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Returning to Life

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was held at various prisons, including Guantanamo Bay, for over three years before being released without charges. Now free, he shares the story of how he survived.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is an abridged version of an extensive interview with Moazzam Begg, who was released from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year. Full audio and text archive are available at Wakeup Call Radio.

DEEPA FERNANDES:You came out of prison six months ago back to Britain. You hadn't seen your family. You hadn't had much communication. I wonder if you can talk about how hard it has been to adjust back to life after being away for so long?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Well, it hasn't been that hard. I kept myself in a frame of mind, that if they had thrown me in a shopping mall after years of solitary confinement, I would be able to deal with it quite coherently. I don't see myself as a victim. I see myself as a survivor returning back to the life I have always known.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Like you, I was born in Birmingham. What was it like to grow up Muslim in England over the last 35 years before you went to Afghanistan. What was your life like and what are your perspectives?

MOAZZAM BEGG: I was born and raised in Birmingham. I originally went to a Jewish school and then to a secondary school, which including having friends from all different backgrounds. Sikh, Muslim, Hindus, Christians, white, blacks. All different categories and denominations of people. As I got older, I discovered a little bit more about my Islamic identity.

I was as a Muslim as any mainstream Muslim person. As I got older, I saw things that changed me and my perspective, particularly in relation to the Muslim world vis-à-vis the rest of the world. That happened first with the Gulf War but even more so by the conflict in former Yugoslavia with the attack by the Serbs on Bosnian Srebrenica. That was a crucial catalyst and I think a turning point in my life.

DEEPA FERNANDES: I wonder if you can talk us through what happened to you from when you were picked up from your house in Pakistan to your time in prison at Guantanmo Bay.

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yes. It was three years of my life, so it is very difficult to condense into a few minutes. But, I can try to highlight the most profound parts of my incarceration including being held by the Americans in Kandahar, in Bagram, and ultimately in Guantanamo for 2 years. During my time there, I witnessed things that I would have never perceived the United States would be capable of. With my own eyes, I witnessed the killing of at least two detainees by military police with their own hands.

DEEPA FERNANDES: That is a grave charge. What happened?

MOAZZAM BEGG: In the first instance, they claimed it was someone who was trying to escape from a cell that was a couple of cells away from me. They caught him, and after they'd beaten him, they dropped his body if front of my cell, near where the medical room was.

Shortly after that, he was pronounced dead. He was carried out on a stretcher, with his body covered. They stated at that time that he wasn't dead. I overhead the guards saying that he had been killed, and they were running around in bit of a frenzy worried about what had taken place.

A year or so later, someone confirmed to me that he was killed. The second person was beaten to death in the same cell as me. He was held with his hands tied above his head with a hood placed about it and suspended for several days. He had been on sleep deprivation, which was one of the forms of punishment there for those who seem to be non-cooperative.

Eventually, the guards came in to take him for interrogation. His body went limp. Rather then try to assist him, they punched and kicked him. They dragged him off afterwards, and we never saw him or heard from him again. Later, I was told he was killed.

I was moved to Guantanamo Bay shortly afterwards. After I'd been at Guantanamo about a year and a half, some officers of the CID, Criminal Investigation Department came and asked me if I was willing to point out the detainees that were killed.

They showed me some photographs and asked me afterwards if I was willing to point out the perpetrators, which I did.

Then, they asked me if I would be willing to testify in a trial as a witness, to prosecute these people, which I found very ironic, as they were trying to put me through some sort of military commission at that point.

To be fair to the Americans, there were some individuals soldiers, I came across who were some of the most humane individuals I have come across in my life, and I salute them, and consider them my friends.

DEEPA FERNANDES: You were first at Bagram Air Base and then taken to Guantanamo. Did you know where you were and where you were being taken?

MOAZZAM BEGG: I was told when I was kidnapped from my home at gunpoint in Pakistan, I wasn't told where I was. Though I found out soon enough that I was in Kandahar, After that, wherever I was moved, I was told where I was.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Do you think you were treated differently because you spoke English?

MOAZZAM BEGG: It was definitely a great advantage speaking English and coming from England. I grew up listening and watching American TV shows. There was so much I could relate to. The vast majority of the detainees couldn't communicate to the Americans coherently and found themselves in more difficult positions.

If a guard spoke once to me, I would understand it, but if he spoke to a person who spoke Pashtun or another language; the chances are that he would not be understood and if the [prisoner] would start shouting and screaming, that would be seen as a failure to comply. His hands would be tied and his head would be hooded as well as other forms of punishment.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Because you speak Urdu, Dari, and Arabic, did you find yourself acting as a translator for other detainees?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yes, I've translated in Bagram and several times for detainees, with medical issues, and grievances to the Red Cross and others that they had.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: What did people say to you about their treatment?

