Tarek Dergoul: Cageprisoners Interview
Cageprisoners Interview: Surviving the “Prisons of the American Nazis”
May 16, 2004
Earlier this year, in March 2004, five British Muslims arrived home after being held hostage for two and a half years in Guantanamo Bay. As the men were released into the joyous arms of their families, a picture slowly began to emerge of the inhumane treatment they had experienced for the duration of their detention in the American Concentration Camp in Cuba. Jamal Al Harith was the first to publicly expose the depths of cruelty and degradation that the Muslim prisoners were subjected to. His revelations were then followed by the so-called ‘Tipton Three’, whose account of a living hell of beatings and interrogations was no less horrific.
But the fifth of the released men, elusive 26-year old Tarek Derghoul, remained silent and shunned media attention on his return. The son of a Moroccan baker, Tarek grew up in East London. In the summer of 2001, he left his job as a care worker and flew to Pakistan to explore business opportunities with Pakistani friends. Several months later, as the Americans attacked Afghanistan, Tarek, like countless other foreign students and aid workers, was found injured by tribesman and sold to the Americans for US $5000. He was held between prisons in Kandahar and Bagram before being transported to his final destination of Cuba, a journey, the appalling details of which have only come to light in recent months.
In this World exclusive Cageprisoners.com interview, Tarek Dergoul breaks his silence and tells his story, one shared by countless innocent men swept up in the War on Terror, whose crime was merely being ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’. He paints a gruesome portrait of American brutality and inhumanity, in stark contrast to the image it prides itself on, that of unquestionably being ‘beacon for human rights, democracy and freedom’ in the world today; ‘spreading’, in the words of Condoleezza Rice, ‘the blessings of liberty and democracy, as alternatives to instability and terror’.
Bagram, Beatings and Brutality
In the winter of 2001, as the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan was drawing to a close, Tarek Dergoul was sold by Afghan warlords and delivered into the hands of their US allies. Blindfolded and handcuffed, he was sat down in a room with a few other prisoners, forced to endure the harsh glare of its intense lighting, which could still be felt through the folds bound tightly around their eyes.
After twenty minutes, he was escorted to another room where he was stripped naked, searched and photographed – a technique, it has lately emerged, taught in military centres on both sides of the Atlantic to ‘prolong the shock of capture’ at a time when the prisoner is at his most vulnerable - his entire body photographed up to forty-odd times. ‘We were then forced to wear blue jumpsuits, like the Smurfs, and these black Father Christmas-like shoes.’ He was given some pills, assuming them to be antibiotics, and taken away for the first of many petrifying interrogation sessions. ‘I was taken to another room where there was a folded bed present. I was placed on it and interrogated. The American in charge told me that he was my ticket out of here.’ For the next two days, Tarek was kept in this room with a few other Arab prisoners, forbidden from speaking to each other, under the observation of their armed Americans guards
Two days after Tarek fell into American custody, the interrogations started; and with interrogation, came intimidation; American style. At Bagram, where Tarek was taken initially after he was sold to the Americans, he was interrogated 20-30 times in one month. A barrage of questions was fired at him in sessions lasting up to five hours: ‘Where is Osama bin Laden? How did you get here? Do you know these people, Abu Qatada? Abu Hamza?’ He was bombarded with a myriad of photos, countless faces he had never seen. For the entire duration, Tarek was forced to wear a three piece handcuff. Tarek describes this first incident, ‘I thought my life was in danger. I could hear shots in the background and screaming all throughout the day.’
‘Interrogations would always consist of one guard at the door,’ Tarek continues, ‘one soldier holding a M-16 rifle, and two interrogators, one of whom was holding a pistol.’ As countless Afghans who had been held at US bases in Afghanistan had narrated before him, interrogation at gunpoint had become a familiar trademark of US detention facilities.
‘One time, an interrogator walked up to me whilst the interrogation was in process. He put a pistol to my head, saying, ‘How are you doing?’ - trying to intimidate me.’
From the outset of his incarceration at Bagram, Tarek maintains that British representatives were complicit in his interrogations. After only five days, he was led to another room to be questioned by two British men in their thirties. He was initially pleased to see them, trusting that once the question of his nationality had been established, they would guarantee his safe return home, only to find that they ‘left him to dry’.
