Moazzam Begg INTERVIEW
A revealing interview with Mr. Begg earlier this year, shortly before his wrongful arrest, reveals his attitude and approach to his campaign for victims of injustice.
Moazzam Begg former Guantánamo detainee, interviewed by Richard Keith Wolff photojournalist, marking the 12th Anniversary of Guantanamo Bay Prison camp, Birmingham, UK, 11th of January 2014
RICHARD KEITH WOLFF: You have recently returned from South Africa. Were you attending the Nelson Mandela funeral and events marking his life? If so what were your impressions?
MOAZZAM BEGG: The CagePrisoners tour of South Africa had been planned before the passing away of Nelson Mandela so we were not there because of the funeral but we were there during it. We had an overwhelming reception by the communities with events and media coverage in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town in delivering the message of Cage’s work and the issues surrounding detention without trial, torture, Islamophobia and terrorism. We had a memorable event at the Apartheid Museum and later met with former ANC prisoners, one of who had been held for two decades on Robben Island with Mandela as convicted terrorists. It was also ironic to hear visiting heads of state (former and current) including George W. Bush, David Cameron and Barack Obama offer condolences for a man whose life and values they claimed to respect despite their own policies of extrajudicial detention and killing or complicity therein.
RICHARD: When you were arrested in Pakistan in February 2002 and taken into custody at Bagram Internment Facility, what were your circumstances at this period?
MOAZZAM: I was in my house in Islamabad Pakistan, with my family to where we had evacuated following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan where I had been living and working on a project for a girls school in Kabul.
There was a knock on my door at midnight. I opened the door and saw several people in civilian clothing who then pushed their way into the courtyard and put a gun to my head. No identification was showed and they proceeded to put me on the ground and shackle my hands behind my back and my ankles. A hood was placed over my head and I was carried into the back of a vehicle. I was then held in Pakistan for several weeks at a secret location and often interrogated by US and UK intelligence and then sent to Kandahar in the hands of the US military. After 6 weeks I was sent to the Bagram detention facility.
RICHARD: What did the experience of being arrested entail for you?
MOAZZAM: I wasn’t arrested. I was abducted at gunpoint without any legal process by unidentified gunmen. I was then falsely imprisoned by the US government without charge. It was an act of terror carried out by the governments of Pakistan, USA and Britain
RICHARD: What offence were you charged with when taken into custody?
RICHARD: What was it like to be a prisoner in Bagram?
MOAZZAM: The answer by necessity would be too long but suffice to say it was depressing beyond imagination, torturous, humiliating, abusive and murderous. But there were times of hope and humanity interspersed.
RICHARD: A year later you were transferred to The Guantanamo Bay detention camp, sitting onboard that flight what were your thoughts?
MOAZZAM: I had no thoughts. My hands were shackled to my waist, and my legs shackled to the floor of the aircraft. I had a face-mask, industrial ear muffs and blacked-out out goggles and a hood over my head. I managed to get them to give me a sedative because of the excruciating discomfort so I woke up in a daze 36 hours later in Guantanamo.
RICHARD: When you arrived at Guantanamo what were your impressions and how were you then treated?
MOAZZAM: Again this is too hard a question to answer in one or two sentences since it was two years. Treatment varied from place to place, time to time and person to person during the various changes that came. There were bad times and there were good. Most of my time was spent in solitary confinement and that took the biggest toll on me as a person to date. However, I need to remind myself and everyone else that my ordeal of three years is relatively tame compared to almost 13 years the present inmates of Guantanamo are facing or even the ones released after me over the years. It is also important to point out that despite the evident animosity displayed by the Guantanamo regime there were several soldiers who were decent human beings.
RICHARD: What is the worst part of being a detainee?
(Is there any good part!)
MOAZZAM: Being detained without trial for nothing, not being able to communicate with your family and not knowing if your ordeal will ever end. Knowing that governments supposedly acting on a mandate supported by the people are getting away with crimes against you is particularly depressing. The best part is getting in tune with your personal faith, memorising large chapters of the Quran for example, learning patience, being steadfast in the face of oppression, maintaining physical fitness and having lots of time to plan the rest of your life!
RICHARD: You were released on the 25th January 2005 just short of three years of imprisonment without charge or trial. Since, as director of CagePrisoners, the human rights organisation, you have devoted your time and energy to bringing awareness about Guantanamo and its detainees to people.
I have witnessed you, in my role as a photographer, for example handing in a letter in Downing Street for Gordon Brown British Prime Minister, making speeches in Parliament to committees hosted by MPs, speeches to the public in Parliament Square and other places, involvement with some aspects of the London Guantanamo Campaign, again aspects of the Save Shaker Campaign, attending screenings of related documentary films, organising an art exhibition by detainees, and much more. Additionally, you have appeared on TV, radio, written articles, even poetry, you have co- authored with Victoria Brittain the book "Enemy Combatant: The Terrifying True Story of a Briton in Guantanamo". How would you appraise the results of your work?
MOAZZAM: Its is difficult to self-appraise but from what I have heard from others my work and that of CagePrisoners has steadily become one for the voices for the prisoners and has helped to empower them and the sections of the Muslim community that is feeling the brunt of draconian and unprecedented anti-terror measures the world over. We have been able to, time and again, show to what level the use of such measures have degraded the state of our society and polluted the conscious of the nation. However, we have also gained numerous allies in our struggle for justice, sometimes from unexpected places. They have included politicians, ministers, celebrities, clergy, students and most surprisingly, former senior US soldiers and interrogators. We have also been in the forefront of holding our government to account for complicity in torture around the world.
RICHARD: What are your feelings about the last British resident still held without charge or trial, or end date, in Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer from London?
MOAZZAM: When I see his four wonderful children I am left feeling ashamed that they have had to suffer the absence of a father for almost thirteen years. Shaker was my friend before Guantanamo and I have seen these children grow up over the years. Shaker has seen nothing of them. Would he even recognise them if he met them in person? A man held without charge for so long by the UK’s closest ally. Cleared for transfer (release in my view) by two US Presidents. There is nothing they can do to make up for all those years lost and the family, the community and society will never forget how they were treated.
RICHARD: They could return him to his family in London now and not let it get even worse. Do you suffer post-traumatic disorder effects from your ordeals.
MOAZZAM: We all do to some degree, but the greatest effects of that place is that it is still open with 155 prisoners still held despite numerous presidential promises to close it down.
RICHARD: Do you think it would be helpful if a replica of Guantánamo were to be built? Information researched, gathered and displayed in tandem to the installation, for future generations to know and learn what not to do ever again?
MOAZZAM: I attended such an exhibition put together in Malaysia during the war crimes tribunal there a couple of years ago. I would like to one day to build a War on Terror Prisons Museum so that generations never forget what was done in their name and the name of democracy and freedom by the worlds most powerful nations.
RICHARD: One impression of you that most surprised me on first meeting you, was how you seem to have no anger, bitterness or hatred after what you have experienced! You even invited a former Guantánamo guard to talk with you in a spirit of reconciliation. How have you managed to rise above these negative emotions? Clearly that puts you in a position to help as opposed to make things even worse.
MOAZZAM: As I mentioned, several US soldiers were decent human beings and I have lost count how many of them have written to apologise. Some are truly friends as well as ones on Facebook. I am more than happy to forgive anyone who asks for it and I know that to be the case with all the former prisoners I am in contact with. Its not vengeance we’re seeking, we want justice and freedom.
Moazzam Begg, former detainee, on the 12th anniversary of Guantanamo Prison. Birmingham , UK, 11 January 2014