MOAZZAM BEGG: One of the quotes I heard people tell the guards a lot is that they weren't terrorists before they came in, but they certainly will be when they leave. There we so many common rights that were being denied.

DEEPA FERNANDES: What were the rights being denied? What was the treatment like?

MOAZZAM BEGG: We were labeled as enemy combatants; we were told something about ourselves that wasn't true. We were initially told we were enemies of war, we were issued enemy of prisoners of war cards, which would give us some rights; Then they realized their mistake, so they labeled us enemy combatants, an amorphous category, because in history, there had never been this category.

We were denied the right to be free; the right to any legal recourse; regular and meaningful communication with our families; the right to mix with other people; the right to know why I was held in solitary confinement, the right to know why you were beaten and threatened with torture. We were held in tiny little cages that measured 8' by 6'.

DEEPA FERNANDES: When and how were you beaten?

MOAZZAM BEGG: During the month of May, I was severely questioned in Bagram. I had my hands tied behind my back, to my legs. I was hog-tied with my head covered with a hood, and the guards punched and kicked me while I was left in this position to be interrogated.

DEEPA FERNANDES: What kinds of questions did they ask you?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Ridiculous questions with no backing at all. It was based on assumptions. They said they came across somebody who said I was an instructor in an al-Qaeda camp. When I asked them, who told you this, when was I supposed to be there, they couldn't produce anything.

DEEPA FERNANDES: How did you answer those questions? Did they just go on endlessly? Were you able to get to anyone through to anyone there that you were innocent?

MOAZZAM BEGG: To be fair, there were several Americans there, that if it was known what they did for me, they would have been thrown out of the army. I think a lot of them saw the reason for what was taking place, and the irrational response of the United States military and government to what was taking place.

My simple statement is this: If America is the land of the free, believing in its own justice and legal system, then put me through it. You have your military code of justice. You have civil courts. Put me through either of those, if you think I committed a crime against you.

Representatives of the United States came to my house in Pakistan, where I was a resident at the time, held me at gunpoint in front of my family, and took me to their territory, and then say that I have no rights.

That is the most audacious thing they did to me, and they did it to 500 other people.

DEEPA FERNANDES: A lot of the excessive behavior at Guantanamo has been blamed on some "bad apples." Can you give us a sense of who was giving the orders and were people just doing what they were told?

MOAZZAM BEGG: There were several soldiers who were not like the other guards. Several soldiers said, "I am not like these people. I don't know what is wrong with them."

Cells were labeled in relation to encounters the US had in history at one point or other to Muslim groups. There were cells entitled Twin Towers, Pentagon, Somalia, Lebanon, Libya. So all these titles were based on incidents with the Muslim world. And what possibly could Lebanon have anything to do with us there? I know there was an attack in Beirut in 1982 on a United States marine barracks when I was six years old. What does that have anything to with me, and why I am being held in a cell labeled after that? So, this is the kind of mentality that was being propounded around soldiers, who obviously they didn't know better at all. My experience has been that sadly these soldiers didn't know about the rest of the world. America is a huge country.

DEEPA FERNANDES: So, were they following orders?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Some people were, but some people had the autonomy or authority, particularly in Afghanistan, to do what they wanted. I had worse experiences in Bagram and Kandahar than I did in Guantanamo, and perhaps that was because I was in solitary confinement, and that was very difficult in itself, but I didn't experience the harsh, really harsh things people experience at the times of Camp X Ray. I saw t-shirts that depicted detainees as banana wraps, and they were all around the island. That was a process of dehumanization of everyone there. If the generals all the way down did not reject this, then they were a part of it. We were treated as sub-human, as animals, and I think it was coming from all the way on top

DEEPA FERNANDES: You wrote a letter a year ago, on July 12, 2004, that said, unequivocally for the record, that anything you signed was signed under duress. I wonder if you can talk about the mental torture they inflicted on you, while you were there.

MOAZZAM BEGG: Two agents that I think were from the FBI were there when I was beaten and tortured in May. These two characters showed up in Guantanamo two days after I arrived. They turned up with a statement for me to sign. They asked the guards to leave, and they said here is a statement. Look through it. Sign and initial it. If you don't do it, the options you have don't look so good. They can include being here for the rest of your life, never seeing your family again. They can include going through a summary trial where you can face execution by a firing squad or by lethal injection or by a gas chamber. And even if someone does look at you case, it could be 6 or 7 years down the line before they look at the case. The British government has washed their hands of it.

My only choice [I was told] was to cooperate and to sign it. At the end of it, I tried to argue that I need legal representation, but I had nobody to communicate with. I was left with no choice, so I signed it. In the end, I thought this perhaps was my way to get into a court, and there was no way, any court would convict based on the evidence, wording, or terminology, and based on my own testimony, to convict me on anything like this.

