get other detainees to see lawyers... But there was a real fear of can we get “the enemy” to represent us? Many opted not to do so, feeling it would feed into the system. That is certainly an easy way to look at it– the whole thing was bizarre.
I should note that I only first met Clive and Gita after over 2 years and 8 months in detention!
The Talking Dog: I suppose on a happier note... can you describe your work with Cage Prisoners?
Moazzam Begg: Not so happy, actually, as I often have to relive a lot of what I experienced. The connotations of the Global War on Terror involve picking up thousands of people all over the world. Many people are contacting me for help with missing relatives that they fear or believe have been swept up into detention facilities- Bagram or elsewhere... we know they exist. This is all extremely troubling... there are new anti-terrorism laws allowing this sort of thing... people are concerned. Many see me as a “success story”– I was released, when it was believed that neither I, nor anyone, would ever be. Here in the U.K., thousands have been detained on terrorism laws, yet the number charged is in the dozens, the number convicted but a few more than ten. (Of course, to this day, no one at Guantanamo has been convicted of anything, and only ten even charged.) We highlight these injustices, and campaign for people held around the world.
The Talking Dog: What opportunities have you had to speak with governmental officials (of your own or any other government)? Can you briefly describe who else (either specifically or in category), such as detainees, their families, lawyers, activists, the media, etc.?
Moazzam Begg: I spoke to Americans regarding their internal investigations of the killings in Bagram that I witnessed, or at least witnessed the beatings that led to the deaths. I have spoken to members of the British parliament in Commons. I understand hundreds of people, including about 10 MPs saw a reading of the play Guantanamo by [co-author of Enemy Combatant] Victoria Brittain in the House of Commons. I have had no direct contact with government ministers, though many have said Guantanamo should be closed... P.M. Tony Blair has not.
Cage Prisoners is a focal point for detainees and their families, and helps to collect information pertaining to detainees.
The Talking Dog: Do you have a comment on media treatment of American detention policy (and you can break that down between American media, U.K. media, European and other media, if you like)?
Moazzam Begg: There is a clear distinction between the general press in the United States and that of the rest of the word. It is part of my job with Cage Prisoners to speak with the media. From the perspective o the American press, their position towards Guantanamo is still to justify the position of the government and the greater war on terror. Now that developments in Iraq are factoring into it, and it is becoming clearer to more people that because of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, the world is becoming a more, rather than a less, terrifying place...But it is part of my work to deal with the press and to present a human face. Besides my book, and the recent movie “The Road to Guantanamo" involving the Tipton 3... have all helped to shape public opinion. Just as much of 9-11 involved the effects it had on human beings, so Guantanamo and Bagram and the other detention policy have had effects on real human beings on the other side... and the people in the United States are beginning to feel this reality. I recall doing an interview with CNN– which was surprisingly empathetic. And this, despite CNN’s largely pro-war positions, and after almost 6 years into the Global War on Terror.
The Talking Dog: We’ll let that be the last word. I join all of my readers in thanking Moazzam Begg for that compelling and informative interview. Interested readers should take a look at “Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar”.
the talking dog