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How a Guantanamo prison guard discovered Islam

France 24
April 14, 2009

As a guard in Guantanamo Bay, Terry Holdbrooks was charged with keeping a careful watch on detainees in the infamous detention center. But after a series of extraordinary interactions between the former US Army specialist and Muslim detainees at the center, the Phoenix, Arizona-born prison guard decided to convert to Islam.

During his service at Guantanamo, Holdbrooks says the detainees were often subjected to sadistic, degrading treatment by interrogators.

In an interview with FRANCE 24’s Guillaume Meyer, the former prison guard rattled off a list of sometimes brutal, often humiliating situations the detainees were subjected to. “Detainees were punched, kicked, knee-butted, things like that would occur,” he said. “Detainees would be doused in cold water…be subjected to very loud music…investigators would come in and sometimes rough up a detainee…”

Through it all, Holdbrooks said, a number of detainees continued to practice their faith. And that left an indelible mark on the US prison guard. “Seeing people who were practicing Muslims, practicing Islam in a horrible place like that…it was an interesting experience for me to see somebody take their faith so seriously, so devoutly,” he told FRANCE 24.

‘Wrong place at the wrong time’

While prison guards often develop a hostile relationship with detainees, there have been recent cases of former Guantanamo guards developing sympathetic relations with the detainees.

According to Holdbrooks, it was easy to differentiate between those who had “ill will toward the US” and those who were simply “at the wrong place at the wrong time”.

“I can think back to an old man and a child,” recalled Holdbrooks. “I don’t think they knew of a world outside Afghanistan. I don’t think they knew there were oceans or that the world was round or that there was the Internet, computers or cell phones or any of these things. They just knew their village. How can somebody like that be a co-conspirator of the 9/11 attacks?” he asked.

Holdbrooks himself has had a troubled history of substance addiction, according to media reports. Following his conversion to Islam at Guantanamo, Holdbrooks was honourably discharged from service. No reasons were supplied for his release from the military two years before the end of his commitment.

When he returned home to Phoenix, Holdbrooks took to heavy drinking and a cocaine addiction, he told the French daily Le Figaro, before his serious addiction problem landed him in hospital. This time, it was a local imam at a Phoenix mosque that led him back to Islam.

US President Barack Obama has vowed to close the infamous prison by January 2010 and has established a multi-agency task force to review detainee policy.

But defense attorneys have criticized the US administration for dragging their feet over the cases of some 240 current detainees who were allowed to take their cases to federal courts following a US Supreme Court ruling last year.

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