DEEPA FERNANDES: Were you ever at a breaking point?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yes, after I signed it, the feeling I got was that I signed my life away. The feeling I had was, I was reproaching myself, what have I done, what have I done? It had weighed on my mind for a long time, but then I asked for paper and pen. I asked for copies. I thought if I ever go to court, I could fight them. I thought at some point that my family would be done with me, but I did not know my father was launching a campaign. But I felt something must be going on back there even if I am unaware of it. Every now and then, I would hear something slight. A soldier told me, I heard your father on the radio. And I got a slight bit of hope.

DEEPA FERNANDES: One of the big controversies in the US media was over the apparent desecration of the Koran which was reported by Newsweek, a charge that they later retracted. Did you see it happen, or talk to someone who saw it happen?

MOAZZAM BEGG: In Kandahar, several detainees who spoke of this. One told me about a soldier from the US Marine Corps who tore up a part of the Koran and thrown it into a waste bucket that was used as a latrine. Why wouldn't they do that? If they treated human beings like that, the Koran is only a book.

I saw an incident also in Bagram, where soldiers would enter a cell where a detainee was reading the Koran. He threw the Koran on the ground and kicked it around. I saw them eliminate distribution from detainees, and they would say "Extra! Extra! Come get your Koran and learn how to kill Americans."

I am not saying that every single American soldier was doing this. It wasn't even the norm, but there were significant amounts of cases that took place. If you ask detainees who have come out from different cells from different places, and there were held in solitary confinement, who are saying the same things, then it means these things did happen. There is no doubt about it.

Again, if they can treat human beings in that manner, why not treat the Koran in that way?

DEEPA FERNANDES: What was the worst thing that happened to you while you were in Guantanamo?

MOAZZAM BEGG: In Guantanamo, it was being held in solitary confinement for such a long time without recourse to justice or family or contact with anyone. In Bagram, it was being beaten and hog-tied as I said and witnessing the death of other people and seeing children in custody.

DEEPA FERNANDES: Are you pursuing a lawsuit against the US Government? They did not charge you, and then they released you as a free man some three years later.

MOAZZAM BEGG: The only thing I have done so far is I have tried to campaign as best as I can to raise awareness of people about these plights. If I was to make a legal case, I wouldn't do it for pecuniary damages but as a point of principle for Americans to accept what they have done as completely wrong and to be instrumental in the closure that horrible place known as Guantanamo Bay.

DEEPA FERNANDES: Who were the people you were locked up with? Are they terrorists? Are they enemy combatants against the United States?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Statements are being made that these people were captured on a battlefield. I wasn't captured on a battlefield or anywhere near a battlefield. Neither were all these people or the majority of the people being held there. There weren't too many engagements by the US ground forces; most of them were Northern Alliance forces [on the battlefield.] Normally, the tribunals or Article 5 hearing according to the Geneva Convention is supposed to take place to determine if a man is an enemy combatant or prisoner of war or a non-combatant or civilian. None of these took place because there was not battlefield where it was done.

In the words of many interrogators I came across, and one in particular who said, and I quote, "I know that there is nobody being held here in Guantanamo Bay that has committed an act of belligerence against the United States, because if we did have somebody like that we would have processed them through our courts, punished them, and locked them up for a very long time."

DEEPA FERNANDES: Your own British government did very little to help you while you were inside. You were told they washed their hands of you. Tell a little bit of your father's struggle, in trying to make your case known, and what, if any assistance did he receive from your own government.

MOAZZAM BEGG: I think initially there was a shirking of responsibility from my own government, particularly when I was held in Afghanistan. There was initially in the early stages that the British stated that the Americans are giving no consulate access to the US base in Bagram. However, the MI5 did visit me for a couple days, and did make my complaints to them, and told them about the things I witnessed. I received my first official delegatory visit by the British in 2003, April, and by which time, my case has been going on quite strong on my father's side.

DEEPA FERNANDES: Finally, we can hear your family in the background. Tell me about the Moazzam Begg who is coming back to life as a father.

MOAZZAM BEGG: Moazzam Begg was always alive as a father. He never forgot his children. They were in my prayers and thoughts every single hour of the day. I came back to see them three years older than they were before. The one you heard in the background actually was my son, who I have never seen until the beginning of this year. My eldest daughter cried profusely because she remembered me the most out of all the children. The others did not have too much of a physical, living memory of me, although they did have a memory kept up by my wife who would show pictures of me and letters they got from me from time to time.

Transcript by Alpa Patel. Deepa Fernandes is the host of WBAI's Wakeup Call . Pratap Chatterjee is managing editor of CorpWatch.org and the author of "Iraq Inc." (Seven Stories Press, September 2004).