6 March 2006
Moazzam Begg is an ordinary man who has endured an extraordinary fate — imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit and whose precise nature has never been determined. As far as the US government was concerned, it was enough to label him an 'enemy combatant'. Moazzam was arrested in Pakistan, where he was helping set up education programmes for children, in the panic-stricken months after the 9/11 attacks. He spent three years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and was subjected to over three hundred interrogations, death threats and torture, witnessing the killings of two detainees. He was released early in 2005 without explanation or apology. Cageprisoners spoke to Moazzam extensively, shortly after his release, about the events that led to his capture, his time in the Gulags of the Americans, and finally life after Guantanamo…
CAGEPRISONERS.COM: What motivated you and your family to settle in Afghanistan in 2001?
MOAZZAM BEGG: This had been a long term idea for me since about the late 1990s when I visited Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1998. There were several different reasons. I had begun to get involved in project with some other people to help build wells in the most poverty stricken areas in North West Afghanistan. So we built several wells around there, even before I had left. Then, there was a project for a school that was to be in two divisions, one for boys, one for girls. So I helped set up the financing for that, including books, apparatus and other things. Also I wanted to live in an environment which was more Islamic than some of the neighbouring Muslim countries that I had been to. Another reason was the cost of living – it was very cheap comparatively. So I could rent my house out here, and live comfortably over there as well as take care of other projects out there.
CP: What did you find on your arrival there?
MB: On my arrival, I first found that the country was not as bad as I thought it would be. i.e. there were several amenities there for anyone who wanted to live a normal life, particularly in Kabul where I was based. So all the negativity, which is what I had heard, I didn’t want to take on face value. I wanted to go and experience for myself and see for myself what was happening in this country and how the ruling Taliban were regarded by the people. So I found a lot of positivity in the sense that there were building projects taking place, there was investment in the country from several neighbouring countries and people in the Muslim world, they started to rebuild some of the roads that had been bombed during the Civil War and the War with the Russians. So I saw things that were taking place that were completely new in this country for the past 25 years or so. So I was very positive and in hindsight when I look back at the place, I felt it was a good experience, my wife and children feel the same too. And had it not been for the events that took place, I think I still would have been there.
As for the Afghan people, I found good and bad amongst them. They were just ordinary people who had gone through years of strife and years of war, and despite one of the things people claim about the Taliban being very austere and very strict in their application of their interpretation of Islamic law, the reality is that they bought peace into the regions in which they ruled, they eradicated the use of poppies and opium for drugs which has now become resurgent by over 60%. So things like that I found that amongst the people; they were helpful in some ways but a little resentful I think to foreigners in general, because they felt that with foreigners the war had proliferated rather than stopped. One of the things I wanted to do is, when the Afghans saw foreigners, particularly foreign Muslims come into the country, that they see them as a source of benefit, rather than a source of war and hostility.
CP: What activities did you and your family undertake whilst there?
MB: I was only there a couple of months before September 11th and all the troubles began. My first month or so was taken up in trying to get a reasonable place to stay in and to get to know local people. Then I began some of the projects related to the school, like taking some of the children out to visit the zoo or the Kabul Exhibition Centre, and to give some lectures and talks to the children.
CP: Would you like to respond to the allegations that you visited a training camp whilst in Afghanistan?
MB: I did visit a training camp but that was ten years ago and had nothing to do with my last visit to Afghanistan.
CP: Can you explain what happened when you were separated from your wife?
MB: At that time, we were still living in Kabul, I remember when the cruise missiles struck, the very next day we evacuated to a village about an hour and a half away from Kabul. At that point, I wasn’t sure whether we should evacuate and leave the country or wait it out and see what happens. So I decided to evacuate completely and we waited to see if things got worse or better, and of course things got worse although nobody else was to know that. The markets were still full of people, there were weddings taking place, there were all sorts of things happening, despite the evacuation. So one of these days when I went back from where we were staying to Kabul, to get some things from my house, I went to visit some people from an aid organisation just outside of Kabul. When I was there, about 10pm at night, some news came that the city of Kabul had fallen and been handed over to the Northern Alliance, and that there was no way back to Kabul. I hadn’t taken my car with me, my car was still in Kabul, and I had nothing with me. The people that I was with, they decided to evacuate the region completely and drove over these mountains for over 24 hours. I thought all this while, I could get to a main road and get back to my family, but it never happened. This continued for two weeks, each place we left, we heard this place had fallen and the towns were full of looters, looking for foreigners because of the bounty on their heads. Eventually I made it to a place where the road stopped and the mountains began and I started walking up the mountains for two days into Pakistan with an intention to re-enter Afghanistan from a different route from where I had heard my family may have evacuated to. Eventually I didn’t have to do that and we ended up in Islamabad after three weeks.
CP: Could you describe the night that your home in Islamabad was raided and you were kidnapped?
MB: We took up new residence in Islamabad, and we began again from scratch. About three months later, on January 31st, at 12 o’ clock at night, there was a ring at the door. I was surprised to get visitors at that time, but I went to answer the door. I opened the door to face a gun that was put to my head and I heard the crackling of tape in the background. I was pushed into the front room of my house, my hands were tied behind my back with plastic cuffs which were plastic, disposal cuffs; the only way to get them off is to cut them off. I was then bundled off into this vehicle where I saw two Americans. They lifted their hoods off, took a photograph of me, and one of them said he was given a pair of handcuffs by the wife of one of the victims of the September 11th attack to catch the culprits. I remember saying to him he had caught the wrong person. After that, I never saw my family again.
It felt like one of those things you used to hear about or read about in the films or in the Third World, of course I was in the Third World but I could not believe this was happening to me. It was more than that; my overwhelming thoughts were about what was going to happen to my family – that was the worst fear I had in my mind.
CP: As you were bundled into the back
of a 4 by 4, what was going through your mind?