The British officers stood apart from their friends across the Atlantic. ‘They were more skilled in interrogations,’ he discerns, and apparently tried to appear friendly as a guise of obtaining more information.
‘During interrogation, I asked, ‘Who’s top of the Premiership?’ and the reply was, ‘Manchester and Arsenal are at it.’ They said, ‘Beckham is supposed to be moving to Real Madrid’.
Tarek recounts, ‘The Americans have attitude. It was like they thought they were in the movies. They were more interested in feeding their egos and posing, rather than conducting the interrogation properly.’
The prisoners were then housed in a construction of eight cages, 20 inmates to a space no more than 3m by 12m. At the end of each was a half-cut barrel, serving as a make-shift toilet. They were sustained on a meagre diet of microwave food, raisins, nutri-bars and bottled water. ‘Every time I would eat, I would get diarrhoea,’ Tarek recalls. ‘Everyone had that. We lost a lot of weight.’ Small portions diminished further as the Americans would help themselves; ‘The guards would take some of the food as they were hungry, so there was less left over for the prisoners.’
As the harsh Afghan winter set in, they were given thin blankets, barely sheltering them from the bitter cold. ‘It was 14-15 degrees Celsius. We’d be freezing,’ Tarek remembers. ‘You’d be shaking like a washing machine.’ The icy chill exasperated Tarek’s already poor physical condition; with frostbite developing in his two big toes, and with one arm amputated, he was very sensitive to the intense cold. ‘I had no sensation in my feet and I could barely walk. I’d have to use the toilet every half an hour.’ Tarek became concerned when his condition remained constant, after a month, seeing little sign of improvement - or, for that matter, of medical care.
‘Nothing was given. There was no medical advice or attention. Doctors and nurses would come and go.’ Yet, in spite of their frequent visits, Tarek remained ignored and untreated.
From his cage, Tarek witnessed the abuse of others. ‘Two cages away, some Afghans were made to assume a horse stance. I would wake from my sleep and the Afghans would still be in the same position. If they moved or fell due to exhaustion, they were forced to stand again. If they could not stand, then the Americans would beat the life out of them. I would think that they were dead or near death. They would be dragged out, taken away to an unknown place. ‘
The arbitrary beating of prisoners was commonplace. The US soldiers would refer the practice as ‘Beat Down’, coined after a famous American television programme. Tarek describes, ‘They would say mockingly, ‘Let’s play ‘beat down’’. A ‘beat down’ would consist of five or six Americans entering one of the cages unarmed, and thrashing the prisoners, while another eight to ten Americans would stand watch outside the cage, with machine guns trained on their hostages. ‘The prisoners would be punched, kicked all over the body, and dragged to another place.’ For the nation that has claimed only in this past week that it conducts interrogations ‘in accordance with the standards of accepted international law’, Tarek’s disclosures are damning. He continues, ‘The Americans would hang them up by their hands and cover their face with a black bag. They would shoot their guns’, again, as a means of further intimidation.
He remembers hearing about an elderly man in Bagram who was separated from his child, a mere ten months old. No doubt he was one of the ‘worst of the worst’, amongst those who posed a ‘threat to national security’, successfully filtered out for transfer by those much lauded, exhaustive screening processes of the US. In the great tradition of American Justice, ‘he was sent to Cuba,’ Tarek says, ‘with no family to care for the child.’ However, a further gesture of American kindness, he found out that they had sent the 10-month old baby to Guantanamo as well, to be reunited with its father, and other prisoners have seen that same baby with their own eyes.
After an agonising ten days in Bagram, the Red Cross eventually visited and registered Tarek. He was told that they would return again in two days, by which time Tarek could have written letters to his family. But a day before they were due to return, the Americans moved Tarek to an isolation room.
‘They took me upstairs so that the Red Cross would not see me. Another inmate had seen the Red Cross when he was returning from interrogations. The Americans told them that I had been moved on.’
He requested to see the Red Cross but was irrevocably refused. ‘I was told to shut up and I was taken to an empty room. I was sworn at and called a smart ass. I was then head butted, pushed to the floor and my head was smashed against a radiator. I was then placed in headlock, put on the floor and threatened, ‘I will send you to Cuba, Morocco and Egypt to be tortured!’’
