[News] Returning to Life: interview with Moazzam Begg

News at freedomarchives.org News at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jul 21 14:53:35 EDT 2005

Returning to Life

By Pratap Chatterjee and Deepa Fernandes, AlterNet
Posted on July 18, 2005, Printed on July 18, 2005

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 <http://www.wakeupcallradio.org/> 
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 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 in 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 were so many common rights that were being denied.

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

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 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 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 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 

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 
<http://wakeupcallradio.blogspot.com/>Wakeup Call. Pratap Chatterjee is 
managing editor of CorpWatch.org and the author of "Iraq Inc." (Seven 
Stories Press, September 2004).

© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: <http://www.alternet.org/story/23576/>

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