'I've Never Been to America. America Came to Me'

Ex-Guantanamo Bay inmate Moazzam Begg recalls his three-year journey through Americas war on terror

How did you end up at Guantanamo Bay?

After a year, I wrote a very powerful letter that I was told would reach the highest levels of U.S. government. I said that I hadn't seen the sun or moon for a year, that I witnessed two deaths, and had no knowledge of acts of terror or had ever been a member of a terror group. I was told by seemingly sympathetic people that I was going to Guantanamo because I had been cooperative, so I was actually looking forward to it. When they put me on the plane, I was given earmuffs, blacked-out goggles and a hood thrown over my head for good measure, and my hands and feet were shackled. The journey was so excruciatingly painful that I pleaded for a sedative and one guard obliged. So I woke up in Guantanamo dazed and disoriented. I only remember being frog-marched from place to place in shackles and they put me in an isolation room, an eight-by-six-foot cell—a box, a cage. It was my home for the next two years.

What happened to that letter you wrote?

A couple of days after I arrived, the same two guys who interrogated me in Bagram and threatened to send me to Egypt with the woman's screams turned up again. They told the guards to leave and produced a confession and said, "Sign this and you can see a lawyer. If not, there will be no trial. You are already convicted and gas chambers have already been built, and that's where you'll be going." It was a frightening and ludicrous moment. The confession looked like the ramblings of a college dropout, not a terrorist. It was a six-page confession, a mixture of truths and falsehoods. I told them I had been to a Kashmiri training camp in 1993, but they took this and said it was an Al Qaeda camp. This camp was supported by the Pakistani government to fight against the Indian occupation of Kashmir. It had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but they said that the money I donated to this organization went to support the 9/11 hijackers. I thought no court would ever believe it, so I signed it.

I'm guessing they never let you meet with a lawyer.

They continuously told me it would be next week, tomorrow, in a few hours. I speak English and they didn't need to translate reams of paperwork and I had already signed a confession. But they had no charges against me. That's what they were probably grappling with. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of detainees having the right to habeas corpus, they knew they had to let lawyers in to help write the petitions. The British government agreed with Bush's idea of having military tribunals, but as time went on, there was a huge outrage and the idea that you could have a fair trial at Guantanamo was rejected by everybody. That's what opened the door to me being returned to England—the only solution other than just remaining there forever.

Bush agreed to release you over the objections of the FBI, Pentagon and CIA.

That's what I've read. But Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the advice of the CIA and FBI, and against their advice he releases me? It sounds like a special favor to Tony Blair, but I don't think it's as clear-cut as that. The fact is, nobody could charge me with anything to justify what they did to me. President Bush says that I, along with the other detainees, are the worst of the worst, and now I'm free, walking the streets of London. And now I'm working with an organization called Caged Prisoners, which highlights the cases of all the detainees in Guantanamo.

What should American people know about your experience right now, as Bush tries to convince us to allow torture of detainees there and elsewhere around the world?

Back in Bagram, a week before they threatened to send me to Egypt, there was another man held there who they did send to Egypt and he was tortured to the point of saying he helped Al Qaeda give weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein. I could have been that person. If they sent me to Egypt, I could have been the person to admit to being a high-ranking Al Qaeda person helping Saddam get WMDs. That confession was used as an excuse to invade Iraq. That invasion has put Americans in more danger than at any time in their history, at least any American who travels outside their country is in more danger now than ever before.

Have you ever been to America?

No. I've never been to America. America came to me.

nschou@ocweekly.com

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