Such threats were seldom restricted to the detainees alone, but extended too, to their families. Tarek relays an incident that he had heard from an Algerian prisoner, Al-Akhdar, who was kidnapped in Bosnia and then transferred to Camp Delta, about another prisoner who was also captured in Bosnia. The US officials claimed that his family had also been arrested and were being held and interrogated elsewhere. Tarek illustrates the kind of emotional blackmail the interrogators applied, ‘The brother was separated from his family. He didn’t know if they were alive or dead, but he was told that if he didn’t co-operate in interrogations, his wife and children would be abused.’
Kandahar: Behind the Wire
Tarek remained at Bagram for a month before being transferred to Kandahar, where the questioning would continue without respite. Here he would be taken barefoot to the interrogations, in spite of suffering from frost bite in two of his toes, and forced to run in the bitter Afghan winter. In this deliberated act of cruelty, Tarek dragged his injured foot on the ground, whilst being held by guards to either side, causing a laceration in his toe, leading to infection. ‘The whole of my big toe was covered in pus,’ Tarek recalls. ‘I would continuously complain about the pain, before and after, and the lack of sensation. But the soldier responded with a ‘F*** off – we’ll tell you what you need. You don’t tell us.’
As the days and weeks dragged past, the icy winter gave way to an unrelenting spring. In the sweltering, oppressive heat, they were packed eighteen to a tent, wearing the same clothes for three or four months, and only allowed two showers for the same period. The showers were always in full-view of each other whilst the homosexual American perverts admired the naked bodies of the prisoners. Tarek’s beard and head would be shaved three times during his stay in Kandahar.
It was at the US Base in Kandahar that Tarek finally received medical treatment, albeit inadequate. A week into his stay, a short lady by chance came and, moved to pity by his feeble state, she arranged immediate medical attention. He was prescribed antibiotics for a week prior to undergoing an operation. Tarek’s left toe was amputated in a botched attempt by a trainee medic, being advised throughout by a senior doctor. But even while recovering under IV sedation following an operation, the interrogations did not cease.
No different from its predecessor, Tarek found a replica of the tyrannical system of abuse and brutality of Bagram was in place in Kandahar. The memories are painful to recall.
‘I would see Afghans being dragged along the floor, thrown around like rubbish,’ he recalls. ‘They were made to go down on their knees, placing their hands on the backs of their heads and kept in the sun for hours.’ Throughout their horrendous ordeal, they were deprived of any food.
Tarek explains that there needed to be no justification for such retribution, ‘but they would radio in on their radios, to legitimise the punishments.’
‘Once, while the inmates were praying fajr (the dawn-prayer), the Americans came and wanted to do a search. There were approximately twenty of them, unarmed; the rest of them remained outside, some of them watched from their towers. They (the prisoners) were in the last rak’ah (unit of prayer), when they stormed in and told them to move back. But they (the prisoners) didn't move as they were in salah (prayer). The Americans came in and started pushing, punching and kicking them, until they forced them to the back of the tent. During this assault, they put their foot on the Imam’s neck whilst he was in prostration position.’ It is possible that these prayer prostration humiliation techniques employed by the Americans may have been the model for British Anti-Terrorist Police, who mocked a Muslim man arrested in London in December 2003, in a similar manner, by asking him, ‘Where is your God now?’ Likewise, recent reports have also appeared of British soldiers putting their boots on the necks of Iraqi prisoners of war while holding them in prayer prostration positions.
Tarek himself was subjected to such treatment, ‘In one search, they told me to lean down. However, I couldn't and I ended up falling over. So the MP grabbed my amputated arm, lifted me up and threw me on the floor. I have never felt pain like that before.’
Journey to Guantanamo
‘It was the day before the first of May. We were strip searched, photographs taken of our naked bodies and dressed in orange jumpsuits. A black bag was placed over my face, as well as ear muffs, so nothing could be heard. I was made to wear three-piece handcuffs. We were tied together and put in a line and then put on a plane.’