MB: Apprehension, fear, worry about what’s going to happen to me, who these people were; I had come to the conclusion they were American, but American what? Are they American Secret Service agents, are they American mercenaries? This was not an arrest, even in Pakistan, people aren’t arrested like this. This was a kidnap; there is no other way to put it.
CP: You called your father, what did you say to him and what was his reaction?
MB: One reason I knew this was not an arrest because, had they been normal police officers, they would have searched my person, which they didn’t and I had a mobile phone in my pocket. So when I was in the cell where they placed me, I realised that and I phoned a friend who lived in Islamabad and asked him to go and check on my family. Secondly, I phoned my father and I whispered to him, ‘I have been taken by these people, there were Pakistanis present, I think it was initiated by the Americans, I don’t know what they are going to do with me. I don’t know what they want of me’. I think he was shocked, the fact that I was whispering, it caused him to start whispering too, I asked ‘Dad, why are you whispering?’ But I think he was in complete bewilderment.
CP: What do you remember of the time you spent in Pakistani custody?
MB: I was held by the Pakistanis for about three weeks, in which time I was interrogated by the Americans, in a different, unknown location. They would take me away to another place, another house in Islamabad. I was interrogated about four times. It was all under the Pakistani auspices so that the Americans would get at whatever they were after in the interrogations. The Pakistanis didn’t interrogate me. The Pakistanis said ‘We don’t know why these people want you, you haven’t done anything wrong here, we feel bad about having taken you in the way that we did but we are completely under pressure from the Americans.’
When the Americans interrogated me, they asked me about my trips to Bosnia in the past, my previous visit to Afghanistan in 1993, when I had supported a Kashmiri Liberation Organisation and they tried to link all of that up and accuse me of being a member of Al Qaeda.
Comparatively to all the other prisons, the place where I was being held wasn’t so bad. I was being kept in a room; there was a sofa settee in there, a place to sleep. If I climbed over the settee and picked over part of the window they obscured, I could actually see the road. When they used to take me to the bathroom, they took me through where the cells were and they were like dungeons out of the fourteenth century – dark, damp, dripping and there were brothers in there who had been there for about five or six months, in a really bad state.
CP: Tell us about your detention at Bagram Airbase, could you describe your arrival there and what you noted on arrival?
MB: First I was held in Kandahar for about six weeks. I really don’t want to go into all the details of what they did, but suffice to say they treated all of us like animals through what they called ‘processing’. All of us were treated like animals in the worst possible way. If you try to build up in your mind those pictures from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, I’m sure you can imagine. I will leave it to your imagination to work that out.
CP: In what conditions were you held?
MB: The conditions were very bad. They had a bucket there which was a makeshift toilet for about 20 of us to share, eventually when they put me out of solitary confinement into general population. I was held like this for six weeks until they transferred me to Bagram Airbase, where I was held for the next almost eleven months. Here, the set up was slightly different. There were six cells divided by a concertina wire, and each cell housed detainees. We were not allowed to talk to one another, we were not allowed to stand, we were not allowed to walk. We were only allowed to use the bathroom which was the other end of the cell, which was a barrel cut in half. There were guards all around us, and in front of us. We were taken for interrogation whenever they decided.
CP: How often were you interrogated and what was the nature of these interrogations?
MB: In Kandahar, I was interrogated day in day out for hours on end, for ten days. They would wake me up in the middle of the night for interrogation. These people were very confused in what they were looking for. One of the interrogators once told me was that ‘We’re looking to judge people’s intentions.’ I thought, Subhan’Allah, you are trying to put yourself at the level of Allah because He is the only One who is able to judge intentions. That’s what they wanted to do, they wanted to judge what people might be capable of based on what they believed their beliefs to be. They did that by either associating someone’s belief or history or what cause he supported or something like that. They caught people from all over the place and they were all regarded the same – as scum, terrorists, we were not given the status of Prisoners of War, although we were issued a prisoner of war card and on that I was issued number 558. That later became a bone of contention because the Americans had always maintained that we didn’t have Prisoner of War status and yet they issued these cards to us and removed them after six weeks.
CP: To what extent would you describe your treatment at Bagram as torture?
MB: Between Bagram and Kandahar during the month of May, which is probably one of the worst, they interrogated me severely for almost the whole month and kept me in separate solitary confinement. They tied me up with my hands behind my back to my legs, kicked me in the head, kicked me in the back, threatened to take me to Egypt to be tortured, to be raped, to be electrocuted. They had a woman screaming in the next room whom I believed at that time was my wife. They bought pictures of my children and told me I would never see them again. All sorts of things like that.
CP: You witnessed the deaths of two detainees at the hands of the Americans, could you elaborate?
MB: As I mentioned, there was a barrel at the back of the cell which was used as a toilet, and this was emptied out everyday and was only covered by barbed wire. One of the detainees in another cell tried to escape from that place and managed to get out into an area that was covered by soldiers anyway, he couldn’t get further. Two soldiers jumped on him and beat the hell out of him. They dragged his body right in front of me into the medical room. Eventually his body was carried out, it was covered with a blanket, but it was rumoured that he was dead and later confirmed to me by some detainees who heard from the MP’s [Military Police] that he was killed. In fact, one of the ones that killed him actually told me about it.
The second one happened in December of the same year. One of the punishments they used to give out was that if anyone spoke or if someone did not comply or did something the guards did not like, they would shackle his hands, and shackle them to the ceiling, suspended with a hood over his head. The person could remain for an hour, half an hour, four hours – as long as they wanted. There was one such person, I think his number was 419, he was hung from the ceiling and his body had gone limp. Instead of coming in there to help him, they came to him and tried to get him to stand. When he wouldn’t stand, because he had gone weak, they started punching him. Then they dragged his body off into an isolation cell, where we all heard the rumour that he was killed. But it was not confirmed to me that he was killed, until pictures of his body were brought to me in Guantanamo about a year and a half afterwards, where they asked me to identify his body and the
people who killed him.
