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The Road to Guantánamo

Miles Johnson | 09.03.2007 00:55 | Repression | Terror War | Birmingham | World

After being wrongfully arrested, Moazzam Begg was tortured and held in Guantánamo Bay without trial for almost three years. He speaks to Miles Johnson about the darker side of the War on Terror.

The War on Terror has marked many lives. Since the mass murder inflicted upon the United States in 2001 the world has witnessed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in which hundreds of thousands have been killed. It is rare for a night time news update not to include reports of casualties in a conflict that, while concentrated in the Middle East, has no clearly defined boundaries or participants. Yet as each night sees the pity of war beamed into living rooms, prompting ever louder public outrage as the carnage continues, there is another front in the War on Terror: one in which the cries of the victims, hooded and bound, are hidden from public view.

Just after midnight on 31 January 2002, Moazzam Begg was snatched from his rented house in Islamabad by the Pakistani security services, handcuffed, hooded and bundled into the back of a 4x4. It was the beginning of a journey that would eventually lead to Guantánamo Bay, the top security American detention camp in which he would become one of nine Britons held without trial in a place described by Amnesty International as “the Gulag of our times”.

Born in Birmingham to Pakistani parents, Moazzam Begg grew up in a Britain more multicultural than the country his father had emigrated to decades before. Living in a mixed area he attended a Jewish school, his father thinking it would be more suitable than the local comprehensive, and went on to study computing before working in an Islamic bookshop. It was at this time, after the end of the Afghan-Soviet war, that conflict began to erupt in Chechnya and the break-up of Yugoslavia saw thousands of Bosnian Muslims subjected to Serbian ethnic cleansing. Begg wanted to do something to alleviate the suffering of Muslims, and first crossed the border into Afghanistan during a family holiday to Pakistan in 1993. He returned several times during the next eight years to work on aid projects, happening to be there with his wife and children when planes hit the World Trade Center.

“When the attacks of September 11th happened I wasn’t aware at first how huge the reaction would be,” he says. On being warned that the United States planned to bomb the country Begg fled over the border to Pakistan. “It was only when I was kidnapped that I realised the fact that they can do this means we are in a completely different world now. The United States of America was doing what it always had the capacity to do, that is to dictate its orders to the rest of the world.” Being a British citizen he was confident that his country would intervene, a belief that was to be crushingly betrayed. “I was convinced at first that no matter how bad it got the British would always come to the rescue, but that hope was dashed when I discovered that they were utterly involved the whole way through. That was the bitterest pill for me to swallow.” His interrogators claimed he was involved in funding Al Qaeda, an allegation that has never been proved and one that Begg vehemently denies.
After questioning he was taken to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan along with other detainees destined for transportation to Guantánamo.

There he was subjected to a torture practice called “hogtying” during interrogation by members of the CIA and FBI. “Hogtying is when you have your hands tied behind your back and then tied to your legs with your ankles shackled as well”, he says. “In that position they then kicked and punched me and left me there for hours before coming back to interrogate me again”. The interrogators also placed a bag over his head despite knowing he suffered from asthma. Begg also alleges that in Bagram he saw two prisoners beaten so badly that he believes they died from their injuries. “They would also cover people’s faces in cellophane, covering their heads completely, and then pour water over not to drown them but to make them feel like they were drowning”, he says. “The captors kicked and punched people, using neck holds and twisting arms. The American government has always argued that this would never cause death even though, in my experience, it had caused death on a number of occasions. As far as they were concerned this was not really torture, they were just being a bit rough with prisoners.”

After months of interrogation he was transported in a hood and chains to Guantánamo Bay. The American government has classified prisoners in Guantánamo not as prisoners of war, a status that would have guaranteed their rights under the Geneva Convention, but as “enemy combatants”. This status sees prisoners neither granted the rights of captive soldiers nor the civil rights given to prisoners in criminal cases. In effect, they are without rights. Begg notes how “an Egyptian prisoner was so scared to go there that he said he would rather be taken to his country where the security services are notorious for their use of severe torture.”

Held indefinitely in diplomatic limbo, thousands of miles from home and without access to his family, he was isolated from the outside world. “I think even the most trivial things were immensely important to me. You can imagine that we were completely cut off from outside, from any news or knowledge at all,” he says. “Anything, even a football game, things that you overheard guards talking about became very important. I heard a bit about Iraq and even Abu Ghraib and also that they renamed French Fries “Freedom Fries” and that they were pouring French wines into the drains in American cities.”

He noted that many of the guards seemed to be deeply troubled by what they were being ordered to do. “In Guantánamo they were having victory celebrations and victory dinners continually to boost troop moral. But when I spoke to guards on an individual basis it was clear that especially the younger ones, the 18 or 19 year-olds, were severely affected by their duties. To my knowledge at least one soldier had committed suicide. They were said to have what is called “combat stress”. But in Guantánamo there is no war going on; it is not a combat zone.

“But in their minds many of them don’t feel what they are doing is wrong”, he continued. “They think it is justified. If you imagine the tier system present, not everyone knows every piece of the puzzle. This is part of the captivity process. There is then one person at the top who knows everything. He is then told that what is being done is completely justified as it is in the interests of national security and that these people are terrorists and killers. Just take our word for it. There is no accountability and this allows them to get away with anything.”

The British government, also present in Guantánamo, did nothing to intervene. “MI5 were always quite cold in their involvement”, he says. “One of their officers did seem slightly troubled but they were never troubled enough to say, ‘these are our citizens, this can’t be happening. You can interrogate them but you cannot treat them like this.’”

After nearly three years of imprisonment Moazzam Begg was released without pardon or apology. The governments of the United States and Britain did little more than shrug their shoulders. “I did a radio interview the day after the July 7th bombings in which I condemned them” he says. “MI5 phoned the next day saying they had heard me on the radio and asking if they could meet me. The person I spoke to was this woman who the last time I saw her was in Guantánamo Bay in isolation. She said, ‘Oh I don’t know if you remember me.’ I said, ‘Well how could I forget?’ She expressed regret for all that had happened and said, ‘I can only imagine what you have been through’. I was shocked at how patronising she could be when she knew what was happening the whole time. That is the job of intelligence agents, to extract information by any means possible. Morals and scruples don’t come into consideration.”

Since his release Begg has vigorously campaigned for human rights causes and against the continued imprisonment of the remaining 435 detainees. The US government has indicated that around 250 of these will continue to be held indefinitely. Throughout his wrongful imprisonment Moazzam Begg retained his dignity and humanity, values that in their fight against international terrorism both the United States and our own government have irreversibly tainted. His story serves as a stark reminder of the hypocrisy of those who claim to be safeguarding our “liberty” and “freedom” with torture and shackles.

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