Tarek had been informed that he was to be taken to Cuba, but he assumed otherwise. ‘I thought I was going home. The journey was long, about fifteen hours, sitting all the way, with nothing to eat. At some point during the journey, the plane landed and we transferred to another plane a few metres away, then flew the remaining 5-6 hours to Cuba.’
On his arrival in Cuba, Tarek was again strip searched. More photographs were taken as he was registered, before being injected with an unknown substance.
Tarek protested. ‘I kept saying, ‘I’m British, I’m British. I’m sick.’ Finally they took pity on me and sent me to the clinic.’ It was here, in the clinic, while Tarek’s feet – still discoloured a deep bruised purple-black two years on – were treated, that he first met the Egyptian, Mamdouh Habib, one of two Australian detainees in Guantanamo, who was in the bed next to him. In Mamdouh Habib’s case, another favourite US practice was employed: ‘rendering’. There are reports that Australian Consular officials were implicit in Habib’s kidnap and extra-judicial extradition.
‘He was then sent to Egypt, where he was stripped naked and beaten. He was tortured, electrocuted. Dogs were set upon him.’ He said to Tarek, ‘It would be better to be tortured than to stay in Cuba’. As Tarek’s words reverberate, the ironies of the situation are evident. Only a few hours ago, the Australian Foreign Minister happily accepted assurances from the US that Mr. Habib ‘has not been abused to the point where there are human rights abuses’. Yet, Tarek explains, ‘Due to the torture in Egypt, he couldn’t walk. He was dizzy, confused and walking in a daze with his eyes closed. But the Americans said he was faking it and sent him to the isolation block’.
In this first week that he spent in the medical centre, Dergoul encountered many other prisoners. ‘There was one Kuwaiti, Abdul-Aziz (al-Shammari) who had been on hunger strike for about 90-100 days. He was placed on a drip from his nose. Another, Nasser al-Mutairi, was unable to straighten his back.’ Tarek was distressed by what he heard. ‘One Algerian went in for a routine check up. They operated on his eyes, and blinded him in one eye.’
Tarek had first witnessed disturbing signs of botched medical treatment in his time at Bagram. He remembers meeting a Yemeni detainee who had both legs amputated. Tarek asserts this was done deliberately, ‘One leg removed in the custody of the Afghans, and the other in the custody of the Americans, for no apparent reason. It was done to disable him.’ Tarek describes how this particular Yemeni prisoner, when brought to Guantanamo, was provided with prosthetic limbs, again not for his personal benefit, but for the ease of his kidnappers and to help them in their propaganda of ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom’.
As had been the case in Kandahar, at Guantanamo Bay, the medical treatment was equally scarce and negligent. ‘It took two months to get on to the medical list,’ Tarek said. ‘Even then, anti-depressants and sleeping pills were dispensed freely without the consent of the doctors. They encouraged many detainees to take sleeping pills’. Thereafter, for many who were prescribed medication for a range of complaints – heart, kidney, muscle and bone – the Military Police would fail to administer the doses at the correct times, simply as they ‘couldn’t be bothered.’ Unknown injections were widely administered, and most alarmingly, the healthy prisoners became the subjects of US medical experimentation.
Tarek’s own experience in Guantanamo was one of neglect, when he, like many of the prisoners, developed an excruciating rash.
‘I had rash on my stomach which was spreading. Only when I began to scream and shout, and after I had made a fuss about it, did they agree to look at me.’ By this time, the rash had spread down to his groin. ‘They treated me pathetically. They did nothing more than applying moisturising cream.’ Tarek’s rash was left to fester, irritating him for eight months. ‘Can’t you test our blood or perform an allergy test?’ Tarek had asked the doctors. He was told, in response, ‘Do you know how many people there are here and how costly that would be?!’
‘One Mauritanian detainee, Muhammad al-Shanqiti, went on strike because they wouldn’t treat him for a rash,’ Tarek narrates. ‘He didn’t know if it was due to the food or the yellow water that was piped through to the taps in our cells. He fell ill and only in his exhausted state did the doctors come to see him. They gave him intravenous electrolytes whilst the Doctors were making fun of him and mocking him.’
‘The Special Relationship’
Having spent a week in the medical clinic, Tarek was moved to Hotel Block 15.
