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The Prisoner: Moazzam Begg

July 28, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW...On the road this week in Birmingham, England. In all the debate over America's treatment of the prisoners of the war on terror, some voices have been notably missing- the voices of the detainees themselves. Well, that is about to change.

Birmingham is the hometown of a man named Moazzam Begg. He's one of the first so-called "enemy combatants" captured during the war on terror and one of the first "detainees" selected by President Bush to face an American military commission, a sort of trial with special rules. Begg had been imprisoned for three years when the British government won his release. He was the first to write a book about his experiences, and this is another first: Moazzam Begg's first primetime interview on American television.

To this day, the American government insists he has terrorist ties, just as he insists he has no such thing.

Here at the Birmingham Central Mosque, the library had room for our conversation about Moazzam Begg's experience as a new kind of prisoner in a new kind of war. The term is "enemy combatant."

BRANCACCIO: A U.S. Defense Department spokesperson is quoted as saying that you have, quote, "...strong, long term ties to terrorism—as a sympathizer, as a recruiter, as a financier and as a combatant." He said that after you got out of Guantanamo.

BEGG: I think first, you know, the—the first thing that you learn about an enemy combatant is that you don't actually have to be an enemy or a combatant to be an enemy combatant. And you can't even prove after all of these years that I've supposed to have done something wrong.

BRANCACCIO: What was the road that led to his imprisonment in Kandahar, Bagram and, finally, Guantanamo? Is he a terrorist? Did he ever work to hurt or kill Americans? And in American custody, how was he treated, physically, mentally, legally?

Begg was raised in an educated, middle class family in Birmingham. His father—a bank manager originally from Pakistan—taught his sons to embrace their heritage but also to be open to other cultures. The father sent young Begg to a Jewish elementary school, which he considered the next best thing to a Muslim education.

As a teenager, Begg began to realize he wasn't just like any other white British chap. He says he joined a local street gang to fend off racists who would tease and bully South Asians.

He would go on to university and like many young people trying to get a handle on their own identity, he traveled. Begg's travels affected him deeply but they would later be cause for suspicion. His trips over the years would take him to Pakistan where he had relatives—to Afghanistan, and to Bosnia.

BRANCACCIO: But what interested you in these places where you saw people who shared your religion fighting off an oppressor? Was it something from what you saw here in Birmingham growing up?

BEGG: Actually, it was in—in this very mosque. The first time that I ever saw refugees that came over from Bosnia and Herzegovina. I'd bought some groceries and food, some blankets and medicines—to bring over and deliver to these people.

BRANCACCIO: But something about their struggle seems to have struck a chord with the younger version of you. Some of these things added up to, would it be fair to say, a political awakening?

BEGG: My work in Bosnia included mostly aid work. I felt—distributing food, medicine and aid to refugees was fulfilling. But I remember one of the—the old women from—from Bosnia—named Masta who said to me that—"Why do you people bring in food and medicine when our throats are slit every day?" And what, of course, she was asking for is people to come protect them.

BRANCACCIO: Moazzam Begg says his aid work took him to the battle zones of Bosnia. And the horrors he saw there led to his conviction that an armed resistance could sometimes be justified. After his travels, he returned to Birmingham to open an Islamic bookstore where jihad was often the topic of discussion. He began to learn all that he could about what he saw as Muslim struggles in faraway places.

BRANCACCIO: You'd become very interested in places where you saw Muslims trying to throw off oppression, places like, in your view, Chechnya, in Bosnia, in the Kashmir region. What's with you and jihad?

BEGG: The whole concept that's been pervading the west about jihad—has been purposefully—reinterpreted and remodeled. Let's remember, the terminology of jihad was used very powerfully—to evoke ideas of resistance—against the Soviet occupation during the time when the Americans were actually providing stinger missiles—to the mujahadeen, —

BRANCACCIO: You're saying it was just fine, jihad was, when it was the Soviets—

BEGG: Absolutely.

BRANCACCIO: —the—that being thrown off.

BEGG: Absolutely. Because let's not forget that even the ANC at some point, were deemed to be the terrorists—the African National Congress—

BRANCACCIO: In South Africa.

BEGG: —of—of—of Mandela, indeed, were deemed to be terrorists. And—so was—so was the American Revolution movements—against the British, were deemed to be terrorists. So, I think it's important not to designate all of these struggles to be—synonymous with terrorism.

