From anomaly to ordeal: just add water

THEY have been unceremoniously paraded on television screens across the world as combatants acting illegally. Rightwing hardliners demanded their trial, long-term imprisonment and possible execution.

By Moazzam Begg

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Published: Sun 15 Apr 2007, 8:26 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

But the released captives have repeatedly claimed they were blindfolded and kept in solitary confinement, treated harshly and subjected to psychological torture, and that they had no meaningful communication with their loved ones other than what was reported by the media, which never had free access to them.

The captives were bound and threatened with arbitrary detention for years if they did not cooperate. False confessions were made —allegedly under duress. And their distraught families, fearing the worst, have had to wait in anguish.

Meanwhile, the host nation is having a go at damage control. It realises it may have miscalculated the international response to its attempt to look tough on security matters. So the counter-information machine beams pictures very different to the one the returnees will paint. In this picture, the captives are shown enjoying themselves, playing board games and sports, indulging in lavish meals and wearing new clothing. The country's leader dismisses the claims of torture and degrading treatment as concocted lies and propaganda.

Having taken many casualties at the hands of foreign-backed terror groups who call themselves mujahideen, as well as having suffered heavy losses in the Iraq war, the heightened state of alert is somewhat understandable. And yet, while claiming to be an example of democracy and morality, this nation has policies that demonstrate a contemptuous disregard for the international community, from which it regularly earns scathing criticism.

However, since this country's current president is a deeply religious man who has the firm conviction that he is on a mission from the Almighty, especially when it comes to the Middle East, he cares little what the critics say.

But Blair hits back, with unequivocal condemnation of the treatment of the British captives and demands for a swift resolution. Failure to comply will have consequences, he warns.

A few readers may have assumed I was thus far referring to the case of the released British naval personnel, but they would be wrong. Because I am talking about Gitmo —and Blair was never so passionate about that.

The plight of British citizens abducted under US auspices (of whom I was one) and detained by them for over three years, the continuing plight of the long-term British residents still in Guantanamo, has never been condemned by the present UK government. In fact, while we were being interrogated by MI5 in Kandahar, Bagram and Guantanamo, my family in England was receiving letters from the Foreign Office claiming the US military would not grant access to foreign officials.

The released sailors have spoken about the harrowing torment of being made to kneel blindfolded and hearing the shick-shick sound of a round being chambered in an assault rifle before interrogation. I heard that sound so often during the first year in US custody that I stopped being afraid of it: the punches and kicks, the suffocation under the hood, the agony of being hogtied and the sounds of screams I was made to believe were coming from members of my family were doing an adequate job of keeping me frightened.

Tony Blair described the capture and treatment of the British sailors in Iranian custody as "cruel and callous". He called the detained personnel "hostages" who had had to endure an unimaginable ordeal; it took him four years just to call Guantanamo an "anomaly".

Only days ago, it seemed highly unlikely that the captives would be released any time soon. But they were released, all 16 of them —15 from Iran and one from Guantanamo. The long-term British resident Bisher Al Rawi is home after over four and a half years in US custody; the British naval personnel held in Iran are home after just over a fortnight.

The last time I saw Bisher was in the winter of 2002 at the notorious Bagram airbase detention camp. The rules forbade talking, walking, standing up and communal prayer. But we still managed short, whispered conversations. There was no going outside, no fresh food, no hot drinks, little fruit and no water to wash with. Punishments included being hooded and having ones hands shackled to the top of the cell door for hours —sometimes days. The only sound to break the deafening, monotonous silence was of the screams of prisoners —men and women —being interrogated. Two of these prisoners were beaten to death by US soldiers within yards of where Bisher and I were kept.

Bisher, along with his companion, Jamil el-Banna, had both been extraordinarily rendered from Gambia to Bagram. The marks of abuse were evident on their bruised faces. In February 2003, we were all made to board the excruciating 36-hour flight to Guantanamo wearing earmuffs, face masks, blacked-out goggles and, of course, shackles on hands, wrists and feet. I never met Bisher and Jamil after that because I spent most of my two years in Guantanamo in solitary confinement.

The families of the released seamen and the family of Bisher are relieved and celebrating the return of their loved one. The wife of Jamil el-Banna and his children (all British citizens) are not so fortunate.

When I visited the el-Banna family last week I was shown a Foreign Office letter to Jamil's 10-year-old son stating that officials are unable to make any representation for his father because he is not a British citizen. I was also shown another document that harks back to a time when the British government had made another fine mess of its foreign policy. It was Jamil's father's passport. It's British, issued under British Mandate Palestine.

Moazzam Begg is a British citizen who was picked up as a 'terror suspect' during the US invasion of Afghanistan and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay

© Guardian News Service

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