Moazzam Begg’s powerful presentation to the Law Society in 2006 for the Graham Turnbull Award ceremony on the merits of torture
In the Name of Allah Most Compassionate Most Merciful
Good evening ladies and gentlemen.
When I was first asked to make a presentation for the Graham Turnbull Award, here at the Law Society, I thought I’d find myself out of my depth. Delivering speeches to solicitors, legal experts, activists and peers was not the sort of thing I was used to in my life prior to my incarceration. But the subject matter of the presentation seemed to me to be a rather open and shut case: Is Torture Ever Justified? No. End of presentation. So why is it that lawyers are faced with this question today, in the 21st century, here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Western Europe or the USA? According to the law of this country, international law, military law, conventions and treaties torture is not an option – it is unlawful. But the question we face here is not one of legality. It’s about morality – or the lack of it. It’s about a political desire to redefine the use of torture and its application, and to make it acceptable to the masses, because ‘the rules of the game have changed.’
The word torture has its roots in the Latin tortura: meaning torment, twisting or physical disorder by twisting. And when we think of torture today it often takes us back to antiquated times when Latin was the lingua franca of Europe, and torture was an accepted part of the judicial process. Perhaps the French and Spanish Inquisitions come to mind. Anyone visiting one of hundreds of surviving mediaeval castles in this country – something I like to do – will encounter grand and magnificent castellation and architecture, until they descend to the bowls of these great fortresses and discover the dungeons. The morbid fascination these places hold for visitors is evident by the lengths of the queues outside to enter them. Inside we can expect to see the old instruments of torture: the rack, the stock, and the iron maiden – all grim reminders of our barbaric past. The cells are tiny and devoid of any natural light. We try, for just a moment, to imagine life in a tiny cage, in shackles that have now rusted away with time. We try to imagine the wails and screams of prisoners that echo from the past, carrying a grim reminder of our own cruel and brutal history. We leave safe in the knowledge that at least this part of it is where it will remain. Surely, nothing like this could be in existence today. Not in the civilized world.
In Arabic the word torture, or t’atheeb, comes from ‘athaab, which means punish. Sadly, it is easy to envisage the types of torture meted out today in Middle Eastern and Third World countries. It’s common knowledge that one could almost expect maltreatment and torture in these countries, where such practices are part of an unwritten convention, if not written constitution. We, in this country, regard torture as something alien to our society, something we did away with a long time ago, something quite unacceptable. We know the US military has been involved in it, but still, it is only practiced, we tell ourselves, by despotic third world regimes or terrorist-types. However, using information extracted through torture by a third party nation seems to be much more acceptable, particularly in recent times. People have been arrested and detained in this country on nothing more than alleged confessions by people made in countries known to practice torture. Britain has also recently agreed to extradite people to Middle Eastern and North African nations on the written assurance that the deportees would not be tortured, thus inferring a very real possibility that they would normally be subject to beatings, rape and electric shock treatment. Why ask for the assurance not to torture in the first place? Yet these countries are led to believe, by the West, that the best form of governance, democracy, which ensures human rights, freedom and equality is a paradigm of civilization for all nations to follow. We don’t practice torture, but we don’t mind outsourcing it.
Today, the world’s most powerful nation and its most vociferous exponent of democracy, operates the world’s most infamous prisons. The manner of incarceration in these places is looked down upon even according to the standards of some of the world’s poorest Third World nations. An Eritrean minister recently said, “The U.S. administration has no legal or moral ground to point its fingers at other countries on human rights issues or to act as a self-appointed court” particularly “… at a time when we are reading the gruesome reports from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay”. The central theme of each of these black holes of detention, that has earned the USA such scathing and growing condemnation the world over involves: the removal of basic human rights, arbitrary detention and the application of torture. (And he [the minister] didn’t even mention the Bagram detention facility).
You may have gathered that the use of language is important to me. It is also important to people far more powerful than me. Language is often manipulated to distort, or torture reality. That much to me, is manifest in this war on terror. Extraordinary rendition is a glorified term to describe something far more unacceptable and sinister: abduction, kidnap, false imprisonment and torture. Enemy combatant, unlawful combatant or illegal enemy belligerent are terms used to describe thousands of people held in arbitrary detention, outside the rule of the law and who are denied basic access to what even the worst convicted criminals on earth have been given. Indeed, I was extraordinarily rendered, just like hundreds of voiceless others. As far as I know, there are only two times in history when darker people, mostly Muslim, were taken en masse across the Atlantic to the Americas in chains. The last time it happened was in the days of slavery. During both periods the culprits were overwhelmingly from America. During both periods attempts have been made at justifying kidnap, false imprisonment and torture.
