We share three personal accounts of time spent behind bars in Belmarsh prison, where Moazzam Begg was held for 7 months before all charges against him were dropped. A place where brotherhood and faith can be found but also a place where you are forced to feel humiliated and dehumanised.
Moazzam Begg once said about his time in Guantanamo: 'It was the best of times, and the worst of times'. I didn’t understand. How was it possible that you could find in that dark place, the epicentre of all that was torturous and unjust, the best of times?
It wasn't until years later when I had been imprisoned (I was innocent of the charges against me) that I remembered these words; they gained depth and I understood what Moazzam meant. Imprisonment can bring a clarity that you can't be taught in a book or a lecture.
Alhamdulillah, we have some personal recollections from brothers who have spent time in Belmarsh prison, where Moazzam was being held whilst these accounts were written, we thought we thought we’d share them, to allow you a glimpse of what life is like behind those walls.
The names of the authors have been changed.
We begin in the name of Allah Azawajal, we seek only His assistance against those who wish to extinguish His light with their wretched tongues, and we send peace and blessings be upon the noblest and purest of creation Muhammad ibn Abdullah (peace be upon him).
The prison system is run in such a way as to humiliate and degrade the inmate as much as possible. The process of dehumanisation starts immediately.
From the moment of my arrest at the airport, I was ordered to strip in front of five police officers. I still remember feeling angry and upset and twisting slightly so as not to reveal my full body. Unfortunately one of the officers noticed and barked that I do it properly.
After that I made a promise to myself that I would never show weakness to these people, and that if they wanted to strip search me again they would not see no weakness from me. I would be subjected to this type of humiliation regularly during my incarceration.
‘I still remember feeling angry and upset and twisting slightly so as not to reveal my full body’
One of the most difficult times was during the trial period, especially when you know you are innocent. The cruelty of the prison guards is unrelenting with their childish mocking and constant insults.
As the jury were deliberating the officers would place bets on what sentence we would receive: one would say "I bet you 20 quid" they get 30 years each, while the other would reply "35 I think".
My response was: "You've both got it twisted; I wouldn't be happy with anything less then 40 years."
But Alhumdullillah, Allah dishonours whom He wills, and we were acquitted after a second trial.
I would like to end with the story of Musa (peace be upon him). At the beginning of the story Musa and Bani Israil are the week ones, but by the end the sea will split for Musa. Firawn was the loser. Musa’s special quality was his unbreakable faith and a will of iron.
Anything good is from Allah most High and all mistakes are from me. Peace and blessings upon Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Before June 2003 my only experience of prison was through how it was portrayed in Hollywood films.
So when I arrived at the famous Belmarsh Prison, all I got was flashbacks of all the prison movies I’d watched as a child. I told myself I had to man up, that it was going to be tough, that I would have to stab someone big to make my mark – either that, or I'm finished.
Strangely, after a short induction, I received a bottle of Ribena dilute juice and a bag of goodies before being taken to my cell. It looked much better than Paddington where I had been held for nine days. I had a sink, a normal toilet, a better looking bed and a mattress, and a small window with a view of the yard. I remember as soon as the screw locked the door I immediately jumped on my bed and shouted ‘Alhamdullillah!’
‘When a brother won his case and was going to be released, all night long all you could hear was takbirs from our tiny windows.’
When a screw opened the door, I thought the moment of truth had arrived. I was told it was time for an hour of exercise. Millions of emotions ran through my mind. I was preparing for anything.
As I stepped out into the yard, everyone looked normal. Suddenly, as I started walking in the circle, I heard a beautiful Salam. In the corner of the yard was a group of brothers with the most wonderful and welcoming smiles.
At first I thought maybe they were spies trying to stitch me up, but soon I felt so welcome and at ease. The brothers told me they were expecting me as they had read something in the news.
The block I was in was house block three. It's the induction block, so all brothers had to pass by unless they were in the secure unit.
The brothers were amazing; they had even prepared some welcoming fruit for me.
It wasn't pleasant being locked up for up to 23 hours a day. But that one hour with the brothers was like a jannah.
Some brothers who'd been in for a longtime had cassette players and would play Qu’ran recitations and nasheeds out loud for all to hear.
Some of the best moments were when a brother won his case and was going to be released; all night long all you could hear was takbirs from our tiny windows.
I remember having many chats through those windows.
During my trial,
I used to come back to my cell to find rice pudding with jam on top shaped like a flower, placed on top of my desk. The brothers knew how tiring trials were.
The day I won my case and was found not guilty, we were all really happy. We hugged and cried. I knew I was getting bail.
I didn't just meet brothers in Belmarsh; I met a new family.
Often prison is described as the ‘University of Yusuf (as)’. A place where the distractions of Dunya are removed and all you have is time.
Time to contemplate, time to read and time to build your Eman. We know the dua of the oppressed is always answered and there is no salah like the salah you perform while confined in a cold concrete cell; physically imprisoned, yet the soul remains free.
At times though, finding khushu became difficult, when the sweetness of tahajjud became dissolved by the agony of the situation.
You are a prisoner on twenty-three hours of lock down, facing the power of an entire government that criminalises you for your Deen and the prospect of fighting a court case on hugely uneven terms, this recipe can lead to despair.
‘With your face on the cold concrete ground you are no longer alone; you are in the company of the heroes of Islam.’
In those dark times when you are feeling lonely and abandoned, shaytan plays havoc with your insecurities and weaknesses. As much as your Eman is boosted, the barrage is increased at any sign of weakness. A haze can descend and the cell closes.
The heart beats and the hand shakes. It's hard to even think straight. All you know is that you must be out of this cell. You rage and scream against a full steel door.
No pain comes from kicking and punching the door, and there are only tears and desperation.
Alhamdulillah by the mercy of Allah the most High these times pass, yet they are the worst of times.
In the nights of peace, Tahujjud is an amazing time; it softens the heart. But when you have been denied your freedom because you hold on to the ideals of justice, and because you refuse to renege on your Shahada, its power is increased manifold. During this period of the night, the walls that confine you melt in to the darkness and your attention is no longer focussed on captivity or trials, but on the praise of Allah.
With your face on the cold concrete ground you are no longer alone; you are in the company of the great Prophets, scholars and heroes of Islam. I've never had a salah like that salah. Those were the best of times.
(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.)