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America's Illegal Prison Lives On

  •   10 min reads
America's Illegal Prison Lives On

Guantánamo Turns 20: Ex-Prisoner Moazzam Begg Calls on Biden to Close Site and End Legacy of Torture

On the 20th anniversary of the first prisoner’s arrival at Guantánamo Bay, we spend the hour with former detainees, starting with Moazzam Begg, who was imprisoned for three years at the military prison and eventually released without ever being charged with a crime. He now advocates on behalf of victims of the so-called war on terror, calling on the Biden administration to follow through on promises to shut down the military prison and release the remaining 39 prisoners. Twenty years after the detention center opened, Begg reflects on the absurdity and lawlessness of Guantánamo, describing how its torture methods were not only unethical but ultimately extracted very little credible intelligence. “The legacy of this place is imprisonment without trial, torture, the absence of the rule of law, the removal of the presumption of innocence,” says Begg.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty years ago today, the United States began imprisoning Muslim men at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has held 779 men at the secretive prison. Most were never charged with a crime. Many were tortured, held in isolation, shackled, hooded, kicked, threatened with dogs. When prisoners organized hunger strikes to protest their mistreatment, they were force-fed in a manner described as torture by the United Nations.

Today 39 prisoners remain. Guantánamo opened under the administration of George W. Bush. It continued under Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden. While Biden has said he wants to close the prison, his administration is making preparations to stay for years. The Pentagon is now building what The New York Times has described as a new secret courtroom at Guantánamo. The Biden administration has so far transferred just one prisoner since Biden took office.

On Monday, the interagency Periodic Review Board recommended the transfer of a Somali man named Guled Hassan Duran, who’s been held by the U.S. without charge since 2004 as a so-called high-value detainee. He was held first at a CIA secret black site and then Guantánamo. It remains unclear if he will actually be freed. Over a dozen other Guantánamo prisoners have been recommended for release but remain locked up. The United States is spending an estimated $540 million to keep Guantánamo open. That’s over $13 million per prisoner a year.

Today we spend the hour with three men who themselves spent time at Guantánamo. Two were held without charge as prisoners. One, who served as a Muslim Army chaplain, was then jailed himself after being falsely accused of espionage.

We begin today’s show with Moazzam Begg. He’s a British citizen who was born and raised in Birmingham, England. In February 2002, Moazzam Begg was seized by the CIA in Islamabad. No reasons were given for his arrest. He was hooded, he was shackled, he was handcuffed and flown to the U.S. detention facility at Kandahar, Afghanistan, then to Bagram Air Base, where he was held for approximately a year before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay. The U.S. government labeled him an enemy combatant. He was never charged with a crime. He was released in 2005. He now works as the director of outreach at CAGE, which advocates on behalf of victims of the so-called war on terror.

Moazzam Begg, welcome back to Democracy Now! We first spoke to you in 2006 after you had been released. Can you talk about your reflections today on this 20th anniversary of Guantánamo being opened? And if you wouldn’t mind going back, because I’m sure it’s painful every time you do, if you can tell us what happened to you there and on the way there, when you were held in Afghanistan?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Thank you, Amy. And I do remember, very clearly, speaking to you first when I came back from Guantánamo.

My essential story is — and before I begin this, it’s important that I say this, that your report carried a mention of Abu Zubaydah, who was [inaudible] Lithuania while he’s still in Guantánamo. And why this is important is because the entire torture program, the enhanced interrogation technique program, was developed by the psychologists for him. And it was, of course, justified by the lawyers, who said if it’s not organ failure or death or severe physical impairment, it’s not torture. And that’s what opened the torture doors for all of us, so that when I was taken into U.S. custody and I was brutalized both in Kandahar, where I was physically stripped naked, beaten, punched, spat upon, had my photographs taken in this [inaudible], questioned naked and shivering in the Kandahar desert by FBI and CIA agents, like all the other prisoners were, it was just the beginning. It was the introduction. It was my introduction to not U.S. detention; it was my introduction to the U.S.A. And that’s important because the majority of the prisoners had never been to the U.S.A. The majority of the prisoners had the U.S.A. come to them and show them a side of the U.S.A. that most people in the U.S.A. don’t even know or didn’t even understand exists.

