By Moazzam Begg
It’s hard to understand how the new US President wants to fight terrorism with torture considering the latter led to the Iraq war and all that followed.
An abridged version of this article was initially published in The Guardian on 27/01/2017
In February 2003, at Camp Echo in the US military prison facility at Guantanamo, I signed a confession stating that I was a member of Al-Qaeda. I did it as a result of coercion and torture.
I’d spent the preceding year at US detention facilities in Kandahar and Bagram, Afghanistan, where I’d been forcibly taken to by US forces after being abducted, at gunpoint from my house in Islamabad, Pakistan, by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence.
Upon arrival at the US prison at Kandahar I was beaten to the ground and my clothes were sliced off with knives as US soldiers sat on top of me. They shackled my bare wrists and ankles so tight that the marks lasted for months. I was then dragged naked, in a bowing position and photographed, forcibly shaved, punched, kicked, spat upon, fingerprinted and interrogated. After that I was put in a jumpsuit and placed in a cage with automatic rifles pointed at me day and night. The only thing worse than having to endure this treatment was watching, impotently, as it was repeated against other human beings.
It was in this state that British MI5 agents who’d once sat in my Birmingham home, first saw me, hooded, shackled and kneeling. The sight seemed to have troubled them, but did not stop them interrogating me over the next three years.
Weeks later, I was sent to Bagram where conditions were even more oppressive. As an English-speaker I was interrogated more than most by numerous alphabet agencies, including British ones. In May 2002, I was taken into isolation and interrogated by the CIA. They threatened to send me to Egypt or Syria if I didn’t cooperate, as they had done to a man called Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi. They told me he talked within days of arriving in Cairo.
The CIA had me “hog-tied” with my ankles tied to my wrists from behind and a hood placed over my head for days at a time. Sleep deprivation, stress positions, beatings and loud noise followed. Bizarrely, the only real respite was the harrowing interrogations. During some of them, I was shown photographs of my children seized from my house and asked what I think happened to them the night I was taken and where I thought they were now. At the same time, they subjected me to blood-curdling sounds of a woman screaming from the next room. The insinuation was obvious, the effect devastating. The FBI, who took part in the interrogations said they wanted me to confess – to anything.
I next saw the agents almost immediately after arriving in Guantanamo. They’d prepared a document they wanted me to sign, warning me that I could face a summary trial and even execution if I didn’t. I signed in the hope that that the abuse would stop – it certainly receded – and, that once in court I could expose the reality of what had happened to me. I was eventually released in 2005 without charge or trial and have been campaigning against torture ever since.
During his election campaign Donald Trump said he’d “load up” Guantanamo with more prisoners and reintroduce waterboarding and “a whole lot more”. This week he’s reported to be considering the reopening of CIA black sites ordered shut by his predecessor and, has chillingly said he believes “torture works”.
Trump has stated in the past that he would never have lead his country to war in Iraq. But the 2003 invasion was based on the tortured testimony of the very same Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi the CIA told me about.
Under torture Al-Libi, an incorrectly identified Al-Qaeda leader, gave false testimony to US interrogators in Egypt that Al-Qaeda was working with Saddam Hussain on obtaining chemical weapons. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, presented this evidence to the UN Security Council as the major justification to invade Iraq. The problem was that Iraq had no Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Iraq also had no Al-Qaeda presence either but the invasion took care of that. Al-Qaeda in Iraq eventually became Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and set up its structure alongside former Iraqi military leaders in US-run prisons like Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. The torture and cruelty meted out in these places became the fuel that lit the engulfing fire of ISIS. Seventeen of its top leaders had been held and tortured in these prisons. Torture did not save lives, it destroyed them and created monsters instead. British journalist and current ISIS hostage, John Cantlie, was waterboarded by his captors, while executioner “Jihadi John” is reported to have waterboarded US national James Foley before decapitating him.
Waterboarding was first used during the Spanish Inquisition. Its original 16th century name is torture del agua – water torture. Japanese soldiers who used it against US POWs during World War II were successfully prosecuted for war crimes. US generals deemed the technique illegal during the Vietnam war.
Although President G.W. Bush blatantly used torture, he never admitted it. He simply got his legal advisors to reinterpret and rebrand it. ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ did not amount to torture if they didn’t cause “organ failure or death.” That’s how Guantanamo prisoners like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed could be waterboarded hundreds of times without any repercussions for the CIA. In fact, even after the US Senate report on torture accepted CIA had tortured 119 prisoners there were never any plans to prosecute the perpetrators. If Obama hadn’t granted immunity to the CIA the precedent against torture would have been set and Trump wouldn’t be able to extol its virtues.
Torture and arbitrary detention were cited as key factors that lead to recent uprisings in the Arab world. Instead of standing against it Britain and America were happy to outsource torture to these countries. Not only is torture a very serious crime, its results have lead us into the most destructive and divisive war in recent memory.
In her meetings with Trump this week, Theresa May is duty bound to warn Trump that torture is a war crime and the new leader of the “free world” has just endorsed it.
(CC image courtesy of James Mattis on Flikr)
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)