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Enemy Combatant: Moazzam Begg on his Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar

Democracy Now!

July 31, 2006

In February 2002, the British-born Moazzam Begg was seized by the CIA in Islamabad. No reasons were given for his arrest. He was hooded, shackled and cuffed and flown to the U.S. detention facility at Kandahar, then to Bagram airbase where he was held for approximately a year before being transferred to Guantanamo. The U.S. government labeled him an "enemy combatant." He was never charged with a crime. In all, Moazzam spent three years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. He was subjected to over three hundred interrogations as well as death threats and torture. At Bagram, he witnessed the killing of two fellow detainees. In January 2005, he was released from Guantanamo along with three other British citizens. He received no apology or compensation for his imprisonment. [includes rush transcript]

Moazzam is a British citizen, born and raised in Birmingham. The story of his ordeal begins in mid-2001 when he moved to Afghanistan with his wife and three young children to work as an aid worker in education and water projects. After September 11th and the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, he relocated to Pakistan. In February 2002, Moazzam was seized by the CIA in Islamabad. No reasons were given for his arrest. He was hooded, shackled and cuffed and flown to the U.S. detention facility at Kandahar, then to Bagram airbase where he was held for approximately a year before being transferred to Guantanamo. The U.S. government labeled him an "enemy combatant." He was never charged with a crime. In all, Moazzam spent three years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. He was subjected to over three hundred interrogations as well as death threats and torture. At Bagram, he witnessed the killing of two fellow detainees. In January 2005, he was released from Guantanamo along with three other British citizens. He received no apology or compensation for his imprisonment. Moazzam Begg has written a book about his experience that has just been published in the United States titled "Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. It is the first book known to be published by a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner. Moazaam Begg joins us on the satellite from Birmingham.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going now to Birmingham, England, where Moazzam Begg joins us by satellite. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MOAZZAM BEGG: Hello.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Before we talk about your experience, Moazzam, we've just spent the first half of the broadcast talking about what’s happened in Lebanon and specifically the latest Israeli air strike on Qana, and I was wondering if you could share your response.

MOAZZAM BEGG: I think my response is pretty much similar to most normal, good, reasonable-thinking people, and that is, utter outrage and a terrible amount of sorrow. Listening to Robert Fisk and what he has spoken about has just reiterated what most people have felt all along, and that is, an apparent double standard is applied by a lot of the Western powers in relation to the actions of Israel and how they're behaving in relation to targeting innocent civilians. My wife, herself, is Palestinian, and I went to a Jewish school, so I understand both sides. But I can't understand at all the raison d'etre, the justification of killing innocent civilians, children, for goodness sake. It’s heartbreaking.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you a clip of your prime minister --

MOAZZAM BEGG: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you a clip of your prime minister, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He had a joint news conference with President Bush in Washington, D.C. This was before the Qana bombing. It was on Friday.

    PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR: Look, we’ve had a problem even in our own Muslim communities in Europe, who will half-buy into some of the propaganda that’s pushing it: the purpose of America is to suppress Islam; you know, Britain is joined with America in the suppression of Islam. And one of the things we’ve got to stop doing is stop apologizing for our own positions. You know, Muslims in America, as far as I’m aware, are free to worship. Muslims in Britain are free to worship. We are plural societies.

    It’s nonsense. The propaganda is nonsense, and we’re not going to defeat this ideology until we in the West go out with sufficient confidence in our own position and say this is wrong. It’s not just wrong in its methods, it’s wrong in its ideas, it’s wrong in its ideology. It’s wrong in every single wretched reactionary thing about it. And it will be a long struggle, I’m afraid. But there’s no alternative but to stay the course with it. And we will.

AMY GOODMAN: British Prime Minister Tony Blair, standing with President Bush, unlike a number of members of Blair's cabinet, and also past cabinet ministers, like Jack Straw, in opposing an immediate ceasefire. Moazzam Begg, your response to your own prime minister.

MOAZZAM BEGG: I think, again, it reiterates that our own prime minister, sadly, although he’s been elected into office so many times, is not in touch with the reality of what most of the people feel in relation to his foreign policy vis-a-vis President Bush. It seems that he is falling and fallen down this path, whereby he’s inadvertently or advertently demonized a whole population, a whole section of this country and of the greater world, by being involved in these actions, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, now complicity by not doing anything in relation to Lebanon.

