[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
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
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
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
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
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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