The iguana is a protected species in Guantánamo Bay. If it is harmed, the offending soldier can expect to pay up to 10,000 USD, as well as a host of other penalties. There are detainees in Guantánamo from over forty countries – some of them US allies. But if a detainee is harmed, tortured or even murdered the offending soldier can expect little or no reprimand. I, and other former detainees, have borne witness to this – and so even have some former US military personnel. The only nationality in the world that is protected from violations in Guantánamo is, not surprisingly, American – even if deemed an enemy combatant. US nationals are simply taken to the US mainland and processed through the normal justice system.
The issues surrounding Guantánamo Bay are of particular interest to people in the legal profession. But in practical, tangible terms the law has never applied there for detainees. Not US criminal or civil law, not the United States Military Code of Justice, not the Geneva Conventions, not international law and not the right of habeas corpus – despite the 2004 US Supreme Court ruling in Rasul vs. Bush, a case brought by the family of a British detainee in Guantánamo which supposedly gave detainees the right to habeas corpus clai
ms. In reality, not a single person to date has appeared before a recognised court charged with a crime, in nearly five years. No one has been convicted; no one has been acquitted. Yet still, fathers remain without their children, wives and families. The majority of detainees are not even interrogated any longer. After five years in such conditions you forget your own address. The uncertainty of your future is the only reality you know. That, I can tell you, is perhaps the greatest torture I had to endure.
The barbarous wars launched in Afghanistan (and subsequently Iraq) are euphemistically named ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. You’d think that from September 11 to the present time, it was the USA’s freedom – not security – in jeopardy. Is this an inadvertent or subliminal message, telling us that in fact it is our freedom that is at risk – only the risk is from our own decision makers? How many informed people are really convinced that al-Qa’idah or the Taliban, are desirous, or even capable of removing our freedoms here in the west? In Guantánamo Bay a plaque with the expression, ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’, decorates all of the detention camp entrances. In fact, there is a rather ridiculous practice their employed by the US military whereby lower enlisted soldiers must salute passing officers, uttering the words, ‘Honor Bound!’ to which the ranking officer replies on cue, ‘To Defend Freedom!’ I can assure you it is a practice that most soldiers found ludicrous. But this does demonstrate the levels to which the US administration is convincing itself, and others, that it’s actions, lawful or otherwise, are serving a greater purpose. Look at what we’re being told: People are being imprisoned, put in chains and tiny cells, without charge or trial, in order to ‘keep the rest of us free’; wars are being prosecuted in order to ‘secure a lasting peace’; torture is now a necessity in order to protect our human rights – ‘to protect our way of life’.
What people often forget too is that the United Nations Conventions against torture, as well as the Geneva Conventions, all prohibit the use of physical and mental torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is also outlawed.
When I was held by the US military in Bagram and Guantánamo I was told that the US was no longer going to fight wars with its hands tied behind it’s back. I was told that I had no human rights; that the Geneva Conventions did not apply. It was a lesson, they said, they had learned after Vietnam. But it seems they haven’t learned the lesson of Vietnam at all.