And to say somehow that the grievances of the Muslim world and community are ridiculous and ludicrous and have no basis is itself the height of stupidity, in my opinion, in how he is trying to tackle the problems that are arising as a result of these actions, which, of course, according to his closest advisors have said will increase the likelihood of terrorism in this country and in the world and make the world a much less safe place than it already is.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about your own situation, about being imprisoned for three years, the U.S. calling you an enemy combatant. You just mentioned that you went to Jewish schools. Can you explain?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yes, I went initially to a Jewish school, a Jewish primary school in this country, in this city, and my father sort of sent me there because of his liberal attitude towards faith and towards living in this country, and also the standard of education there was higher than most schools. During my time there, my best friends, for the greater part of my early years, were all Jewish. I learned to speak a bit of Hebrew. I celebrated Chanukah and Purim and Pesach and Yom Kippur with all the other Jewish kids. I used to wave around the Israeli flag, and in the evenings I used to go home and have my Koranic study lessons. So, there was no contradiction. In fact, it helped to broaden my understanding of the greater world, of which I was a part of.

So, as I said before, I have an understanding and an empathy towards the Jewish people, in general, that perhaps a lot of people in my position wouldn't. And yet also, as I said before, my wife is Palestinian. She's never been back home to Palestine, because her parents were thrown out in 1948. They still hold onto the documents or the deeds of the properties, in the dream that one day they’ll return to their homes. And, of course, that’s another side of the whole story of Muslim disaffection in the world, which we are seeing today has not stopped, and that is as a result of the aggression inside Palestine by the Israeli government.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam, we have to break. When we come back, I want to talk about your experiences in the three U.S. prisons, Kandahar, Bagram, and Guantanamo, and talk about what you witnessed there and talk about what you experienced there. We’re speaking to Moazzam Begg, a former prisoner at the three U.S. prisons.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our discussion with Moazzam Begg. He was a prisoner at three U.S. prisons. He has written a book called Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. He joins us by satellite from Birmingham, England, where he lives with his family, after being released last year after three years of imprisonment. Moazzam, can you start from the beginning of your detention? Can you start in Pakistan, why you were there? The year was 2001, it was in the midst of the bombing of Afghanistan. And can you describe what happened on the day you were detained?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yes. I had evacuated to Pakistan in Islamabad, where I have family and relatives, with my own wife and children, after we had been living in Afghanistan, where I had worked on a project to build a girls school and to build wells in the drought-stricken regions of the northwest. It was the 31st of January, 2002. It was several months after I had arrived in Pakistan and was still there, that at midnight, I heard a knock on the door, and when I opened the door, I was faced with a group of civilians -- well, were dressed in civilian clothing, at least -- pointing guns towards me, and a few of them had tasers or stun guns cracking in the background.

Nobody said a word to me at all. I was pushed straight back into the front room of my house, pushed to the grounds on my knees. My hands were shackled behind my back, and my legs were shackled, too, and the last thing I saw before a hood was placed over my head was them walking towards the room where my wife and children were sleeping. And I told them, “Don't go in there, please.” That was the last thing, the last words that I said in my house.

I was physically picked up and taken into the back of a vehicle, which I believe was some sort of a jeep, and driven off to an unknown location, which I believe was close to where I live, not too far away, in that it didn’t take too long to get there. And one of the things that happened was that during the journey, somebody lifted the hood, and I was lying in a prone position in the backseat, and I saw this, what appeared to be a Caucasian man dressed pretty badly, I would say, as a local, taking a photograph. And the next person was this, again, I believe American, who spoke and produced a pair of handcuffs, and he said that he was given these handcuffs by the wives of one of the September 11th victims, for him to go and capture the perpetrators. And so that was my first encounter with American intelligence in my whole period of incarceration, which was to last for the next three years.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you an excerpt of a conversation we had with your father, Azmat Begg. He was in the studio in New York with us when you were in the midst of your imprisonment. I’m going to play that in a few minutes, but if you could talk then about where they took you, once they put you in this car in the trunk of the car, where were you brought to? And did you know where you were?

MOAZZAM BEGG: There was always an air of secrecy about my location, so I was never told exactly where I was, although sometimes I learned from sympathetic or empathetic guards. Initially, the Pakistanis were very apologetic about having brought me into custody. They said it was all because of the Americans pushing for it.

