Human Rights

Former Gitmo Prisoner Moazzam Begg: We Deserve Asylum in Europe

Dozens of European men like myself have been released from Guantanamo, receiving no compensation for our lost years of life.

I was astonished earlier this year when our Prime Minister Gordon Brown met with former Guantanamo Bay detainees and shook hands with them on a visit to Saudi Arabia. When I travelled to Downing St on January 11th last year to deliver a letter calling for the return of three British residents, he didn't answer. In fact, he's never met with any of the British former Guantanamo prisoners.

But I have something a little different planned for this year. My U.S. lawyer in Guantanamo once explained to me the types of prejudices that seemed prevalent in his homeland: "They detested the African-Americans, but never really feared them; they feared the Soviet Union, but didn't really hate them. But Muslims today are both feared and hated."

This fear and hatred has produced a plethora of laws and wars that have targeted Muslims in an unprecedented way.

Who could have imagined that the next president of the U.S. would be a black man with the Muslim name Barack Hussein Obama? The president-elect, reached the White House under the banner of "change." The Sam Cooke civil rights classic "A Change is Gonna Come" was Obama's campaign-trail song and was paraphrased in his victory speech: "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."

Cooke's protest song was also played upon the death of Malcolm X, and featured in Spike Lee's epic film of his life. Malcolm X embraced his Islamic roots and chose a Muslim name. He saw Islam as a panacea for the problems facing America -- not as a menace.

During my years in Guantanamo I came across many African-American U.S. soldiers who understood something of their roots. They even acknowledged that the last time Muslims were taken across the Atlantic, en masse and in chains, was during the enslavement of their ancestors.

In fact, rendition, extraordinary as it is today, was, they accepted, originally used to recapture fugitive slaves. And in Guantanamo, it was not surprising to see some black soldiers reading classics like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Souls of Black Folk. Since several detainees were English-speakers of African origin -- including all three Britons who returned with me and one UK resident, Binyam Mohammed, who is still there -- the Guantanamo mission triggered among those U.S. soldiers a desire to learn more about themselves.

And some nations too have finally agreed to accept those men who are unable to return to their home countries for fear of torture or even execution -- like the "Chinese" Uighurs.

Considering they have been scrutinized, and tortured, by the world's most powerful military and intelligence agencies, you might expect that it would be easier to establish the credibility of their asylum applications than most of the thousands of others who are granted asylum each year.

In Britain, there is still the issue of the three detainees held in Guantanamo on whose behalf the British government has not yet acted although all three have UK residency: Binyam Mohammed, Ahmed Belbacha, and Shaker Aamer. Aamer's wife and four children are all born-and-bred British citizens.

Those who do not wish to accept them conveniently ignore that dozens of European men -- including myself -- have returned from Guantanamo. We are not recipients of state benefits -- despite what is owed us by the state which stole irreplaceable years of our lives without our being charged or brought to trial.

Since my return, I have been in contact with several U.S. soldiers. The ones I've spoken to express a deep sense of shame for having been part of Bush's war machine and are reaching out to some of the men they guarded -- men who, they had been told, were the most dangerous on the planet.

One of them, who was responsible for interrogations in Bagram, Afghanistan (where I was held during 2002), has now begun speaking about the abuses there.

Another, Christopher Arendt, a former Guantanamo guard, has agreed to visit the UK and speak about his experiences of the "war on terror" with me and other former prisoners there. We will be accompanied by former Guantanamo detainee and al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj, and the brother of Ali al-Marri, a Qatari national who has been imprisoned without charge as an "enemy combatant" since 2003.

Moazzam Begg was held in Guantanamo Detainment Camp between 2003 and 2005. The 'Two Sides, One Story' tour begins on Sunday:
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