BRANCACCIO: Begg says he did visit two military training camps along the Afghan/Pakistani border in the 1990s. But he contends the first camp was run by a Pakistani group fighting for Kashmir, and the second camp was run by Kurds training to fight against Saddam Hussein. According to Begg, they were not, as the U.S. defense department alleges, al Qaeda-affiliated camps. The pentagon claims Begg learned how to use explosives and rocket propelled grenades in those training camps. Begg emphatically denies that or any ties whatsoever, with al Qaeda.

BEGG: The onus, of course, on-on the United States government in all of this time after 300 interrogations, after three years of-of-incarceration would be upon them to prove a case but to prove a case in a recognized court of law

And my question always to the Americans was simply this. That what is it that I have actually done to the Americans or supported or been involved in against the United States of America? What have I done to harm you?

BRANCACCIO: by the late 1990s, the British authorities, including their domestic intelligence agency MI-5, had started to question him about some of his trips, his acquaintances and his views on jihad. The police raided his book store several times. Despite the close scrutiny, he was never convicted of any wrongdoing in those cases other than owning a can of pepper spray.

In the summer of 2001, Begg took his family to then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, he claims, to do aid work. He wanted to start a girls' school and oversee a project digging wells. His critics wonder why he would take his wife and young kids to a country known for its ruthlessness and brutal treatment of women.

BRANCACCIO: I remember the headlines at the time about Afghanistan, that you would've read in Britain or the United States before you went. "Taliban jail aid workers for Christian crime. Aid workers in danger after Taliban killings. Taliban hang four in public." That was on the BBC. But you're willing to take your family into that?

BEGG: Many other non-Muslim Caucasians were working actually in Afghanistan during this period.

Indeed, I had an American family living across the road with a—a—a whole family, including children, German and French parts of NGOs in Kabul. And of course, they're not asked this question. Because they weren't picked up by the United States of America and questioned and interrogated.

BRANCACCIO: Begg says he never had much of a chance to see his aid projects come together. After terrorists struck the United States on September 11th, the U.S. responded with air attacks on Afghanistan. Moazzam Begg and his family soon fled for safety to Pakistan. It was at an apartment there when men he believes to be Pakistani agents working on behalf of the U.S. showed up.

BEGG: There was a—a knock on my door late at night, almost at midnight. My wife and children were asleep. I was just doing some—some work on my computer. As I opened the door—I saw a group of people standing there, Pakistanis dressed in civilian uniform. I saw a handgun raised towards me.

And I saw—electric stun guns crackling in the background. So, it was almost as if I didn't even—have enough time to be terrified, just completely shocked. They put a hood over my head, pushed me down to the ground in a kneeling position, shackled the back of my hands and the backs of my legs and my ankles.

And the last thing I saw was them walking towards my children's room. And I remember saying to them, "Don't go in there."

BRANCACCIO: After a few weeks, according to Begg, the Pakistanis handed him over to American custody.

BRANCACCIO: If it was Pakistani intelligence, they have a pretty terrifying reputation around the world. How did they treat you?

BEGG: What was really odd about this, because I—I was quite—afraid, and—and I—the reputation that you're talking about—obviously precedes itself, so I was afraid of that. But the Pakistanis treated me—very well.

When they handed me off to the—to the Americans, I thought, you know, things aren't going to be so bad. But it was completely the opposite.

It became apparent to me that from the point I was in American custody—that they had employed a tactic to terrorize the detainees, and when I talk about this sort of terrorizing, it begins with what they call sensory deprivation. And that is to block all of your senses, your ability to see, hear—even speak.

Being moved over then after from there to Kandahar—was probably the most humiliating process that I've ever—faced in my entire life. It included from being stripped naked by guards wielding knives that would cut into my trousers and shirt and underwear—until I was completely naked, three or four guards sitting at—on top of me, pushing their knees into my back, into my head.

And indeed, this is happening to other detainees, too. I hear the screams of what they call the body search or the cavity search—playing with their private areas, taking photographs, shaving off the hair and the beard and stamping on my feet—spitting, swearing, all sorts of things.

BRANCACCIO: So—so, Kandahar for a transitional phase. But then you were moved where, to Bagram?

BEGG: To the Bagram facility near—Kabul, yes.

BEGG: I believed that my time in Bagram, for whatever reason that I spent such a long—lengthy time there, which is still unclear to me—was the worst part of my incarceration.

BRANCACCIO: I hate to make you go through this. But give me a sense of some of the things that you witnessed in Bagram.