And then, after Kandahar, I was sent to Bagram. In Bagram, I was held approximately, as you said, for a year. Amongst the worst things I saw was a prisoner called Dilawar. He was a taxi driver. His hands were tied above his head to the top of a cage, and he was physically beaten until he was killed. And I was subject to sounds of a woman screaming in the next cell, that I was led to believe was my wife being tortured while FBI and, again, CIA agents — and I emphasize FBI because they are always the ones that kind of get out of being accused of being involved, but the FBI were involved right from the get-go. And they waved pictures of my children in front of my face while I was being tortured, and I heard the sounds of the woman screaming. They threatened to send me to Syria or to Egypt if I didn’t cooperate, as they had done to others.

So, by the time I was sent to Guantánamo and spent the next two years in solitary confinement in a windowless cell without any access, or any meaningful access, to family, to phone calls, to visits — to any of the things that any normal, ordinary, decent convicted prisoner gets, we had no access to, even though we’d never been charged. And in that state, it was in 2005, eventually, that I was told that I will be going home. There are no charges against me, so the last three years of my life have been all arbitrary.

And eventually, as I returned home, I joined my organization, CAGE, and have been campaigning against Guantánamo since that time. So I’ve been doing this for 15 years. Guantánamo has been open for 20 years. And so, the legacy of this place is imprisonment without trial, torture, the absence of the rule of law, the removal of the right of the presumption of innocence — all of those things that people take for granted. People keep saying, “Well, you could have — you couldn’t have been in Guantánamo for nothing. There must have been a good reason for it.” I said, “Yes, the reason for it is exactly what Malcolm X said, is that I’m not a part of the U.S.A. I’m a victim of the U.S.A., like hundreds of thousands. That’s the reason why I was held.” And I’m sure the majority of the prisoners will say exactly the same thing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Moazzam, Guantánamo was spawned in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan. Now the United States, 20 years after, has pulled out of Afghanistan, ended the war, but Guantánamo remains. Could you talk about the remaining men, the 39 men that are there? They are essentially in three categories of detainees. Could you talk about them, especially the what are called “forever prisoners”?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yes. So, these three categories of detainees are really strange. And it’s important to say this, because you did say rightly that Afghanistan, the war is over, where this all began. The War in Iraq is over. Yet Guantánamo is still open. In fact, the reason why Afghanistan, the war is over is because five Taliban, senior Taliban members, actually negotiated the withdrawal of the United States and set up the office for the — a political office for the Islamic Emirate in Qatar. And those former Guantánamo prisoners now are actually ministers in the Afghan government.

But getting back to the three categories, one category, of course, is cleared prisoners. So, there’s about a third of the prisoners, a third of the 39 prisoners, who have actually been cleared for release. Now, some have been cleared for over a decade. What does it mean to be cleared when you’ve never been charged with a crime to begin with? It’s a strange category, but nonetheless they’ve been cleared by numerous U.S. departments, including the Defense Department.

But also, you’ve then got a category of prisoners called “forever,” too innocent to charge — listen to this as the world boggles listening to these terminologies — too innocent to charge but too dangerous to release. What does that even mean? And there are people, as you mentioned earlier on, one who was deemed high-value is now no longer high-value and is now no longer a forever prisoner.

And then you’ve got those are charged under the military commissions. And the military commissions, for those who don’t know, again, has been described by senior jurists around the world as, I quote, a “kangaroo court,” because there you can have hearsay evidence. You have no right to appeal. Your defenders are not even appointed by you. They’re the military. So the military is your judge, jury and, if they have their way, your executioner. But the irony of ironies is this, that after 20 years, not a single person, not even those accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks, have been convicted for any crime. And as bad as 9/11 may have been, it’s not as bad anywhere near, doesn’t even come close, to World War II, where in the Nuremberg trials that took place against the Nazis, who architected the entire war, were prosecuted within one year. So, why can’t those people be prosecuted? It’s because they were tortured to begin with, and torture evidence cannot be admitted in U.S. courts. That’s why they’ve developed the military commissions legal system, which is outside any systems the United States has ever used before.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But yet, even the military commissions system, what has happened there, for those who have not been following closely the Guantánamo situation, in terms of trying detainees?