After a couple of weeks I was handed over to U.S. custody, which was completely different to how the Pakistanis treated me, of course. The Pakistanis were very gentle. They didn't hurt me or beat me, swear at me, or abuse me in any way, other than falsely imprison me. But once I was in U.S. custody, it all changed, and I believed the opposite to be true, because Pakistan is a third world country where torture is part of an unwritten convention, if not written constitution. So that when I was eventually given into American custody and taken over to Kandahar, the treatment that I received through the processing was probably the most dehumanizing process, I think, that anybody has ever endured in recent times, which included having soldiers sit on me and then many other detainees, several of them pushing down on my head and my legs and my back; ripping open my clothes with a knife, which I could feel slicing, the cold blade against the back of my legs and back; and then photographs being taken of me naked; being shackled; being spat at; photographs of me shaven and unshaven; photographs of soldiers abusing me and other detainees; and derisive remarks about being a terrorist, being a murder, being Muslim scum, things like this; dogs barking; and then eventually being taken over to an FBI agent who looked rather strange with his FBI cap on, while I’m shivering there naked, and him asking me when was the last time I saw Mullah Omar, when was the last time I saw Osama bin Laden, which is a standard question that they asked of every detainee.

Eventually, I was clothed and moved into a disused barn that was caged within by concertina razor wire, in which I spent the next few weeks. After that period, which lasted for about six weeks with all sorts of minor abuses and major abuses upon me and other people, notwithstanding the fact that even during this time I managed to make friends, if I could call it that, with many of the guards who seemed to understand that they were overstepping on the boundaries of what they felt soldiers in the U.S. military are supposed to do.

After that period of six weeks, I was moved to Bagram, and Bagram was this disused Russian factory near the air base, still with inscriptions in Russian around the building, where interrogation was of a stricter and more stringent nature. And I was placed in one of the cells, communal cells, that were in this facility, of which there were six, and held there for approximately ten months. And I think the worst interrogation techniques that I’ve ever faced in custody were perpetrated in Bagram.

It was probably in the month of May that I came across the harshest, and that was when FBI, CIA, Military Intelligence and a host of other people who were interrogating me threatened to send me to Egypt to be tortured. They said that a senior ranking member of al-Qaeda had been sent to Egypt, where he was forced into giving a confession that al-Qaeda had been working on weapons of mass destruction with Saddam Hussein, which, of course, is now found to be a complete, utter lie, which was said under torture and had no basis. But at that point, I didn't know this, of course. I’ve known this subsequently. At that point, I had a very real fear of being sent there. I was tied with my hands behind my back, hogtied in an animal-type position, kicked, beaten, punched, sworn at, and so forth. And to top it off, I was threatened -- or rather, I felt that the woman they had screaming next door was actually my wife, because up until this point I had no idea as to what had happened to her from the day that I had been abducted from my house.

And probably, if you can get worse than this, it would be the witnessing of the deaths of two detainees. The first one was in June 2002, as part of what I was told was an escape attempt. This detainee had been captured from an area from behind my cell by two of the guards. I saw them dragging his beaten and bruised limp body across from in front of my cell, where they took him to the medical room. Shortly afterwards, after the doctors had come and the medics, they carried his body out on a stretcher, covered.

And the second death that I saw was in December 2002. A well-documented case now is the case of detainee 421, Mr. Dilawar, who was held in my cell in the what's known as the airlock area, with his hands suspended above his head, shackled, and a hood placed over him, because it was deemed that he needed to be broken, and the method that they used to break him was through sleep deprivation, and by the time that they came to take him again, after he had been held for several days in this similar type of position, his body had gone limp. He had been calling for unintelligible noises -- making unintelligible noises, and eventually when they came to take him, rather than administer to him medical treatment, they started punching him, kicking him, and then removed him.

We never heard of him ever again, as detainees, but I heard of him specifically from internal investigators a year and a half later in Guantanamo, when they brought in photographs of him alive and then photographs of his corpse. They asked me to describe, if I could, the circumstances of which I had seen his beating of and then to point out who I believed the soldiers who were responsible for those beatings were, which I did. And greatly ironically, when I was putatively sent, facing my own trial, a military commission in the United St-- in Guantanamo, they asked me whether I would be willing to stand up as a witness in a trial against these soldiers, so it was quite bizarre, actually.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you think they were holding you because you had witnessed this?