CP: Were you able to make any sort of contact with your family at this time?
MB: Only through the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and letters through them at about five or six month intervals.
CP: Were you ever visited by British officials while you were in Bagram?
MB: Right from the beginning actually. In Pakistan, I was spoken to by M15. In Kandahar, I was spoken to by M15 and at Bagram, I was spoken to by M15. They took the position that they were guests of the Americans and the Americans had complete control and that there was nothing they could do about it nor anything they wanted to do about it. I made a list of complaints about my treatment to someone called Andrew from M15, I told him about treatment in relation to going to the toilet. There was one time, after this so called escape attempt, when they wouldn’t even allow us to use blankets to use the toilet, so we would have to use the facility completely exposed. The lights were on 24 hours a day, floodlights, so you could never close your eyes, and have any sort of darkness. I complained about the food, it was the same every single day, three times a day. There were no cooked meals, nothing hot, no fresh foods, no milk. I complained that the communication was every six months, if that. And he did nothing about it at all.
CP: How did this differ from what the British Government were telling your family back in the UK?
MB: I don’t know what they were saying at that time, but from what I understand in the letters I read, that the British maintain they had no consular access at all.
CP: Can you tell us how the cells in Bagram were labelled? What was the reason for this?
MB: The cells were labelled after various engagements between Muslim nations or peoples against the United States. So there were some which were called the ‘Twin Towers’, or the ‘Pentagon’, ‘USS Cole’, ‘Lebanon,’ ‘Somalia’, ‘Libya’, which they clearly used as the common denominator that they were Islamic conflicts.
CP: Bagram is notoriously believed to be one of the locations were ghost detainees are rendered – what interaction did you have with the other prisoners or what did you hear about the other detainees there?
MB: I heard about several different ones. One I remember I think his number was 179, he was kept completely separately from everyone, and there was only one time I saw him which is when they were moving him and I managed to see the number on the back. He was brought in initially but no one knew where he had gone. I think there were scores of people like that, and I don’t know where they put them. I’m sure I was one of them at one point when they kept me separately, I’m sure I was a ghost detainee then because no one knew what happened to me, particularly in Guantanamo.
CP: Were you visited by the Red Cross while in Bagram? What was the nature of their visits?
MB: Yes, I was visited quite regularly by the Red Cross. The nature of their visit was just to keep listening to detainees’ complaints and concerns, and taking mail whenever they could.
CP: Could you describe the journey from Afghanistan to Cuba?
MB: Not really because I was drugged on the journey, the reason why was because it was so uncomfortable – my legs were shackled, my waist was shackled, to my waist was attached my hands, which were also shackled. I had ear muffs, face mask and goggles all placed over me. It was impossible, particularly in the row I was seated, to even move left or right.
CP: On arrival, you were placed in Camp Echo which is said to be "more depressing than death row", could you describe the conditions in which you were held?
MB: There were only two buildings in Camp Echo at the time and I was the first one put in Camp Echo. It consisted of a fairly large room, in which the top right hand corner near the door was a cell made of steel, which measured about 8 x 6. and I was put into this cell in the corner of this room, which was very bleak. I thought things might have gotten better since Bagram but in fact it had got worse.
They had a recreation area, and again that was an insult to the content because this measured 15 x 15 so it was the size of a small living room. That was caged up; there was no view except for the two rooms on either side, and all there was room to do was walk around. This was for only 15 minutes twice a week. After that it increased to half an hour, then an hour daily.
I spent my time with the recitation and memorisation of the Qur’an and that is the thing that I did most often. Apart from that, to keep as physically fit as possible.
CP: Why do you believe you were kept in isolation from the start?
MB: I think there were three reasons. Firstly, it was in order to fast track me through a military commission system, whereby they wanted me to plead guilty to war crimes, the worst of which was having given a few hundred pounds to a Kashmiri training camp in the 1990s. It was easy for them to deal with me because they didn’t need a translator. Most of the detainees didn’t speak English and I did; so that was one thing. Secondly, because I had already maintained that I witnessed these deaths take place and I had already written a letter to the authorities in Bagram, claiming my innocence against any crime and also complaining about what was done to me and other people in that time. Thirdly, I think they felt me to be influential in that I spoke several different languages; I was someone who could overhear conversations by MPs, and translate into Arabic for the other detainees.
CP: You have described the conditions at Guantanamo as "torturous", although you do not say you were tortured, could you elaborate?
MB: When you think about torture, you think of it as someone bending your arm to break it or pulling out your fingernails, cutting your tongue off, they didn’t do that of course, but the conditions speak for themselves. I was completely and utterly cut off from anyone else, incommunicado, I could not communicate with another Muslim at all. I even asked for an American military captain who was an Imam in the army and they refused that too. Being in a cell, cut off from everyone and not knowing what your future is, that’s what I meant by torturous.
CP: How often were you interrogated at Guantanamo and what was the nature of these interrogations?
MB: The nature of the interrogations was always the same. They never really changed from Pakistan till Guantanamo. They lightened up a little bit, depending on the interrogator. Some interrogators, I wouldn’t really consider them interrogators, they just came to talk and to try and look at the bigger picture. There were so many different types, that I think I must have gone through about 350 interrogations. On occasions, I was threatened in these interrogations, on occasions my family was threatened. I was threatened with executions, with arbitrary incarceration, with no trial, with many things like that. This happened right up until the time I left. They were still threatening my family.
CP: Could you comment on the false confession you were supposed to have made regarding attacks on the White House and Parliament?
MB: I don’t know where that came from. It is not anything they said to me over there. The things that I confessed to were in part true and in part completely exaggerated. For example, being a member of Al Qaeda, that is not true. For example, they said I sent money to a training camp run by Kashmiris, which was under the control of al Qaeda, which is also not true. Things like that, they wanted to charge as war crimes.
CP: In your poem you speak about the pyramid of prisoners in Abu Ghraib yet it was written while
you were still in Guantanamo – how aware were you of what was happening in the outside world?