Hygiene there was poor as was their diet; miniscule portions of rice and sliced bread were served, invariably cold, accompanied by beverages of powdered milk, which, Tarek describes, ‘tasted worse than water – no one would drink it.’
Inmates in Camp Delta were only allowed to change their clothes once a week. ‘When we would change our clothes there would be a deep smell of industrial chlorine,’ Tarek adds. ‘It would cause intense itching.’ The guards would deliberately distribute clothes of the wrong sizes to the detainees, so that they would have suffer for one or two weeks wearing clothes that were too small for them.
Routinely, Tarek says, the prisoners would be subjected to intimate searches of their private parts by the Military Police who staffed the camps. Tarek depicts them as porno-reading, chain-smoking louts, who would come banging on their cells at night, drunk and abusive. They were also frequently racist. ‘One said, ‘My grand-dad told me, ‘Don’t touch no negro.’’ Interestingly Dergoul describes the friction between the various racial groupings of MPs, the white, black and Puerto-Rican guards. Invariably the latter were the most obliging, and markedly attentive, issuing the inmates with surplus toilet paper and soap. ‘Maybe they themselves had experienced American justice firsthand!’ Tarek muses. ‘Due to their friendly nature, though, they were sent back home.’
After this brief cessation, interrogations resumed as usual. In Guantanamo, British Intelligence M16 would continue to visit Tarek, returning every four to five months to ‘extract information’, often accompanied by a representative from the Foreign Office.
‘He would ask about my health and sly questions to obtain information.’ Far from what the Foreign Office would have us believe, that ‘none of the detainees have alleged to us they were beaten or subjected to systematic abuse,’ Tarek continues, ‘Every time they would come, I would tell them about the abuses. I asked them once, ‘What does Tony Blair think about Cuba?’ The British official replied, ‘He agrees that Cuba is a good thing.’ I asked, ‘Does he know what’s going on here?’ He said, ‘Yes’. I then wondered, ‘Does he help in any way?’ and the reply was ‘Yes.’ At a time when there was international outcry about the human rights violations in Guantanamo, Tarek was told by the British official, ‘The public agree too. They support and stand by Blair.’
But what will undoubtedly be one of the most shocking of Tarek’s disclosures are those concerning the International Committee of the Red Cross. Rather than asking about his health and his welfare, as would be expected, remarkably, over a period of a month, they too interrogated him, repeating the exact questions the Americans had been asking. ‘The Red Cross and the Americans were working hand in hand, in a psychological game,’ Tarek claims, reminiscent of accounts of Afghan detainees, who told of guarantees of release only to be sent to other detention facilities. ‘The Red Cross would tell the prisoners, ‘You are going home.’ They would dress them up and board them onto a bus, only to take them off again, accompanied by the Americans saying, ‘We have found something on you.’
‘We do with you and the Qur’an as we wish’
For the Muslim inmates, however, the most abhorrent and offensive aspect of interrogations was the manner in which their religion was abused and insulted. Tarek describes standard interrogations consisting of ‘swearing at Allah, swearing at the Prophet, and the Qur’an. They used to read the English translation of the Qur’an, with their feet up, mocking, for example saying, ‘There are more questions in it than answers.’ The insults were not restricted to the verbal; Dergoul remembers numerous occasions, both in Kandahar and Guantanamo, where the Qur’an was ‘ripped up, thrown on the floor and thrown into the toilet’. In an attempt to protect their sacred book being mistreated by the Americans, up to 300 inmates returned their Qur’ans in an act of protest. This injurious degradation of their faith was yet another means of the Military Police asserting their authority over the prisoners and their religious practices; as one MP rejoined, when asked why could they not leave the Qur’an alone, ‘We do with you and the Qur’an as we wish.’
During one interrogation session, the officer in question stood on a copy of the Qur’an, treated by Muslims with the utmost respect and reverence, triggering a massive strike amongst approximately 300 prisoners in the camp. ‘They did not eat or drink for over a month. It got to the stage where detainees were falling down due to dizziness. It was the first time they had to give them intravenous injections, because so many prisoners were involved.’
The situation deteriorated further, when a group of the MP’s marked their departure by writing obscenities in copies of the Muslims’ holy book. ‘They were leaving after a ten month term. They wrote ‘F*** off, F*** you.’ in the Qur’ans’. Increasing numbers joined the strike, and when their attempts failed to elicit a response, their protest extended to non-co-operation.
