A review from The Herald
Enemy Combatant. A British Muslim: Journey to Guantanamo and Back by Moazzam Begg with Victoria Brittain.
On that terrifying night in Islamabad in January 2002, normality drained from the life of Moazzam Begg, reducing him to a non-person. For the next three years he was invisible to all but his captors, his fellow internees and his interrogators, who interviewed him 300 times, never producing evidence of their terrorism accusations, never putting him on trial yet shackling and branding him as an enemy combatant, a threat to the United States.
If the words Guantanamo Bay were not so familiar we might think his was the story of a gulag in Soviet Russia. But it’s an ugly measure of our changed world that violating human rights is no longer the exclusive hallmark of barbarous regimes. It has crept into the unseen corners of George Bush’s war on terror.
One year on from the three in which he was held illegally by the American government ‘ first at the brutal holding camp of Bagram in Afghanistan and finally inside a steel cage at Guantanamo in Cuba ‘ Begg, a British Muslim from Birmingham, publishes his memoir today.
The book, remarkable for its lack of bitterness, coincides with increasing international pressure on the US to close Guantanamo. In Britain, politicians, judges, lawyers, human rights agencies and religious leaders have repeatedly denounced the camp for breaching the Geneva convention on the treatment of
Recently, the prime minister, seeking to fend off criticism that he had not been forceful in his own condemnation, described Guantanamo as “an anomaly” which should be shut down, a rebuke so tame, his critics say, that it will hardly dent President Bush’s sensibilities.But now comes Michael Winterbottom’s ferocious docu-drama, The Road to Guantanamo, which will do nothing to lessen the tarnished image of America abroad.
“I saw the film last night,” says Begg, “and it brought back all the horrors of incarceration in that cage where I paced up and down like an animal, unable to take more than three steps either way. And, you know, watching the movie’s graphic reconstruction was more difficult than writing the book, which was sort of therapeutic.” Unlike the film, Begg’s narrative in Enemy Combatant is calm and reflective, but running through it is the underlying sorrow of a man still haunted and in shock from the nightmare that befell him.
Even now, though rejoicing in the quiet comfort of his family in Birmingham, Begg still needs times when he can be alone, a consequence, he says, of his many months in solitary confinement at Guantanamo’s Camp Echo. Softly-spoken and articulate, he is naturally slight in build but no longer has the strained, anxious appearance so noticeable on his return from captivity in January last year. “Having survived those 300 interrogations by the CIA, the FBI and MI5, I actually feel more self-confident than before about talking to people. Ironically, I owe that to Guantanamo, yet I’m not sure I will ever recognise normality again.”
When life did seem relatively normal, Begg – a former law student born in Birmingham of Indian heritage – ran an Islamic bookshop in Birmingham and was active in various Muslim charity causes around the world. He now intends to campaign for the remaining detainees and work in human rights, “bridge-building between Asian and western communities”.
It was his sense of religious and social duty to help the underdog, he says, that led him to Bosnia and Afghanistan in the 1990s, destinations which brought him to the attention of MI5 in the first place. That, in turn, led him to seek the advice of Gareth Pierce, the lawyer renowned for fighting on behalf of clients’ human rights.
In 1993 and 1998 Begg briefly visited training camps in Afghanistan, the first run by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, the second run by Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein. He says he didn’t engage in training regimes at either place, and has never had links with al Qaeda.
Still mentally sifting through the Kafka-esque horrors he endured in Guantanamo, he recalls with incredulity the day he received word of his freedom. The allegations against him were that he had learned to use weapons in terrorist camps and was “engaged in hostilities against the US and its coalition partners”. Begg has always insisted the claims were spurious, and then, suddenly, after three years, there was a US major standing before him, saying: “I am here to inform you the American government has decided to release you to the British authorities and any supposed charges have been dropped.” Simple as that, says Begg. “And, of course, I was in utter disbelief.”
Winterbottom’s movie tracks the fate of the Tipton Three, a trio of disaffected young Britons who went to Afghanistan from the West Midlands. Recklessly seeking adventure, they found themselves rounded up by the Americans hunting for al Qaeda. The background to Begg’s misfortune was different. Before the outbreak of the Afghanistan war – America’s retaliatory action for 9/11- he had moved to Kabul with his wife, Zaynab, and three young children. There he worked on aid programmes, building a school and digging wells, but when the bombs fell the family fled, making a perilous journey over the border to Pakistan and settling in a house in Islamabad, where they had relatives and friends.
It was there, at midnight on January 31, 2002, that Begg’s peace of mind was shattered. Zaynab and the children were in bed, and he was writing a letter on his computer, then playing a game on screen. “I checked my watch at the sound of the doorbell. My first thought was that someone had got the wrong door, or there was an emergency with the neighbours.”
But outside a bunch of men jostled him back into the living room, a gun at his head and, without saying a word, they made him kneel, handcuffed him behind his back, placed shackles tightly on his ankles, and a cloth hood over his head. Then they bundled him into a waiting vehicle. “They didn’t even ask who I was. I could have been anybody.”