MB: I spent such a long time in solitary confinement and the only people I could speak to were guards, and there were several guards who I developed a fairly good relationship with. So it was these guards who would let me know what was going on and often the guards would tell me in order to disassociate themselves from these things, as if to say ‘We’re not all like that’.
CP: What were your impressions of the MPs?
MB: It varied. I found some of the most empathetic and sympathetic among them were people from the Virgin Islands, Black people, people who had a history of oppression from mainland America. But I found that several of the females were also more empathetic.
CP: In your poem, Indictment USA, you say “A vibrant, living racist core / Still breeds in the USA”, what did you experience of this at Guantanamo in terms of racial/religious abuse?
MB: I think that accentuated right from the beginning. I saw inscriptions in Bagram saying ‘F*** Islam, F*** the Quran’ or ‘F*** Jihad’. I saw them pick up the Qur’an and throw it on the floor. I remember one occasion, in Bagram where soldiers did a cell search and one detainee was still reading his Qur’an so they grabbed him and threw him to the floor, and kicked him. There was a story of them ripping up a copy of the Qur’an and throwing it in the waste bucket which was used as a toilet. That type of attitude was widespread. There were several people who regarded Islam as the enemy.
CP: There has been uproar amongst Muslims worldwide at the revelations that the Qur’an was desecrated in Guantanamo, what did you personally witness or hear from other detainees that substantiates such claims?
MB: There were other stories where they actually went into cells and had written obscenities in the Quran. There were incidents where they were distributing Qu’rans to the detainees in Bagram where they said ‘Extra, extra come get your Qur’an, the holiest of holy books, learn how to kill Americans.’ I think the more they realised that these things antagonised the detainees, the more they did them. If we had not reacted, they would not have done them. But the detainees did react, and rightly so, because it is something so sacred. I remember making a du’a (supplication), Allah says in the Qur’an “We have revealed this book and We shall be its Protector”, I said ‘Ya Allah, You protect this book, because I am not able to.’
CP: In what other ways did you feel that Islam was being targeted?
MB: Particularly in Afghanistan, we were in a Muslim country and they forbade us in Bagram from doing the Adhan (call to prayer), they forbade us from praying in Jama’ah (congregation), they forbade us from talking to each other, they forbade us from reciting the Qur’an audibly. So all these things added together, even the worst of the Northern Alliance guys would not have done this; they would have tortured and beaten you but they wouldn’t have stopped these things.
In Bagram during Ramadhan, they refused to give us food to open our fast with, for the first three weeks, and eventually when they did, they would give us food at ten o’clock, whereas our iftar (breaking of the fast) was five o’ clock. When the day of Eid came, they made us fast completely; they didn’t give us anything to eat at all until ten o’ clock in the evening.
In Guantanamo, I requested several times that I need to be able to spend these months with some people for a while, and again they refused. The days just came and went, Eid came and went, I was not aware of it.
CP: Can you give examples of any missionary attempts of the MPs on Muslim prisoners?
MB: I don’t know exactly what they did, but I know that two detainees became Christian, and I think the reason they did is that they thought they might get a better time. But I think they treated them as good or bad as anyone else. As far as other missionary attempts, there were two occasions – at Bagram, there were soldiers who were practising Christians from the Bible Belt, whom I used to engage in discussions with. I think because I used to engage in discussions with them, they thought that I’m interested in converting to Christianity, so he gave me a Bible which I accepted. The other was an interrogator who used to pass me leaflets about Christianity, hoping that some how he could get me to convert.
CP: What were the Muslim chaplains like? Were they sympathetic to the prisoners?
MB: I never met any of them.
CP: In December 2002 Secretary Rumsfeld authorized the interrogation technique of "inducing stress by use of detainee’s fears", and that the use of female interrogators to "induce stress" had been used following this authorization. What evidence did you find of this and other attempts at sexual abuse and humiliation at Guantanamo?
MB: I didn’t have any incidents of that nature at all. There was plenty of “stress”, as I mentioned in Bagram, but as far as enticement from females, there wasn’t any.
CP: What was your experience with the Red Cross?
MB: I saw them as a lifeline in the sense there was some communication, because the Americans would not allow any communication had it not been for them. However, I met people from the Red Cross who said they believed in the American Justice system which almost made me choke with disbelief.
To be fair, the Red Cross are in an odd position. They are funded by the USA, the USA is one of its largest donors. They were not liked by the average American soldier which I could see. But if you were to see which side they leaned on, I think they leaned on the side of the Americans, as opposed to the detainees.
CP: What was the nature of your contact with British intelligence?
MB: British Intelligence has visited me throughout all my time in custody. So from Pakistan, they were there. In the beginning, when I first saw them, I thought this was a ray of hope, that the British were here, I’m going to get some consular access, I will get some communication to my family, I will get access to a lawyer, but they didn’t do anything like that at all and disappeared completely. Then they reappeared by asking questions, again in Bagram, and again on two or three occasions in Guantanamo.
CP: What about visits from the Foreign Office? Were you able to put to them your complaints and concerns and what was their response?
MB: The first time I had a Foreign Office visit was April 2003, with the person from the Foreign Office turned up at the same meeting as the person from M15. So I wasn’t able to tell the difference between him and M15. Later on he turned up separately, having realised his mistake. But I did make my complaints known to him, I told him that they wanted to put me through a military commission and I felt that there was no way on earth I would get a fair trial, that not only the prosecution and military judges and panel going to be involved but even my defence was from the military.
CP: You have said that you were "on the brink of losing your faith". How did they attempt to break you psychologically?
MB: I think it was the isolation and having no contact with my family, nor any other Muslim at all. My state of mind was strong in a mental sense, although I did crack up in the cell and smash it up a few times and they sent a psychiatrist to me. I didn’t think I needed a psychiatrist. I needed something to change in my situation. I think the lowest point in all of this was when they first told me they designated me to a military commission – what I always believed could not take place in a normal civilise
d society, supposedly America. When they said that was going to take place, I think that was one of the worst points.