‘They refused to be shackled. They would not come out of their cells for any reasons or under any circumstances - not for interrogations nor recreation.’ Their refusal was met by the Extreme Reaction Force, five heavily armed individuals clad in riot gear and armed with shields, charging in and battering the prisoners.
Tarek recalls an occasion when the Military Police attempted to beat Rustum, an 18-year old Uzbek prisoner, who was himself an expert in martial arts. ‘He single-handedly took out all five cowards. They ran out of the cell and re-organised their strategy. Then they rushed back in again and he beat them up again. They ran out a second time and waited for some minutes before trying again. The third time, they attacked using three or four bottles of pepper spray finally overcoming him.’
Realising how precious the Qur’an was to the prisoners, the Americans would frequently exploit it as a tool of punishment, its pages often missing or misprinted, removing copies from solitary confinement, and moving the detainees from cell to cell, at times to those where there were no Qur’ans. ‘When I asked the SOG (Sergeant-of-the-Guards), why we could not carry our own Qur’ans, as we had done in the beginning, he blankly refused, ‘Orders have come from above.’ ‘
In Ramadhan 2002, for two whole weeks, the Military Police who staffed the camp used to bring the prisoners their meals a full two hours after the fast had broken. As part of their continued efforts to disrupt the religious practices of the prisoners, they would give them unknown injections during the hours of the fast.
Tarek remembers how they would endeavour to disturb the concentration of the prisoners who sought comfort in prayer. ‘When we would be praying, they would play games, banging the cell doors or playing football. They would swear at us and mock us. Sometimes’, he says, when the prisoners were praying, ‘they would be attacked by the five cowards,’ in a reference to the infamous ERF squad.
Tarek also narrates that they would interrupt the audio recording of the call to prayer which would be played across the camp. ‘For the last six months, they did not play the adhan at all.’
On one occasion, when an MP mocked the Prophet Muhammad, Tariq and another brother in the opposite cell shouted at him as he walked passed. They were both subsequently punished by being sent to solitary confinement, known as the ‘Oscar’ block.
Tarek got his first taste of the ‘Oscar’ block. In the draconian Guantanamo regime, inmates were forbidden from cross-block talking. The first time Dergoul violated this rule, his blanket, mat, towel and soap – considered ‘comfort’ items – were confiscated, leaving him to sleep in the bare, cold metal cot. Following a second act of defiance, he was sent to the isolation units, built to confine 36 detainees, for a week. He would spend the rest of his time in Cuba continuously being sent back and forth from the hotel block to solitary confinement, spending, in total, a year and three months in isolation.
There was frequently no justification to merit the harsh conditions. Tarek elaborates, ‘You could not see anyone in the cell next door, nor anyone in the cell opposite, and talking was strictly forbidden.’ In Camp Echo, where inmates are caged, with a guard stationed outside 24 hours a day, ‘you would not be allowed to sleep,’ Tarek explains, ‘Or speak with your own personal guard.’
‘The MPs would come and play about with the AC dial, increasing and decreasing the temperature at will. They would put the AC on 10 degrees Celsius in order to cause suffering to the prisoners. If you had a cup of water, by morning, it would have turned to ice.’
‘One time, a civilian walked in and saw the AC dial at 10. He became very angry, saying, ‘If it’s at 10, the doors will freeze up!’
It was while Tarek was being held in solitary confinement that he came to learn of the most degrading aspect of interrogations, namely the sexual humiliation and molestation of prisoners; a practice, which, in the eyes of defence lawyer, Dr. Najeeb al-Nuaimi, is tantamount to ‘cultural hatred’, its ‘sick sadism, the sexuality that is so unacceptable’ being so diametrically opposed and so deeply offensive to Islamic sensibilities. Tarek elaborates, ‘They would bring prostitutes into interrogation rooms, wearing nothing more than a bra and knickers. They were brought in to massage and molest the prisoners, whilst the MPs would pin them down.’ It comes as little surprise, therefore, when Tarek reveals ‘this would be done largely to the Arabs.’