MOAZZAM BEGG: So, it’s all caught up in pretrial cases, people arguing back and forth whether — whether even the idea: Can torture evidence even be used? Can a person give evidence for himself? Can he be presented? Because the rules and the regulations are all sort of in the process of development, what’s happening is that nobody really knows. There are prosecutors that have resigned. There are judges that have said that we don’t even know where the law stands on this. People have said that “I never studied this law. When I studied, in the U.S. military, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, I didn’t study this thing outside of the law.” So, really what you’ve got is a black hole of endless pretrial hearings, with lawyers coming and going back and forth, with some people being charged.

And the irony again is this: Those who’ve been found guilty under this very low standard of what a crime actually is in the military commissions have gone home. One or two have, rather, pled guilty, have gone home and had their convictions quashed in their countries of origin. And so, those who are yet to face justice or yet to even be charged remain in this limbo, whether it’s in the military commissions or outside of it, as cleared prisoners or forever prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a letter, along with our next guest, another prisoner at Guantánamo, Mansoor Adayfi, and other people who were imprisoned at Guantánamo, to President Biden to close Guantánamo. And in that letter, you talked about: “Some of us had children who were born in our absence and grew up without fathers. Others experienced the pain of learning that our close relatives died back home waiting in vain for news of our return. Waiting in vain for justice.” Can you talk about how this affected the families?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yeah. I mean, just to say that that letter was written by a group of us who are all published. We’re published authors. And we wrote this letter to be published in The New York Review of Books directly and in an open message to Obama — sorry, to Biden, offering him and describing for him an eight-point plan that we developed that would help him to close Guantánamo.

But the effects on people’s lives, to get back to your question, is really — you know, one of my closest friends, Shaker Aamer, was held in Guantánamo for 14 years without charge or trial. He came home to see four children, the youngest of whom was 14 years old, that Shaker had never met in his life. The others were so young when he left him that they barely remembered him and were grown adults. I spoke recently to a young man called Jawad Rabbani, who’s in Pakistan. He’s 19 years old. His father is still in Guantánamo. He’s cleared for release by the U.S. administration. Jawad has never seen his father in his life. And Jawad’s father has never been charged with a crime.

This isn’t happening with some sort of deepest, darkest country in Asia or Africa which is still developing. This is the most developed nation in the world that has done it to these people. And people will never forget. So, the residual effect on people’s lives is that people are growing up in the absence — some children in the absence of their parents, their father. Others, like Mohamedou, who’s also one of the authors of that letter, his mother died. If you see the film The Mauritanian, one of the most heartbreaking points of that film is when he looks back to see his mother, and he never sees her again. He never sees that woman again, who brought — who gave him life and who brought him up and who waited in vain to see him just once. Those type of heartbreaking stories, the cruelty of not even allowing visits or phone calls, is just unimaginable, because even the worst offenders around the world don’t do this type of inhumanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam, we’re going to break, and then we’re also going to be joined by the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo — well, until he himself was imprisoned and charged with espionage. Moazzam Begg is with us. He was imprisoned at Guantánamo for three years; before that, imprisoned in Afghanistan; director of outreach now at CAGE in Britain, which advocates on behalf of victims of the so-called war on terror. He was held in extrajudicial detention by the U.S. government from 2002 to 2005. We’re also going to be joined by another former prisoner, Mansoor Adayfi, who was sent to Serbia. Moazzam is the author of Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. Today, 20 years ago, the Guantánamo prison in Cuba was opened by the U.S. military. Stay with us.

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