CP: What was the mental health like among the prison population?
MB: I didn’t spend much time among the prison population. Only my last two months there, they put me in the pre-commission block, where all the people who were supposed to go through the military commission were put. There were six of us. That included myself, Feroz Abbasi, David Hicks, Salim Hamdan, who was accused of being Bin Laden’s driver, Ali Hamza Al Bahlul, supposed to be in charge of media for Al Qaeda, and Mohammad Salih Al Qosil who was Sudanese. I found that all of these people had a good mental frame of mind. But I heard stories about others, when I shouted across to the other blocks, I heard some pretty bad stories, there were some suicide attempts. One brother had put a sheet around his neck and jumped off. They managed to save his life, but he was a vegetable, he is unable to have normal speech, he is unable to walk properly.
CP: What was your experience with the BISCUIT team?
MB: My personal experience with the medical team was not too bad. There was no forced administration of drugs, mostly I complied.
CP: What was your experience with the IRF? Could you relate any incidences that occurred with other prisoners?
MB: It never happened to me, but I heard it happen on several occasions. Even in Camp Echo, I couldn’t hear too much, but on one occasion there was a detainee whom they called Imran, and they used to ‘IRF’ him many times. When I was put in the pre-commission block afterwards, I used to hear ‘IRFs’. I think Martin Mubanga was IRF’ed on a few occasions. I remember the sound of it is supposed to be quite intimidating because it is ten pairs of feet banging on this metal floor. I saw their clothes, shields and protective body wea,r where they charge into a cell, throw a person down and carry him away. I know there was this one person called Rashid al Joufi, who was in a cell on the opposite side to me, although I could not see, I could hear him. He had had everything taken away from him, so all he had in his cell was a pair of shorts, nothing else. He asked for a bar of soap so that he could wash himself after using the bathroom, and he wanted to use it again and they refused to let him use it, so they wanted to take it back. So for the sake for a two inch bar of soap, they IRF’ed him and ended up smashing his lower lip, which was covered in blood. This was related to me directly from people who saw this.
CP: How often did you receive letters from your family? Were you aware of any instances that you were deprived of mail and similarly, were letters withheld from your family?
MB: Yes, I think there were several instances. When I did receive letters from my family, they would say ‘when we wrote to you about such and such’ and of course, I never received it. The most clear one, was when the British delegation of September 2003 came, they said they had a whole load of letters from my family and that my family were having some problems back at home. Those letters were supposed to be given to me, but I never did receive them. As far as I understand, I had it better than many. My stuff did not need to be translated, so it reached me quicker than theirs did.
CP: In the one of your letters to your wife, you wrote you were "about to make a decision that would affect your whole family", what were you referring to?
MB: That was about pleading guilty to being involved in a war crime. I thought that if what they are saying is true, that they are going to take me to court, that is my only chance to speak out. If I say I’m innocent, they are not going to put me through the system, if I say that I am guilty, they will charge me and I would have used that as an opportunity to speak out.
CP: You allegedly admitted to participating in a plot to spray the Houses of Parliament with anthrax, how do you respond to the allegations against you?
MB: (laughs) It’s ridiculous, I never even heard of that one until I came to Britain, I don’t know where the source of that is from, but it’s quite amusing.
CP: Back in July of 2003, you were one of six who were due to face military tribunal, possibly facing the death penalty, how did you react to this news?
MB: It was probably the hardest thing for me. I really thought, ‘this is it.’ The information passed over to me was not by the Americans but it was the British delegation from the Foreign Office, who actually told me about the decision and that the USA had come to an agreement that if I was put through a trial, the trial would have to be fair. Otherwise the British wouldn’t agree to it.
CP: How did you take the news that you would not be among the five to be released in 2004?
MB: I was very happy because it was like looking at a wheel that was rusted and stopped turning. When I saw that one of cogs turned, and five got released, I was very happy because it meant that at some point, my cog would come along too.
CP: How and when were you told you were going to be released? What was your reaction?
MB: It was on one of these occasions when they had been taking me to interrogation so often, when I was with the other brothers in Camp Delta, they were telling me ‘you are the worst of the worst, you’re a terrorist, Americans don’t care about the complaints that you have made.’ They would do this to me every single day, they were taking me to interrogation more and more, I think about 15 times in one week. So the brother Ali Hamza, who was very perceptive said to me, ‘You’re going home soon, this is what they did with the Tipton brothers too.’
So one morning, I was told I was going to interrogation, when I wasn’t, they took me to Camp Echo, where I spent my last days. So I didn’t get to say goodbye or salaam to any of the other brothers at all. One day, a man came in and told me that, ‘We the United States Government have decided to release you to the British authorities and to drop any charges that have been put against you.’ I said to him, ‘I don’t believe you. I think that you are a liar just like all your military and how you have been operating before.’ He said, ‘I’m not in the habit of lying, you will find out soon enough’. And he was correct.
CP: Could you tell us about your return to the UK?
MB: I was put in a coach, myself, Martin Mubanga, Feroz and Richard Belmar, so we were these four, shackled, dark skinned people in orange with beards, on a bus load of fifty American soldiers, and I don’t exaggerate when I say fifty. Overkill to the max. This is the first time ever I saw Martin Mubanga, I had never seen him before. He said ‘Assalamu Alaikum, I’m Martin, I’ve heard about you, you are the brother from Birmingham.’ We were speaking Arabic with one another so the American soldiers sent an Arabic translator to sit amongst us. But then he started speaking in London Cockney street slang, which had them all confused, as none of them knew what he was talking about., Eventually we got across the ferry, to where the British were waiting for us, we were all shackled with padlocks on our shackles. And they had forgotten the key. So the Americans, completely incompetent, tried to get a wire cutter to cut the shackles off, and they couldn’t do it, they bent the wire cutter. Then they went to get another one, and cut it all off, and it was very embarrassing for them in front of the British. When we got over to where the British were, they took us without shackles. But as long as we were in American custody, we were shackled, so the moment the British took us the shackles were off.