BEGG: In Bagram, detainees were not allowed to talk to one another. We did so at the—on the pain of punishment of having our hand tied up to the top of the cage like so, and—and left—on—on tiptoe, and having a hood or black goggles placed on us for hours and hours, and sometimes days on end.

We were not allowed to walk or to talk. We were not—allowed to—to do anything without express permission.

My worst point I think in Bagram was in the month of May when I was interrogated by several people who I believe were amongst the CIA, the FBI, and the military intelligence in general.

I was threatened with being sent to Egypt to be tortured So, this was frightening already. But I'd been hog-tied with my hands tied behind my back, to the backs of my legs, so that I was—in essence like a—like a—like a—a hunted animal that had just been caught. I was hooded, punched, kicked, spat at and so forth, sworn at, held like this—for hours on end, deprived of sleep for several days only to hear the sounds of a woman screaming next door, which at this point I believed was my wife next—

BRANCACCIO: You got it in your head that somehow that might be your wife in the next cell—

BEGG: Yes. Of—

BRANCACCIO: —screaming?

BEGG: —course it was—the feeling was that—in the beginning when I heard that, I wanted to ask—it was almost my worst fears were being realized. I didn't know up in this point—up until this point that—what had happened to my wife or kids.

The last image that I had was of unknown people walking towards the bedroom of my wife and my children.

BRANCACCIO: He would find out later that his wife had never been detained; the woman screaming may have been one of the few female detainees to pass through Bagram. And he says he witnessed other horrors.

BRANCACCIO: And you think you saw a murder committed while you were there?

BEGG: It was said that—a detainee had tried to escape from an adjacent cell to where I was.

So, he's supposed to have crawled out through this—area where guards jumped on him and beat him. I saw his body being dragged in front of me battered and bruised, limp, into the medical room where—which was opposite—to where my cell was. They shortly afterwards, after the medics and doctors are buzzing around the room in and out, carried his body out on a stretcher.

I think—and that the person had been killed. And my reason for that is because the—one of the people that beat him was one of the few guards at that point who I got along with very, very well. And he told me about—what he had done and how he'd done it.

BRANCACCIO: And you initially thought that this was not the worst of your captors. Yet—if you're right, was involved in a murder. Seems to be a disconnect.

BEGG: This person that I used to speak to often was—one of the few guards who actually showed some empathy.

But I think he'd become so desensitized by the end, which—it was getting close to the end of his tour of duty, that he himself be—had succumbed to that very same thing that he'd recognized right in the beginning.

BRANCACCIO: An army investigation has confirmed the deaths of two detainees from abusive treatment. While nobody has been charged with murder, the army has prosecuted some of those alleged to be involved for lesser offenses.

After 11 months in Bagram's miserable conditions, Begg says he strangely looked forward to the transfer to Guantanamo bay, but at Gitmo, it was straight to solitary confinement.

BEGG: It wasn't very physical in Guantanamo Bay. But it was psychological. I spent, I believe—almost 20 months in isolation in a place that's known as Camp Echo. Psychological torture is something that is covered in the United Nation convention of torture, that is—prohibited. And—as is—cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment which I believe was administered in Guantanamo to some degree, but nothing like how it was in Bagram.

BRANCACCIO: I actually visited Guantanamo Prison, I think, soon after you got out and we were shown various camps, various types of cells, and pretty spiffy medical facilities. But, then I asked about the treatment of detainees. I talked to the commanding officer at the time, Brigadier General Hood. And this is what he said.

HOOD: The detainees under our charge are well cared for physically and mentally.

BRANCACCIO: The standards under which the detainees are held, can I with confidence say, "Geneva Convention."

HOOD: Absolutely, Absolutely.

BRANCACCIO: That's important to you as a soldier?

HOOD: That is absolutely important.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Mr. Begg, you've read the Geneva Conventions. You've been in Guantanamo. Were you being held according to the Geneva Convention standards in your view?

BEGG: As far as the Geneva Conventions in relation to Article III, Article V hearings that were supposed to have taken place right from the outset in any battlefield determination, that's never happened. Detainees have never been treated in—as prisoners of war.Now to date, not one person has been charged in a recognized court—from the detainees at Guantanamo Bay or convicted of any crime.

BRANCACCIO: But what many people are especially disturbed about in your case is that the FBI says it has a statement that you signed that says a whole lot of things. That you admitted helping al Qaeda in this signed statement. Among the things, "I," meaning you, "Knowingly provided comfort and assistance to al Qaeda members by housing their families, helped distribute al Qaeda propaganda and—received members from terrorist camps knowing that certain trainees could become al Qaeda operatives and commit acts of terrorism against the United States." The FBI says your signature is at the bottom of that.