Although the US, and indeed this country, claims that the use of torture to extract information is abhorrent to their respective ways of life, the former has reinterpreted its meaning and use, and the latter has been actively complicit. Torture, as defined by the UN Convention against it, is any act by which severe pain or suffering – whether physical or mental – is inflicted for the purposes of obtaining a confession. It further outlaws cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The 2002 redefining of torture by senior legal US government officials suggested that torture now must include ‘severe physical impairment, ‘organ failure’ or even ‘death’. Accepted methods of interrogation, to “glean information from terrorist suspects” now include sleep-deprivation, being made to stand naked in a freezing cell, stress positions, sensory deprivation and water-boarding. To the uninitiated these methods sound relatively innocuous – until they are studied and experienced. Water-boarding was first used during the Spanish Inquisition. It is a method that induces the feeling of drowning without submerging the entire body. In Spanish it is called tortura del agua (torture of the water). Japanese soldiers who carried this out on American POWs during WW2were successfully convicted for war crimes; US soldiers who did the same thing to Vietcong captives were also convicted for war crimes. But today, the Bush administration says it’s not torture, its ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’
In Bagram, 2002, I saw the results of what must be deemed torture even by this new definition. A man in my cell was held for days in a stress position, with his hands shackled to the top of the gate and a hood placed over his head. His pleas for help fell on deaf ears and after a while his body slumped and went limp. Eventually, soldiers entered the cell and instead of administering the necessary medical treatment, they began to punch and kick him. His body was dragged off to the interrogation rooms, after which he shortly died. Reports from the proceedings in the New York Times tell of how the man was still alive in these rooms, but was beaten further and mocked as he screamed, “Allah, Allah!” The culprits were only given sentences ranging from 5 months in a military brig to demotion from the rank of Specialist to PFC – one pay grade, along with honourable discharges. Incidentally, we are told that that the perpetrators of such acts are the few bad apples, and that the greater purpose to gain information to ‘protect lives’ is not negated by such acts. But, when Rumsfeld replied to a query from military commanders about stress positions and sensory, or sleep deprivation, he said that he stood for several hours a day, why couldn’t the detainees? Of course, Rumsfled’s hands aren’t tied to a ceiling with a hood over his head. Nor is he punched and kicked during his hard hours of upright posturing.
All of this is justified because of the very real threat of terrorism, to save innocent lives, or at least innocent American lives. But has it saved lives? Since the Bush administration openly declared that a senior al-Qa’idah member in custody – Ibn al- Sheikh al-Libee – had admitted working with Saddam on WMD, the excuse to invade Iraq was fortified. It was cited as hard evidence by the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Three years, hundreds of protests and over one hundred thousand deaths later we know it was a lie. We know that the evidence was extracted from a man under torture in Egypt. We know the man said what he did because of the excruciating torture he was subjected to. The torture had been outsourced to a place where even the US military appeared rank amateurs. The suspect had initially been held him in Bagram, days before I had to face my own torture there. In fact it was from the CIA in May 2002 – almost a year before the invasion of Iraq – that I learned of this man’s fate, because I was threatened with the very same thing.
I learned of the war in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib abuses from sympathetic soldiers in Guantánamo. I learned too that coalition captives were being dressed in orange suits and executed. I later learned that some of the detainees held in the war on terror – who claim they were not hostile to the US, after release or escape – had taken up arms because of their treatment at the hands of the US military. I learned about US mercenaries contracted out to capture militants in Afghanistan, using barbaric torture methods to interrogate their victims in order to produce results and get paid, like the case of Jack Idema, who claimed his actions were sanctioned by the US military.
The perception of US justice and respect for the law has been shattered for a great many people in the world. And there is a perception too, that countries like Britain, will stand with her ally – right or wrong. War, and its nasty by-product, torture, has increased the threat and reality of the very thing it claims it wants to destroy. Countries and individuals that use and justify it have lost any moral high ground they once may have had.
Still, it is all too easy to dismiss torturers as devoid of humanity, much in the same way that the torturers need to dehumanise their victims. Our sad
reality is that people have always justified torture. We can even identify with them, if they’re packaged correctly. From the Dirty Harry style of Hollywood cops bending the rules to ‘get even’ and to save lives, to military psychological operations units devising perverse mind games to break the enemy. The idea of torturing someone into submission is never really that far away from us. We see it on our screens everyday in popular television series like ‘24’ .
Finally, I’d like to close with a short story of a recent and relatively uneventful experience I had just a few weeks ago. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I enjoy visiting castles. I had a few spare hours before I was due to speak at an event in Edinburgh, so I decided to visit the castle there. My wanderings inside led me inevitably to the subterranean 19th century military prison, in the PRISONS OF WAR section. As I walked alone into one of the open cells I thought about my years of isolation in Guantánamo. But at least this cell had natural light and was twice as big. Suddenly, I heard the shouts of American voices and doors slamming shut and being bolted. For just a moment, my heart began to pound. And then I walked out. The young American tourists were just fooling around locking one another in the cells. As I ascended the stairs and left I thought, ‘If only they knew, if only they knew.’
Thank you and good evening.
 This episode is the subject of the osscar-winning documentary-film, Taxi to the Dark Side.
(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.)