When I saw all the police over
there, I thought its going to be better than before but it’s going to mean police station, court. I thought, the ordeal is not over. But the treatment by the British police was not anywhere as half as paranoid as the American soldiers were. They bought over newspapers which I read all of, as much and as quick as I could. They had prepared food for us, snacks, bars of chocolate, things that we never had for the past three years. They prepared Qur’ans and Prayer Mats for us, I think it was a whole public relations thing.
As soon as we landed a woman from Scotland Yard came in and said that we were under arrest under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. They put me and Feroz into the back of a police van. It was a tiny little space, on which they closed this Perspex door, and it was worse than anything I had been in in Guantanamo, it was horrible. The whole journey, which lasted an hour and a half from Northolt to Paddington Green, it was so depressing.
CP: Your solicitor Gareth Peirce described your arrest on return as "an extravaganza for the purposes of press and publicity, with no proper investigative purpose whatsoever." What is your view of that?
MB: Absolutely. When I saw Gareth Peirce there, I was very happy. But when they did the questioning, there was another person called Hussein who was from Gareth’s office. They started asking me the most ridiculous questions, these questions had definitely come out of Guantanamo! One of the things they asked me was did I know the whereabouts of certain alleged members of Al Qaeda. I said, ‘Subhan’Allah! I have been in prison by the Americans for the past three years, and you are asking me these questions?’ I started laughing. They said, ‘Are you finding this funny?’ I said, ‘Yes, I find it absolutely hilarious!’ My lawyer who was there with me said, ‘I find it hilarious!’ At the end of the interrogation, they said, ‘We are sorry for asking these questions, but there is someone breathing down out necks and we had to ask them.’
CP: How soon after were you able to contact your family?
MB: They said that my father was outside the police station, I said ‘No, I haven’t come all this way for them to see me in a police cell.’ I wanted to see them on my own terms.
CP: Could you describe the emotional scenes in which you were reunited with your family?
MB: I was taken to Gareth Peirce’s house, myself and Richard Belmar. I walked in and saw my father and my brother there. I think all that time separated from them, I think it was more emotional for them than for me, I think I had become a little colder and more distant. But for them, I could see the emotion in all their faces.
Even with my wife and children, it was all very difficult. It’s hard to describe how I felt at that time, because 24 hours earlier I had been in a solitary confinement cell.
CP: You said soon after your return “I do not think I can ever be back to normal." What are the mental and physical scars of your detention?
MB: I can’t be back to normal, knowing that as long as there are still people over there – when I speak to family members of Shaker Aamer, and Jamil El Banna – it comes back to me, I feel a sense of guilt that I am here and they are there and going through the same thing as I did, if not worse. Two of them had children born whilst they had been in custody and I know exactly what that is like. I don’t think anything can be back to normal again, because things have changed in Britain and the whole world. One of the things I saw in the newspaper how the detainees in Iraq were being treated by British soldiers, not just American soldiers. I heard about Belmarsh, I heard about Babar Ahmad’s case, the hundreds of arrests taking place in Britain. Nothing had happened in Britain at all, it had happened in America but not in Britain. Now the atmosphere that has been created, it’s so different, it’s very hard to come to terms with that.
Physically, because one of the things I used to do in Guantanamo was work out every day, I think physically I am in a lot better shape than I have been in a long time, as far as stamina goes. As for mental scars, I get flashbacks of Guantanamo all the time, especially when I am on my own, with my family around it’s not so bad.
When I first arrived, a brother invited me to his house saying another brother wanted to meet me. But they ended up inviting another ten people there, I could not stand it, I had to walk out. For the first month or so, I found it hard to be around large groups of people. I knew I had to address this and be around people, and eventually I went to an Amnesty International Meeting, and spoke in front of 500 people. Since that point, it has been a lot easier.
CP: How has this ordeal changed you?
MB: I think particularly in relation to the world, Britain’s position has really surprised me. I really did not think Britain would be as bad as the Americans. But it seems like we are getting there. As far as the Muslim community is concerned, I see that the Muslim community is being forced to come together, even though we are always at one another’s throats for one reason or the other. There are elements of the Muslim community that are coming together, and that is positive.
CP: What is your reaction to the travel ban imposed upon you and the seizure of your passport? What further action are you taking with regard to this?
MB: One of the things they have said that this is ‘based on information obtained during your time in Guantanamo and Bagram’. So what they are saying is whatever information they have obtain from myself or other people has been obtained from torture. They have really stabbed themselves in the foot with this one, unless they admit it is fine to use information obtained by torture. But I think that they also left it open by saying ‘we will entertain any request on the grounds of compassion or other grounds’. So it’s not a complete ban.
CP: What are your thoughts about taking legal action against the US?
MB: I really would like to take legal action against them, if only for the principle, if not for compensation. But in any practical terms, any compensation America would pay to me would be very unlikely. However, I like one of the things Clive Stafford Smith suggested to me: to make a case against the Americans for however millions of dollars, and to give the money to a charity the Americans don’t like.
CP: You have said "I hated myself for being inane enough to bring my family to Afghanistan." What regrets do you have, and how are you able to deal with them?
MB: The regret was in hindsight, that when the war took place, I should have evacuated earlier rather than later but I don’t think there wouldn’t have been any guarantee that I wouldn’t have been taken. They had already decided they would come after me at one point or another. I could never have known the consequences of September the 11th, but then afterwards I thought perhaps I shouldn’t have even brought them there. But now looking back, I have no regrets. I spoke to my wife about this and we both have no regrets about going there for the reasons we went.
CP: What do you feel is your obligation to those left behind?