BEGG: It is. And they're correct. There are two things to this of course. If the FBI had felt that there was a case to answer for they wouldn't have taken me into Bagram where I was held, heard the sounds of a woman screaming next door, had me hogtied and threatened to send me to Egypt in order to get me to sign this.

I said, "I won't; sign this until I see a lawyer." And they said that, "You won't see a lawyer unless you sign this. And if you don't sign this you could be spending decades in incarceration without anybody looking at your case."

BRANCACCIO: So, you're saying this statement was signed under duress?

BEGG: Absolutely. I had no access to any legal representation up until this point at all. And so—I did sign this statement.

BRANCACCIO: When you were in Guantanamo, were you ever able to see the evidence against you?

BEGG: Of course not because—that's part of the—the process there is that they have—classified and unclassified information that they can use or not. And that can be used in determining whether you're an enemy combatant which is not part of the legal process.

BRANCACCIO: after a long public outcry, Tony Blair's government worked to negotiate the release of all nine British citizens who were held at Guantanamo. In January of 2005 —after three years of imprisonment —Moazzam Begg returned to his family. He also got to meet his youngest son—Ayub—for the first time. These days, Begg spends much of his time writing and speaking out on behalf of the detainees who remain in American prisons around the world. He has written a new book detailing his experiences called "Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar."

BRANCACCIO: Did you end up hating Americans after this experience?

BEGG: I'm absolutely clear in my mind that there are a great number of American soldiers who are good, decent people. I would even extend that to some of the interrogators.

I feel that—and I felt that many of those soldiers, in fact, had joined the Army not knowing what they were letting themselves in for. Do I hate Americans? No. Do I hate the administration? I think unreservedly.

BRANCACCIO: The U.S. Defense Department maintains the it was justified in having detained him. And as a security precaution, the British government has taken away his passport.

Among much of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims, there is a deep concern over American and British policies in the Middle East—from the war in Iraq to the alliance with Israel. The vast majority of British Muslims condemn any form of terrorism. Many in Britain were stunned when they saw that the four suicide bombers who carried out last year's London subway attacks were not outsiders, but fellow Brits.

Moazzam Begg says he has never planned, aided or participated in any attacks against Westerners.

BEGG: I believe that what—what was done on July the 7th, indeed September the 11th, I believe both—acts like that s—that are indiscriminate that attack civilians that are uninvolved in hostilities are totally and unreservedly wrong—that they—I condemn them and I don't support them in any way or shape whatsoever.

BRANCACCIO: The Defense Department refused to comment for this story—and would not provide any evidence to support any of their allegations against Begg. We did speak to a former army interrogator who served in Kandahar and Bagram for much of 2002. Chris Hogan says some army interrogators viewed Begg this way:

HOGAN: I think that he—he would be mischaracterized if you said that he was a high-level enemy fighter, or—planner—with—the capacity to wreak havoc on the U.S. or its interests. I always had the impression that he was a bit of a romanticist.

But at the same time, I—the image that he paints of himself now—one of being someone who was—you know, an innocent being persecuted by—the enormous machine, is not accurate.

BRANCACCIO: Whatever Hogan's impressions, the fact remains that Moazzam Begg spent three years as a prisoner without any formal charges pressed against him and with no way to defend himself. And that is what critics of the Bush administration's detainee policies find especially disturbing. A few weeks ago the Supreme Court stepped in and ruled that the Geneva conventions do indeed apply to the people the administration labeled "enemy combatants". The Bush administration and congress are scrambling to come up with some new approaches.

Meanwhile, the future for the rest of the 450 detainees still being held in Guantanamo remains uncertain.

BRANCACCIO: What's to be done with people in Guantanamo. You can't assure me that every single one of those guys in there is not going to become a problem if he is simply let out.

BEGG: I think that's true. But I think that—let me quote one of the guards. One of the guards, what they said to me is that, "Hell, if I wasn't a terrorist when I came here I would be by the time I was released because of what had been done to me. I'd be pissed off." Now—

BRANCACCIO: That's what a guard said to you?

BEGG: That's what a guard to me, yes. Yes, there is no way of knowing what's in anybody's hearts.

I'm sure there may be a few people, a handful of people who deserve to—be at least processed through a prosecution system, at least have that right. But the vast majority, in my opinion, of—that are held there are held there illegally and should be returned to their families and homes.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From Birmingham, England, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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