Tarek recalls one incident, when a Saudi prisoner returned from interrogation to his cell in the isolation unit, intensely distraught and distressed. ‘He said that a female CIA agent approached him during the interrogation and started to massage him, putting her hands all over his chest. She then brought her face close to his, and when he pulled back, he was pushed to the ground by the guards on either side, causing his nose to bleed.’
‘On the second day he was taken while I was present,’ Tarek continues. ‘When he came back he related the same story, but on this occasion she massaged him with some cream. Again, when she put her face close against his, he moved away. This time the MPs smashed his face against the floor, chipping his teeth. They took him a third time but he did not relay what had happened.’
These were not isolated incidents. Tarek affirms, ‘Every day, news would come about prisoners being pinned down and molested.’ He relates the depraved encounters forced upon two other prisoners; Rustum, the Uzbek inmate, was sitting in the interrogation room when a half-naked woman entered. The prisoner lowered his head, ‘When she began to draw close, he grabbed his chair and smacked it over her head, knocking her out.’ Another prisoner from Jordan was similarly being questioned by a half-naked officer, so he rebuked her, saying ‘she should be ashamed of herself and put some clothes on.’
For a culture deeply entrenched in values of respect and honour, women were used in this manner to humiliate and exploit the ‘psychological vulnerability’ of the prisoners. As a US Army official elaborated, arguing the efficiency of such molestation, ‘When women have power and control over you, that sets the male psyche out of its equilibrium. He’s not dominant anymore. It’s not for the squeamish. But the typical Arab male will do anything to avoid it.’ He summises, “The overall process is one of humiliating these people.”
In the Oscar Block, Dergoul became close to another Moroccan detainee, Ahmad Rashid, who had been resident in UK for 18 years. He relates the atrocious account of the torture he was subjected to for two to three months. ‘He would be taken into the interrogation room, but no interrogator would come. He would be forced to remain in the closed room for eight hours, with the AC set to 14/15 degrees Celsius, with no access to the toilet. When he would be sitting, a prostitute would come in and lay down on the table in front of him, smoking. She would blow the smoke in his face before parading herself in front of him. He would end up urinating in his trousers, as he had nowhere to go.’ Deprived of both food and drink, Tarek says, ‘He lost a lot of weight which resulted in an anorexic appearance. This continued for two to three months, where he would spend two hours in his cell and then be taken again to interrogation with no one present for eight hours.’ A Saudi detainee, Abdul-Hadi ash-Sharif, was subjected to the same methods of sleep deprivation, and humiliated by prostitutes. Attempting to demean him further, ‘they would dress him up in Jewish Orthodox clothes,’ Tarek adds. ‘Or they’d put the American flag on him.’
Tarek Dergoul’s account evokes countless graphic images of torture and depravity in US custody, a far cry from being a nation, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘conceived in liberty’, ‘committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and leading the fight by example’. He tells us of Zakariyyah, a Yemeni prisoner in the Romeo block who was ‘left tied up, hands behind his back and his feet chained to the floor. He was not allowed to go to the toilet or to have any food.’
Amidst the sordid tales of sexual humiliation and sadistic abuse, inmates would seize the rare opportunities together, exchanging the tragic circumstances of their kidnap. Zakariyyah told Tarek how he had been amongst a group of friends who were driving in Jordan, before being abducted by the local mafia. They were subsequently handed over to the Americans in return for a comfortable $100 000 bounty. As the accounts of extra-judicial kidnappings mounted, so too did the number of detainees. ‘There were regular caches of Afghanis and Pakistanis into Cuba every two months,’ he relates. Tarek recalls meeting Bisher al-Rawi, the Iraqi British resident who had been taken to Cuba as late as mid-2003, after travelling to Gambia, on the advice of his solicitor, and Martin Mubanga – who, far from being captured on the battlefield, had been arrested by the Americans while visiting relatives in Zambia.
In the cell directly adjacent to Tarek was an Algerian who had been resident in Bosnia. Al-Akhdar Boumedienne had been arrested by the Bosnian authorities on alleged involvement in a plot to blow up the US embassy. It took three months for him to be brought to trial but his innocence was proven, and he was released along with five like men. He told Tarek that as they were walking away from the court house, they had been kidnapped by American agents and taken to Cuba. ‘The Americans said the Bosnian authorities could not use the evidence that they (the US) had got!’