MB: My obligation is to make du’a to Allah (swt) that He secures their release and their release swiftly and safely and to propagate that message to as many people as I can.
CP: Have you kept in touch with any of the other released detainees? What is their condition?
MB: I am in touch with all of them, visited them several times and talk to them all the time. I think we all feel fairly much the same as one another.
CP: Have you been in
touch with any of the families of current detainees, and what can you tell us about their plight?
MB: I have been in touch with the family of Jamil el Banna and Shaker Aamer. I haven’t spoken to Bisher’s brother. But their condition is one of great anxiety; they are really worried about their family members. One of them has suffered a mental breakdown, two of them have had children whilst their husbands have been in custody, two of them have written heart rending letters of appeal to people like Tony Blair. Masha’Allah, one of the sisters is very strong and very admirable in the way she deals with problems. But they really need help and it breaks my heart to see how they are – that’s how my family were.
CP: Jack Straw ensured the released detainees would receive help from their local authorities, have you received any such help?
MB: No, not at all.
CP: How have your local Muslim community received you upon your return?
MB: I think in general, they have kept away just because they want to give me my time. But the truth comes out when I go out to the shops to buy something, I get recognised, people Mash’Aallah are so good, they seem to have put me on some sort of pedestal that I don’t deserve to be on. I have received letters, from Muslims and non Muslims, letters of support.
The friends of my family, many of them took care of my family in ways that I can only ask Allah (swt) to grant them the greatest of rewards. But I feel bad for several others [detainees and their families], I have been born here, and raised in the UK, many others haven’t had that background, they don’t know people, don’t know how to speak to people, cannot communicate properly. I feel bad for them.
CP: What was your reaction on your release to witness the changed state of the Muslims in the UK, many being detained indefinitely without trial, the numbers being stopped and searched?
MB: Almost of unbelief that they are doing this in Britain, at the same time as us getting released. One of the reasons Gareth Peirce stayed the whole evening when she visited me in Paddington Green, was the next day there was the House of Lords decision for the detainees in Belmarsh. Some of these people, I have met in Gareth’s office, wearing their electronic tagging equipment, listening to the control orders they have to live under, and again they were not charged with anything, nor accused of anything. They have just been put through the system because they are foreigners.
CP: What do you think is the future of Muslims in the UK?
MB: I don’t know. I would like to think that the future is as it was before, that the Muslims are an established part of this community, an intrinsic part of Great Britain. I think Islam has its mark on Britain and Britain has its mark on the Muslims of Britain.
CP: Since your return you have been actively involved in a number of campaigns. Tell us about your work. What prompted you to get involved?
MB: It was just natural, I had to just speak out what is going on over there, rebut all of the lies the Americans or the British have been saying about a situation I know about first hand. I think it is important that people know about some of the abuses that are going on over there, especially, when they talk about retracting the story in Newsweek, when they say that the abuse of the Qur’an did not take place, it’s important people know it did. It is important for me also, that I am able to say what I think. That if we don’t take a pro active position we will only have ourselves to blame.
CP: Are Muslims doing enough for this cause?
MB: Vis a vis the non Muslims, then no. We don’t have any Muslim Amnesty International, any Muslim campaigners, any Muslims lawyers standing sharp and firm for justice in the way the non Muslims are. Obviously the Muslims are a minority so we don’t expect them to be in such a large number. The problem is that when these things happen, if it happens to you, you react, if it doesn’t happen to you, you stay asleep. But comparatively, Muslims are rising up better than they ever did before.
CP: Your father describes himself as a loyal British citizen, where do your loyalties lie in the light of your experience?
MB: As far as the nation is concerned, I am a dual national, Pakistani and British. I don’t feel particularly Pakistani, I don’t feel particularly British. But my origins are in Pakistan. I feel comfortable in identifying myself as Muslim.
CP: What is the importance, in your opinion, of Muslims partaking in elections and political work?
MB: Before all of this I was of the view that for Muslims to take part in elections was haram (forbidden). However, I think that certain situations or occasions, defined by people more knowledgeable than me, it is important for Muslims to get involved for the principle of the lesser of the two evils.
CP: How and when did you hear about Cageprisoners.com?
MB: I heard about it from my wife. She did an interview with Al Istiqaamah magazine, which was then published on Cageprisoners.com.
CP: What comments do you have about the site?
MB: I am very impressed with the site, I feel upset and astounded when I come across people who claim to be involved in this issue of the rights of Muslims usurped around the world, that they are not aware of this site. I think it is important that they know about this site. It has the most comprehensive listing of all the detainees around the world. It’s certainly well known among the non Muslim activists, they have all heard of it.
CP: What message do you have for other families who are suffering from the detention of a loved one?
MB: Have hope, because they tried to remove all hope of any solution from the brothers and their families, so never give up hope. Pray Allah (SWT) will ease the suffering. Some people will remain there indefinitely, but keep praying to Allah (SWT) and become active. Let the world know about these atrocities, and embarrass these Governments who are flaunting their own laws and the laws that Allah (SWT) has put down for humans.
CP: Finally, what message would you like to give the Muslim and Non Muslim public alike?
MB: I would like to thank everybody for all the help and efforts they have been making in my case and the case of many other people. But it is important to remember that as far as the political system is concerned, Bush and Blair and all their cronies, John Howard, be aware that the world is not going to stand for the way they are treating the rest of the world and as far as the Muslims are concerned, it is important for them to turn to Allah (SWT) and the Qur’an and never lose faith in it.
Moazzam Begg, thank you for speaking with us.
CP: What was your reaction the Supreme Court decision? When were you and the other detainees informed about this?
MB: I was not informed of it officially until many, many months later, but I was informed by one of the soldiers, who was, in fact, a Vietnam veteran, who was quite empathetic to us. He informed me of the decision. And that prompted me to write the letter, in which I demanded my rights from the United States Administration and I detailed a list of abuses and my attempts to pursue action through the courts, and I believe that letter was published in Britain.