MOAZZAM BEGG: I certainly think that being in Guantanamo in solitary confinement for such a long time was one of factors. I have no doubt about that, because of the way in which they questioned me about and continued to ask me about this. I had written a statement back in Bagram, asking and demanding many things. One of the things I had asked for in Bagram from the interrogators was to be able to take a polygraph test and to be asked these questions: had I ever been involved in terrorism? Had I committed acts of terrorism or prepared terrorism or been a member of a terrorist group or al-Qaeda? Or had I met bin Laden? Or any of those sort of things that could help to prove my innocence. They didn't do this, but also I asked and noted that I had witnessed these two deaths, and I intended to make this known to the public at whatever time it is that I would be freed.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Moazzam Begg, former prisoner of the U.S. military at Guantanamo, at Kandahar and at Guantanamo. In the headlines today, we read the Washington Post piece about an obscure law approved by a Republican-controlled congress a decade ago that’s made the Bush administration nervous that officials and troops involved in handling detainee matters might be accused of committing war crimes and prosecuted at some point in U.S. courts. Do you think these men, these soldiers, should be prosecuted? And how far up do you think it should go?

MOAZZAM BEGG: I think that’s a very important point. In the case of the last detainee who I mentioned, Mr. Dilawar, there were several of the guards who I remember were involved, to one degree or another, as after I have read about their cases, in the killing. And what one of the soldiers, Willie Brand, mentions is that he felt that it was part of this broad guideline under the standard operating procedures that they had, that it was okay to administer these strikes to the thigh, which was done to this detainee, I believe, over 30 times. And it does beg the question as to when people within the White House, Donald Rumsfeld and others, are asked, “Is it okay for these detainees to stand for hours on end?” and he replies, “Well, I stand for hours on end in my job, in my capacity as the Defense Secretary, then why can't these detainees do so?” And, of course, he's not mentioning that they're being beaten at the same time or being tied to the top of a cage.

It is having a trickle effect, from when they say right from the outset, when people have not been charged, not been convicted, not had any access to any legal recourse, that the people in power, the most powerful men on earth, are saying that they're killers, that they're terrorists, that they're murderers, that they're the scum of the earth, that they are the worst of the worst, that they're bad people, although we don't know what they've done. These are all direct quotes from the people in power in the United States of America. So when the soldier, the average soldier on the ground, the enlisted soldier, sees these things, he feels he's got carte blanche to basically do what he wants to, because he's in a proximity of the war zone, and Bagram and Kandahar, places like that, are regarded as war zones, even though the scale of military operations within Bagram is extremely limited, if at all perpetrated by Taliban in that region.

So I think that there is a huge level of culpability from the commanding officers all the way to the top, because it's not just one or two cases. There are many cases, and it follows a pattern. We know that what took place in Abu Ghraib, if somebody was to show me the pictures and say, "Who did this?" without me ever knowing that the Americans had been involved or whether it was in Iraq, I could easily say to you that it was -- this is definitely Americans doing this, from the style and the method in which they treated detainees in Kandahar and Bagram. It does follow a pattern.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam, in your book, Enemy Combatant, you do say that you went to several training camps. What were these camps? Why did you go? When did you go?

MOAZZAM BEGG: The first camp that I went to was in 1993. It was run by the Kashmiri organization called Jamaat-e-Islami, and it was in a border region within Afghanistan. The reason I went there was because I was in Pakistan, I was invited by them to go. It’s not unusual for people in Pakistan at that time to have visited many of these sort of Kashmiri-based camps. Indeed, the greatest Pakistani sort of population in this country, of Muslims, actually come from Kashmir, so it’s not unusual for people to go to these types of places, but to insinuate somehow that it’s part of al-Qaeda or that -- you know, al-Qaeda didn't even exist, as far as I understand, at that point, and certainly the Taliban didn't. And the Taliban actually closed down this camp when they came into power, as they did the second one that I visited, which was in 1998. I only went there for a day, because I was living in Pakistan. It was over the border. I crossed over into Afghanistan to swim in the lakes and to meet the people who were living there, and the camp was actually run by Kurds, anti-Saddam Hussein Kurds who had set up a camp there since their village had been destroyed in the Halabja massacres of 1988. No connection with al-Qaeda there.

AMY GOODMAN: Weren't those Kurds supported by the United States?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Well, they were supposed to be, but I think well after, they were supported by the United States. But their whole position was that, you know, they came over to Afghanistan to be able to set up some sort of forum to defend themselves. And, yes, of course, the Kurds in general were supported by the United States, but that, in the great scheme of things after September 11, really mattered very little, when they bombed everybody indiscriminately.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, we have come to the end of this segment of the broadcast. We continue with part two of our interview with Moazzam Begg, former Guantanamo, Kandahar and Bagram prisoner. He has written the story of his life, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. Tomorrow we'll bring you part two of our interviews with Moazzam Begg, as well as with Robert Fisk reporting from Lebanon.

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