In a way, this episode was the most frightening for Begg because he had not yet become conditioned to the surreal events which would continue to plunder his freedom. Today it annoys him when people refer to this incident as an arrest. “That implies some legal system was involved, but it was pure abduction, which in itself is terrifying. And the hardest thing was not knowing what would happen to my family. I never had the chance to exchange a single word with Zaynab, or to say goodbye to my children.”
But, cuffs off and left alone in a police room, Begg suddenly realised that, because no-one had searched him, he still had his mobile phone. Hands shaking, he called his father in Birmingham and whispered the outline of events, telling him the Americans had snatched him and that his father must contact Gareth Pierce and try to ensure the safety of his children and Zaynab, who was pregnant. “I felt terrible about how worried he would be, especially because he had just been through a heart by-pass operation.”
With support from Pierce and other crusading lawyers, such as Clive Stafford-Smith, Azmat Begg launched a tireless campaign for justice for the detainees, impressing everyone, including the British authorities, with his dignity and stoicism. Meanwhile, his son was moved to the holding camp of Bagram to be processed as an “illegal combatant”, two words which deny prisoner-of-war status and thus leave them with no rights at all.
At one point, when he was shackled and pushed by the guards into a bent-double position, the hood was removed and he noticed that among the interrogators the MI5 man looked visibly disturbed.
Begg’s only comfort was that the International Committee of the Red Cross was alerting the world to what was happening. But he quickly realised how powerless they were in front of the Americans. Bagram was a place of torture, the camp where Begg felt confronted by “bad men”.
He writes: “The noise was deafening: barking dogs, relentless verbal abuse, plane engines, electricity generators and screams of pain from the other prisoners. Maybe I screamed, too. I felt knees pushing hard against my rib cage and legs, and crushing down on my skull simultaneously. I was not sure how many were on me – perhaps three . . . I felt the shackles being undone from the ankles and then I felt a cold, sharp metal object against my legs: they were using a knife to slice off all my clothes. I felt the cold even more, though the humiliation was worse.”
After 11 months at Bagram, Begg was transferred to Guantanamo where he spent most of the time in isolation. There the torture was his own nightmare: his fear that this was the future; filled with interrogation shams, threats of extraordinary rendition and endless pacing inside that steel cage. “I had many moments when I was terrified and in tears,” he says. “What was happening was so profound I knew it could lead to my death, my execution.”
Does he feel the British should have secured the release of Guantanamo’s nine Britons much sooner than they did? “Well, the fact the government did get us back is to be applauded but I think they could have done more. They say now they don’t approve of Guantanamo but the reality was that once it was there they were going to use it to their intelligence advantage.”
And, yet, has any worthwhile intelligence been gained from Guantanamo? Gareth Pierce has said that too much is known about how damaged detainees were by their experiences for any credibility to be attached to anything that comes out of Guantanamo via the Pentagon. And the recent claim by an American general that information had been extracted there which could have prevented the London bombs last July has been strongly refuted by British officials. They insist nothing received from Guantanamo Bay was relevant to the atrocities of 7/7.
But Begg today is not one who denounces all Americans. In fact, he developed quite a rapport with many of the guards, talking for hours with them about world events and hearing from them the news of the anti-war march in London and the obscenities inflicted by US military personnel on prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
“They were appalled and angry at the perpetrators because that behaviour shamed them all. But I also had guards break down in front of me because of their marital problems, and one who said he could hardly recognise himself any more because of some of the things he’d been instructed to do.” They told him these things as if he were their confessor, always there.
Begg has already given a statement to US security officers about two detainees beaten to death by guards at Bagram, and he claims captives held without charge, trial or access to lawyers are enduring “conditions far below those of the worst convicted criminals in the developed world”.
Five hundred prisoners are still in Guantanamo.When Begg and his fellow Britons were returned to the UK they were immediately arrested by the Metropolitan Police in what was generally regarded as a token gesture to the Americans. Begg and the others were then “released without charge” and reunited with their families.
All but one of Begg’s souvenirs of Guantanamo are in his head. The item he brought out is a book that was given to him by one of the more sympathetic MI5 men: Jeremy Paxman’s The English – A Portrait of a People. “It’s stamped with ‘Cleared by US forces’ and when I showed it to Jeremy I asked him why he thought MI5 would give me a copy. His jaw dropped and then he said: ‘Well, that’s evidence of torture, right there.’ ”
In his cage, Begg read that book five times, one phrase particularly giving him hope. Paxman had written: “Never underestimate the British ability to back the underdog.” That chimed with his own sense of purpose, and it chimes now with the gratitude he feels towards all those who helped his family in their campaign.
But for Moazzam Begg, the journey from Guantanamo is not yet over. He is a man still travelling towards that tranquil point when he will know his whole identity is mended.
On March 15 Moazzam Begg with Philippe Sands will be speaking in conjunction with Amnesty International at St John’s Church, Princes Street, Edinburgh, at 6.30pm. For further information: 0131 466 6200 or 0131 228 1963.