CP: Could you describe your first meeting with your lawyers?
MB: The first meeting I had was in August 2004 with an American lawyer called Gita Gutierrez and I think she was the first civilian lawyer to be allowed into Guantanamo. But it was sad in a way because she said ‘You could be sitting here for the next two, three, four, five, ten years, there is nothing concrete.’ She came for four days in a row consecutively and she sat w
ith me for about three to four hours each time. There was no one present in the room, but there was a camera. I was chained and shackled to the floor. Initially I was suspicious, in fact after my first meeting with Gita, half an hour later an interrogator came in and started asking me about the meeting with her. Initially, I wasn’t sure about her, but she did say a few things that eased my mind. One was that she bought a letter from my lawyer in the UK which was Gareth Peirce, and also had a letter from my father. In fact she told me something that only my father and my elder brother could have known.
CP: Can we speak about your letter that was surprisingly released from Guantanamo, in which you alleged torture and mistreatment? For what purpose did you believe you were writing the letter? Whom was it directed to? How do you believe that it came to be released from Gitmo uncensored?
MB: I wrote the letter initially on the 5th of July 2004, a few days after the Supreme Court ruling and that was the reason why I wrote it, because I thought that strike while the iron is hot and we have the right audience in the US court. That is why I wrote the letter, and I made several handwritten copies which I distributed to the American administration and one which I gave to one of the guards to pass over to David Hicks’ lawyer. I think that is how it got through eventually.
CP: Why did you refuse to participate in the CSRTs?
MB: Initially, I had been advised to partake by my lawyer, Gita, and I think she had got it terribly mistaken. But I did participate in the sense that I wrote a 14 page rebuttal, to the whole argument to the state tribunal and my position. A couple of days before the tribunal was due to take place, I received a letter emphatically telling me not to take part, so I did not.
CP: When and why were you moved out of solitary confinement at the end of 2004?
MB: I was moved out on the first day of Ramadhan, October 15th 2004. I wasn’t sure the exact reason. It was not just me, but all the other people who were held in Camp Echo and were designated to be put forward for Military Commissions or some people who had already gone through them. So we were all moved together, six of us.
CP: In what conditions were you then held?
MB: This was the main Camp Delta. 24 cages, 14 in a whole block. They were smaller than the cage I was previously in, but the difference here was that I had people to talk to, which took away from all the arduousness and monotony.
CP: What was your interaction like with the other detainees?
MB: I used to interact with them very well all the time, as I speak several different languages. So I was able to communicate to many, even across the block, whom I didn’t see. I spoke to them in Urdu, Arabic or in English. Some even spoke a bit of French. On the day of Eid, it was the best Eid I had had in years. Nobody prayed the prayer of Eid, but everybody knew it was Eid and straight after the morning, people started singing nasheeds in Arabic, English, Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, and Turkistani. It was a fantastic day. And the guards were so unhappy to see us happy. I used to have discussions with the brothers there. I talked to David Hicks about Australia, to Ali Hamza about Yemen, and with some of the other detainees I tried to teach them English words. Sadly, I heard some of the detainees pick up swear words in English, because the average American soldier swears a lot, so some of the detainees picked these up, so I tried to get these brothers to better their language, and I taught them to respond to the Americans in kind, without bringing them down to the same level.
I heard about many protests, these were happening all the time. You could hear it every day, from the other block. Our block only had six people, so nothing much happened but there were a few occasions when there was a problem between us and the marine who was guarding us. On the other block, there was something happening all the time – hunger strikes, spitting at the guards, throwing urine at the guards, shouting and screaming. It sounded like a war zone.
In terms of the British residents still held at Guantanamo, at present, Shaker Aamer who was a close friend of mine, and Omar Deghayes are in Camp Five which is a maximum security place, which is close to Camp Echo. They have been held there for almost a year now. Jamil El Banna and Bisher Al Rawi, I think they are in Camp Four, which is a better place where people don’t wear orange they wear white. There are eight people in a room and they can play football with one another, it is a little better. The closest we could imagine to an actual Prisoner of War type camp.
CP: Your solicitor says that you "retained your mental agility and the ability to articulate extraordinarily", how did you manage to keep yourself going?
MB: Of course, it is for me, the Qur’an. Many verses, when I used to look at the Qur’an, they would stick out to me in a way I had never, never interpreted before. They were directed to me, I felt that Allah was talking to me, particularly when I was in Camp Echo. So I felt my strength came from here. Also I had heard about the difficulty and the atrocities faced by brothers in other places worse than Guantanamo, in places like Egypt, Algeria and Syria. So I felt that this was not as bad as they had it.
CP: Did you experience any significant dreams whilst incarcerated?
MB: Not during incarceration, but there was a dream I had in 1993 where I saw that I was in a cell, a large cell, walking with other people and we were all walking around, surrounded by razor wire. I was with a Moroccan brother and there were cameras on, which were mounted machine guns, and everywhere I would turn, these cameras were looking at us. I told the brother, ‘We have to do something to stop this humiliation’ and he told me,‘Brother, have patience.’ Suddenly a gun started firing and everyone started getting killed, except for me. A voice shouted from somewhere, ‘Moazzam, your wife is going to have a child but you are not going to see the child’. Then, I shouted the Adhan (call to prayer) really loud, and my voice spread throughout the world. I raised my hands towards the sky and a voice in my head said to ask for deliverance from Allah and ask for him to remove this humiliation and that du’a (Prayer) is the answer. My hands went right up into the sky until they passed the clouds and I woke up in tears. I remember this happened after I had just gotten married. I told my wife this dream. From Bagram, I wrote to her about this dream and said ‘The dream became true’.
CP: What did you imagine that the future would hold?
MB: I think after they said I would be going through military commission, I resigned myself to my fate. There were times I had doubts about the issue of fate in Islam anyway, but I have never been more certain about fate and Qadar (pre-destination) than I was during my time in custody.
(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.)