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Interview: Moazzam Begg: Operation end your freedom
Interview by Patrick Ward, July/August 2008
As Labour imposes more draconian legislation, Patrick Ward asks former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg for his views on civil liberties today
The government won the House of Commons vote to extend detention without trial to 42 days. What do you think about this attack on civil liberties?
It's important to remember that the government didn't want 42 days - they wanted 90 days and they've settled for less than half of that. What's really bizarre for me is that I was at the protest close to Downing Street when George Bush visited and I actually caught a glimpse of him.
In 1996 the IRA fired a home-made mortar very close to Downing Street. Despite all of that and the whole of the period of the Troubles in the 1970s, detention without trial - other than internment, which I think was terrible - never went beyond three days as far as the law was concerned. That it's now 42 is unbelievable. The government do have the power - regardless of whatever it wants on pre-trial detention - to detain people without charge or trial, and they've done that in the case of several people held in Belmarsh prison who have been detained for seven to eight years plus.
One lawyer has said it's tantamount to torture because of the conditions under which people are kept, often without light or contact with people.
The United Nations convention against torture defines it as being both physical and psychological. It's not just about fingernails being pulled out or being waterboarded or hooded. The psychological effects of being detained without trial are very real. They destroy not only the individual - they destroy their family; they destroy the individual's ability to reintegrate back into society, to get a job. I know many individuals who have never been charged with anything and yet they can't be cleared to do any of the jobs they were trained to do to begin with. It's a bizarre concept because the government is always harping on about how Muslims need to integrate.
How have you been treated by the government and media since your release from Guantanamo?
The government hasn't treated me in any particular way, other than not allowing me to leave the country without express permission - a condition for my release and the release of others at the same time. Other than that the government hasn't really put any stops on me at all and hasn't caused me any problems. I have even spoken inside the House of Commons many times.
The public has been fine. I spend most of my time speaking up and down the country to thousands of people and I get a tremendous response from the average person. I get very little, if any, hostility from people at all. As far as the media is concerned, it varies. Most of the time they call on me to comment on one thing or another, but what I often have to say is that it's sad that we're walking into a situation nearing that of a police state.
Samina Malik, the "lyrical terrorist", has recently won the appeal against her charges. There was a big furore when she was first convicted and very little coverage now that she has won the appeal.
I've met people, from the heads of the BBC to ITN, and spoken to them about these specific issues - the sensationalist style of reporting on issues surrounding Muslims - and they've often said that they have to get there before the Sky News helicopter.
There doesn't seem to be an onus on good quality reporting. It seems to be more about what fits the pattern. So when a former member of the British National Party was arrested for possessing a huge haul of chemicals which could be used for explosives in Pendle last year, they felt it wasn't newsworthy in the same way that it would have been had he been a Muslim. It is sad, but it's the reality. Sensational reporting will take place when there's an arrest but there will be very little if that person is released or found not guilty. The media decides to take upon itself to become the mouthpiece of government policy.
What has been the impact of all this on young Muslims today? Has it got to the stage where people don't know what's legal and what isn't?
I don't think it's just Muslims actually. I think most people are confused as to what they can and can't do. How does somebody avoid the sort of prosecution cases we've seen against the "lyrical terrorist" or people who've downloaded things from the internet? People don't really know what the parameters of the law are any more. I remember discussing this with some former IRA prisoners of war who were released as part of the Good Friday Agreement, and one of the things they said was that at least in their time they were convicted of things that they did, or were planning to do.
Today people are being convicted literally for thoughts; for looking at things, for having something on a computer or having a copy of the Al Qaida manual downloaded from a US government website. It's ludicrous.
What was your aim when you started writing your book in Guantanamo?
I wanted people to learn from it. In a sense the book was about my experience with the US and of the US. I'd never been there before it came to me. But it was for US soldiers and also British soldiers who are in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also for the British public, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
For the Muslims it was to give strength and hope, and for the non-Muslims to give a glimpse of a world parallel to them but that perhaps they don't know very well. We're not so different; we all want the same things. We want security; we want happiness. We love; we get angry; we get upset.
That was my intention, to make people understand. Not necessarily to empathise or sympathise - not everyone is going to be my friend just because they think I've been tortured or abused. I want to look beyond that and look at the society we're in. It's not just about tolerance - we can tolerate anything - it's about acceptance. If they can accept difference, then that's the Britain that I thought we were heading towards and wanted.
Are you surprised at the support you have when you give talks?
The support is tremendous. It's so difficult to quantify. It's massive, and it's continuous. Last night I was speaking in Cambridge and a lady came up to me at the end and said, "I've never been at political meetings, I've never been involved in these sorts of things, but just listening to you has made me want to be involved more than I ever was and I am going to make it a point upon myself to learn about things before I ever make judgements."
Some people may have some fixed views, but once they face them they'll find that they've been mistaken. I'm trying to break stereotypes, to explain to people that we are not, and I am not, representative of what they may have assumed.
