Guantanamo’s Catch-22

By Moazzem Begg in the Herald Tribune

Moazzam Begg is a British Muslim who spent three years in U.S. detention, including two years at Guantanamo before being released in 2005.

A few months ago, I was approached by U.S. military defense attorneys, something I have grown increasingly accustomed to since my release from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

The request wasn’t from lawyers defending Guantanamo detainees. The defendant was a soldier facing several charges, including detainee abuse at a U.S. detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan. Some of the events surrounding these allegations coincided with my time there during 2002. I’d spoken to members of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command and internal investigation officers who were trying to build a case against other soldiers. So it came as a surprise when lawyers asked me if I would consider being a defense witness.

The then specialist, Damien Corsetti, didn’t mistreat me. He never interrogated me and he always passed by my cage with a smile, often stopping to talk. He even gave me books at a time when they were hard to come by. One of the books, ironically, Heller’s “Catch-22,” is described as “the classic antiwar novel of our time.” I was even allowed to bring it with me to England, where it remains on my bookshelf, next to another book from U.S. soldiers: a military issue of the Bible, in full camouflage jacket.

I often found myself discussing religion with guards and interrogators, some of whom were Christian Evangelists or Southern Baptists. I thought it important to try to explain similarities between the Bible and the Koran, as well as looking at the fundamental differences in belief and perception. Perhaps, I thought, it might help some of my captors appreciate that we all held things sacred.

Last year, when Newsweek published a report alleging the desecration of the Koran by guards in Guant’namo, I was surprised – surprised that the article had materialized so late. Many former prisoners had complained about the abuse well before, including me. However, my personal analysis of the affair was simple: The Koran may be the sacred, unadulterated speech of the Almighty to me and 1.6 billion other Muslims, but to the average soldier it is paper and ink. If, in his or her mind, it was justified to redefine the rules of engagement to include the application of torture then what of a mere book?

A Saudi still in Guantanamo, Ahmed al-Darbi, told me in Bagram that Corsetti had taken out his penis, threatened to rape him and, while pointing to his manhood, screamed, “This is your God!” I have since learned that Corsetti was called “King of Torture” by his fellow soldiers.

Darbi’s allegations were not upheld in court, so my testimony was not required. Oddly enough, there was a time when I was facing my own possible military commission, in which I intended to call U.S. soldiers as defense witnesses. I encountered hundreds of them during my years in captivity. I made friends with some of them, too. Paradoxically, some of these soldiers helped me face the years of isolation and despair as my only friends. One of them was Corsetti.

In his defense, Corsetti’s lawyer is reported to have said: “The president of the United States doesn’t know what the rules are. The secretary of defense doesn’t know what the rules are. But the government expects this Pfc. [private first class] to know what the rules are?”

Corsetti cannot escape culpability by this argument. But it does suggest that responsibility stretches higher up the chain of command. Meanwhile, we continue to pay the price because nobody knows what the rules are.