Tarek had heard of a number of prisoners being bribed with release, in return for their innocence; they were to admit to the charges levelled against them. Prisoners were told that they would be sent home if they signed a form which stated, ‘I am from al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I fought against the Americans and was captured on the battlefield.’’ They were released on the condition that if the Americans desired to question them further in future, they had the right to extradite them a second time to Cuba. Although Tarek, like the other British detainees, refused, he says that many Pakistanis, Afghans and one Turk that he knew, desperate to return home, agreed to sign the papers and were subsequently released. ‘They thought that if they did not sign the papers, then they would never go home.’
As prisoners were driven to extreme measures to secure their release, so evidently were the MPs that guarded them. Tarek was aware of at least three Military Police officers who had succeeded in their attempts to commit suicide. He narrates that one tried to swim back to America and in the process, drowned. Another returned home, intending to surprise his wife, but was met with a surprise and horror himself when he found her in bed with another man. Aghast, he travelled back to Guantanamo and within a month had shot himself in the head. This incident happened around Christmas 2003.
In the weeks leading up to Tarek’s release, the prisoners were again on hunger strike. In an attempt to further isolate the inmates, the MPs had redesigned the Romeo block with plastic Perspex sheets, 10 mm thick. At this time, they had compelled the detainees to dress down to little more than shorts. ‘Sometimes they were not given shorts at all but only a t-shirt,’ Tarek elaborates. ‘They deliberately did this, knowing how cold the detainees would be at night.’ Given that Muslim men are religiously required to cover the area between their naval to their knee while in prayer, by depriving them of shorts or proper garments, Tarek adds, ‘they knew that they would not be able to perform their prayers’.
The Final Journey
Earlier this year, Tarek heard from one of the other British detainees that he was going to be released. ‘I didn’t believe it,’ Tarek told us. His final days in Cuba were spent in more intense interrogations, starting from 5:30 am in the morning, and continuing up until 4pm. Due to the prisoner protest in the Romeo block, the prisoners were refusing to speak in interrogations. Tarek himself remained silent during four sessions. The fifth time, however, he was taken to a different location, in another interrogation block. The AC was set to a very low temperature, causing pain in his amputated arm, two years after it had been severed. ‘So I decided to talk,’ he says. ‘I just gave the same answers to the same questions they had been asking again and again for the past two years.’
On the third day, Tarek was brought a bag of clothes and informed that he was going home. Accustomed to the psychological mind-games played by his kidnappers, he assumed it was a joke, and retorted sarcastically, ‘Where’s Beadle?’
Three months on, restored to the comfort and safety of his home, the Tarek Dergoul that sits before us is a different man from the one who left for Pakistan in June 2001. He is surprised by the attention that his ordeal has attracted. We asked his opinion of sites like our own.
‘I think it's an excellent site,’ he observes, commenting on Cageprisoners.com. ‘An eye-opener. It's very exposing - it tells the truth about what is really happening in Guantanamo Bay. I visit the site regularly and whenever I do, it makes me feel wanted and appreciated; that there is someone out there who cares for the plight of the forgotten prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.’
The prisoners in Cuba may have been forgotten by many, but they are never far from Tarek’s thoughts. While undoubtedly delighted to be home, the predominant emotions being relief and gratitude, he frequently remembers those he left behind. He recalls his farewell meeting with Mustafa (Ait Idir), one of the Algerians from Bosnia. ‘They allowed me to say goodbye to him,’ Tarek says. ‘I felt sympathy for him, as he used to work and care for orphans. He deserved to be among those who were going home.’
The scars of the past three years cannot be erased. Physically, his amputated arm and severed feet are continual reminders of the horror of his ordeal; and psychologically, the torment and abuse of his US kidnappers will incessantly haunt him.
We ask, before parting, if he has any message for our readers.
‘Do not forget the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and in other parts of the World held in the 'War on Terror',’ he urges. ‘Do the best you can to release them as you could be in a similar situation tomorrow. Keep the issue of Guantanamo Bay at the top; do not let it be brushed under the carpet.
‘I was released, but there are still several hundred prisoners there.’