The US still claims that it does not use inhumane treatment at Guantanamo. How does this sit with your own experiences?
We have a detention site in Cuba where there is no freedom, and outside the walls and the cages you have written on the plaques "Honour bound to defend freedom". They called it "Operation: Enduring Freedom", but freedom isn't something that you endure. Freedom is a right for every creature on this planet, from the point that it's born to the point that it leaves its life.
The things that you have to endure are torture; cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment; being beaten, punched and spat at; humiliation; pain without charge or trial; being falsely imprisoned; being held away from your family. They should call these things "Operation: End Your Freedom". It would be nearer the truth.
Guantanamo has become untenable. Even Colin Powell, one of the architects of the "war on terror", has waded in. He wasn't one of those further on the right, but he was certainly there. He called for the closure of Guantanamo Bay. It has become chic to call for its closure - everybody's doing it.
But Guantanamo is the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath is much more sinister and causes much more damage - the secret detention sites where the majority of the people held in the "war on terror" are. After going through some of those secret detention sites, I was looking forward to going to Guantanamo.
What impact have organisations like Liberty and Reprieve made in highlighting the conditions of prisoners and people who've suffered rendition?
I think they have made an impact - there's no doubt about that. Clive Stafford Smith, of Reprieve, was the first person I met in Guantanamo. There is also my own organisation, Cage Prisoners, which consists of prisoners. The organisations are very good but they speak on our behalf and they need to hear what we - the prisoners, the people who went through and continue to go through the process - have to say about what happened.
One thing that has surprised people is your level of sympathy with the Guantanamo prison guards.
The important thing to remember is that they are individuals, and I dealt with them and judge them according to my experiences with them. There are some good, some bad and some in between. People are complex characters.
Many of the soldiers treated me and other detainees in a decent way. It's important not to let any personal experience of torture or witnessing murder cloud my judgement of the others who were appalled that it was taking place, are appalled now, and have apologised for their wrong - even though they didn't take part in the torture. I think it's important to recognise that many of these people have now become outspoken against the "war on terror" and their own government, which requires a level of courage and bravery which should be commended.
But as far as the system they were part of then, yes, it is one that destroys lives and continues to do so. If the argument is that this has happened as a result of the 11 September 2001 attacks, well, it happened seven years ago. The deaths in the US stopped on 11 September. Deaths have not stopped in Afghanistan and Iraq from the day they were invaded. You cannot justify the deaths of untold numbers - millions perhaps. But who knows? who cares? who counts? - because of the tragic deaths on 11 September.
I spoke to one of the Guantanamo guards, and suggested organising a speaking tour. He said he was happy to do it. I'm concerned for his safety more than anything else - particularly on his return to the US having spoken on a platform with a former Guantanamo detainee. After all, his president did designate us as "the worst of the worst, most dangerous men on the planet". But if he's able to do so then I will be too.
You wrote about how you heard about the Stop the War demonstrations in Britain when you were in Guantanamo. What effect did that have on you personally and on British society today?
The Stop the War movement has become a buffer between people who may want to carry out acts of violence on innocent Westerners, and the government itself that does carry out acts of violence against people in the Middle East.
I had a conversation with the only self-described member of Al Qaida I've met, in Guantanamo. He said that people in the West are not innocent because they vote in their leaders and therefore must share part of the blame. I explained that most people vote on domestic issues like the health service and roads. I said that you'll probably find a great number of them don't support the war, but when you strike you don't discriminate. Then he started thinking about it a little bit.
The Stop the War movement is a buffer which helps prevent terrorism in a way that the government would never conceive; when they see people demonstrating against the war it helps to pacify some of the radical elements who would otherwise have said, "They're all the same - go and bomb the whole lot of them."
After your experiences many might have opted for a quiet life, to recover and rebuild your family life and everything else. What inspires you to keep fighting?
On the day I returned from Guantanamo I was welcomed back to the country in a cell especially prepared for me in Paddington Green police station. Shortly after that I met the solicitor Gareth Peirce - the first really friendly face I'd met in all these years. She couldn't be there for me for the next day as she had to go the House of Lords for a historic decision was going to be passed about the detention of terror suspects who had been held for three years.
That's the same amount of time I had been held in Guantanamo, but in this country. I realised what sort of situation I returned to. I couldn't just sit around. People I knew were being held in Guantanamo and secret detention sites, and I was a witness in history to what had taken place. To remain silent would be doing a great disservice to myself and people being held, especially in the wake of the 7 July bombings, the racist Islamophobia that has resulted, and foreign policy. It's been important for me to speak out.
It has given me a great sense of strength and moral support to see that there are a great number of people in this country who haven't given in to the ludicrous attitude of the government and some forms of the media, and have stood bravely challenging both of them. As long as that remains in this country, I'm very pleased to be part of it.
For more information on Moazzam Begg's campaign go to www.cageprisoners.com.
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