Web Only / Features » October 16, 2006
Abandon Hope, All Who Enter Here
A falsely accused “enemy combatant” describes his imprisonment in Guantanamo.
Moazzam Begg is a second-generation British Muslim. In 2002, he was arrested in Pakistan and held for two years by the United States as an “enemy combatant.” Below, he describes his arrival and interrogation in Guantanamo after being held at both Kandahar and Bagram. He was released in 2005, and now lives in Birmingham, England, with his family. Today, Begg can lecture only in Britain because, despite the absence of charges against him, his passport was withdrawn as a condition of his release. He hopes to be able to travel and lecture more widely in the future.
It is considered a sin in Islam to despair, but in Bagram, during the worst days of May 2002, I had been unable to hold despair at bay. Here in Guantanamo, in this steel cage with its mesh sides, steel roof and floor, steel bed, steel toilet, all inside a white, new-looking brightly lit room, I felt despair returning as I took in my surroundings for the first time.
All I had in the cell was a sheet and a roll of toilet paper, not even my glasses. I asked for something that I could use as a prayer mat, and they brought a thin camping mat, which became my mattress for the next two years.
I wanted to pray immediately. I asked the MPs which direction was east, but they weren’t sure. That told me there were no other prisoners here, otherwise the guards would have known, since all the detainees would have asked the same question. Or was it that they feared my knowledge of directions could allow me to calculate my position on the island–a potential breach of security? I performed my prayer, and then I sat for a while, thinking. Looking at the paintwork and clean linoleum floor outside, I thought it was obvious that this place was recently constructed, and probably had never been used before.
Then I lay down. I was still feeling quite hazy from the drugs on the plane. They gave me something which they said was a blanket, but which was made of a plastic-type material. There was no cotton or wool or anything like that in it, and it couldn’t keep me warm with the air-conditioning on–which was how the guards kept the room most of the time.
Later on I was told it was a suicide blanket–meaning it could not be torn up to make a noose. I didn’t understand why they gave me that. I didn’t think they understood either. I think they didn’t understand a lot of their rules and procedures; they just followed them because, as many would say, ‘It says so in the SOP’ (Standard Operating Procedure manual).
I lay there, wondering why I was in this place, separated from every- one else. I realized I was completely alone, but I never imagined it would last for almost two years–never allowed to see another prisoner. I thought that they still saw me as a prize catch. They had studied me in all that time in Bagram: I wasn’t a troublemaker, I didn’t go on hunger strikes, I didn’t swear, shout,or hurl things at the guards, but they saw me as very influential amongst the prisoners. They did not understand that because I spoke English, Arabic, and Urdu, and had some education, it was natural that the collection of people they had in Bagram–villagers, young boys, people who had never had contact with Westerners–would look to me to help them negotiate all kinds of things. This time, however, they weren’t keeping me with others.
I slept heavily, the drugs from the plane still in my system. The next morning a guard brought me the first cooked food I’d seen in a year: breakfast. I’d been told to expect cooked meals in Guantanamo. It was a big disappointment. There was tea and awful powdered milk in polystyrene cups. Both were cold. The cooked breakfast was revolting. Rice, green mushy peas, and a boiled egg, all mixed together. I couldn’t eat it. I told the guard, ‘I’d rather just have the cup of tea and that’s all.’
On the evening of the second day the person who had told me that I was going to Guantanamo, Jay, turned up, with another man called George. Jay was an interrogator in Bagram, the one I’d given that long letter to, for the authorities. He had told me, ‘Your letter managed to get further up the ladder than you realize.’ I was pleased to see him, a familiar face, and without the malice I’d encountered from others. When two others came in, however, my heart sank. It was Marti and Niel, the two FBI agents from Bagram.
The guards locked them all into the outer part of the room, then came to my cell, shackled me with the three-piece suit, and brought me out.
I sat down at a table the guards had brought in, facing Jay and George; Marti and Niel. The latter two were both huge, obese, with the style of New York street cops, perhaps Irish American.
Rob, a colleague of theirs, had told me in Bagram how they boasted a combined mass of over 500lb–not something to advertise, I thought. They may have known precisely how to operate on the streets of New York, but they were out of their league here. Also, they knew they weren’t subject to any checks and balances; they didn’t have to worry too much about scrutiny from superiors, or Internal Affairs, as they would have back in the US. They had autonomy to do whatever they wanted; they could extract information from people in any way they liked. That was the way with all of the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies I’d experienced in Kandahar and Bagram. The CIA’s unscrupulous methods rubbed off onto the others. Much later, the FBI tried to paint themselves as the squeaky clean ones, who saw all of this torture going on, and started speaking about it as though they were not involved. From my experience, they were an integral part of the process.
This time I knew these two would not threaten me with Egyptian torture techniques, because Jay was there. In Bagram, when a new batch of MPs had arrived and heard about the Canadian boy, Omar, accused of killing an elite US soldier, it had been Jay’s intervention that prevented them from continuing the abuse they had already meted out to him. In fact ,Jay gave me a little hope once, saying, ‘Guantanamo is going to be the beginning of the end for you. ‘But even my optimism knew better.
‘You’re never going to see your family again.’ Marti’s words in Bagram came back when I saw his face. ‘You could be facing execution by firing squad, lethal injection, or gas chamber.’
In fact they did threaten me again. ‘We want you to read and sign these documents,’ they said, placing six typed pages in front of me on the table. They had written my confessions.
There were three copies–one for me, and on their side of the table, one for Jay and George, and one for Niel and Marti. They told me that if I didn’t sign, several different things could happen, none of them good. They included sitting in Guantánamo for many years before anybody even looked at my case, then a summary trial–a formality before conviction. ‘It’s going to be one very short trial, they’re going to look at the evidence we present, and they’re going to take that on face value. That means you’ll be imprisoned for life, or you could face execution, or both–execution after a very long time.’
I read through the pages in utter disbelief. My first reaction was, ‘This is terrible. The English used here is terrible. Nobody could ever believe that I would write such a document.’ Then I thought, ‘This could actually be good–anybody who knows my style of writing would know that I am not the author, I don’t write like this.’ It sounded uninformed and adventurous, more like the ramblings of a hysterical sixteen-year-old college dropout than what one would expect from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I recalled that during one of the interrogations Marti had said to me, ‘Stop, already! Stop using big words.’ Besides the pathetic English, I read the ‘facts’ with complete amazement. It was full of exaggerations, lies, and presumptions. There were names in there that I hadn’t even heard of, which they knew only too well. The document claimed, amongst other things, that I was a long-standing member of al-Qa’idah; I had trained and taught in their camps; I had financed them, including giving funds that had gone to the 9/11 attackers. When I asked how they had reached this conclusion, they told me that I had already admitted attending and sending financial support to ‘the camps’.
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