Moazzam Begg – Campaigning for Guantanamo’s Ghosts
When Moazzam Begg was released from America’s notorious Guantanamo Bay in January 2005 many had expected him to disappear from the limelight. During his three years in captivity his father Azmat Begg made sure through the media his son was not a forgotten man and campaigned tirelessly for his release. Yet two and a half years after his release Moazzam Begg is making sure he’s still in the limelight. He released the critically acclaimed book ‘Enemy Combatant’, a remarkable book detailing his capture, treatment and eventual release from Guantanamo, and is currently working with Cageprisoners, a human rights organisation that campaigns for the release of prisoners held at the American detention facility.
The Asian Today caught up with Moazzam to find out what life is like after Guantanamo and on his work with Cageprisoners. Interview by Zakia Yousaf
Since your return from Guantanamo Bay you’ve been very vocal in highlighting the case against the detention centre, On your release did you just not want to put the experience behind you?
Getting on with my life is part of putting the experience behind me in a sense and that is because although I am moving forward there are still people being held in Guantanamo and the other ghost detention sites that can’t do that. By definition and by the essence of me returning back to the UK I have been contacted and inundated by relatives, friends, well wishers of people who are still out there. Other than my own personal desire to campaign for the people who are still held there, there is the very fact that it is now coming up to six years and those people are still there. So it’s more about a sense of duty its about morals and wrongs.
How do you look back on your time at Guantanamo Bay?
In philosophical terms I see it as something that has strengthened me even though it wasn’t designed to strengthen me it was designed to break me. I think I came out from there spiritually, mentally and physically stronger than I was before so I don’t look back on it with the regret that people might expect me to.
How did your imprisonment change you as a person?
I’m obviously more vocal than I was before and in a situation where I am a spokesperson for the community in a way that I couldn’t have been before. I think in that sense there are two ‘me’s’. There’s the public me and the private me which is different because I am having to re-learn and re-adjust my situation and my life with my family, my children and to do those things in Guantanamo that I promised myself I would do with my family.
Your father, Azmat Begg, was very instrumental in highlighting your case in the media while you were detained? Were you surprised at the level of interest your case had generated when you returned to the UK?
Yeah absolutely because I didn’t have any idea up to the point of my release that the case had generated so much interest and there was a great section of the country who knew who I was and knew my case. I had been told prior to that by intelligence agents and interrogators that nobody cared and that was the reason why I had been left there for so many years.
How did you cope on your return to the UK? Was it difficult to adjust?
Yes and No. Yes in the sense that it was difficult in just readjusting with my family more than anything else, and no because there was just so much that I wanted to say and I’ve been saying it since my release.
You’ve been a free man for over 2 years now. How do people, Muslims and non-Muslims, react to you? Have you faced any hostility?
On a general level I work for an organisation called Cage Prisoners which is an organisation that campaigns for people being held at Guantanamo and it takes me up and down the country speaking at events, speaking to hundreds and sometimes thousands of people at the same time and I don’t get any hostility at all, people are very welcoming indeed.
Talking about Cageprisoners, they campaigned for your release while you were detained at Guantanamo. Why did you decide to join the organisation?
Really because of the fact that they had been working on these issues before and they were helping to empower the Muslim community itself and take the human rights subject into a position where it really hadn’t been dealt with. It’s an Islamic human rights organisation dealing specifically with people in Guantanamo so for me it seemed the natural choice.
You must come across a number of cases where detainees are describing experiences that you yourself had to endure during your captivity. Is it difficult having that constant reminder?
It’s part of the course that I’m taking and that is to speak about the highlights of people being held in Guantanamo and other detention centres has to by definition cause me to relive some of the things that I went through. It is difficult but it is something that I have overcome because I have done it so often.
One of Cageprisoners latest campaigns is the case of Shaker Aamer (British resident who has spent 5 years in Guantanamo without trial). What are your feelings about the lack of help from the British government in this case?
In Shakers case and in the case of British residents they negotiated the release of one of them and that’s because there was special interest between him and the British government but the others have been left to rot despite the fact that they have British wives and children particularly in Shakers case. The Government has a strange position in this because now that you’ve got these people who have British relatives and the Government still say there is no onus upon them to call for their release. So what’s going to happen to them? Are they going to send them to Antarctica? What are they going to do? Kill them? There is an onus on them because they have residence in this country and they have a moral right to be with their families and that’s why I keep pushing and pressing the Government to allow them to return to their families.
Your book on your time at Guantanamo was very powerful. It was a fascinating insight into what goes on at the camp. What made you want to write the ‘Enemy Combatant’?
The idea of writing the book came to me a long time before. Early in my incarceration I was advised by interrogators and so-called Al Qaeda members to write a book because that would be a great thing to do and would perhaps let people see a different side of the world which they never would have seen. It’s not just about Guantanamo, it’s about growing up in the Britain as an Asian, as a Muslim in the 70s and 80s and what that entailed and leading up to Guantanamo and my release.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the book I found was how you described your relationships with some of the guards some of whom you had good relationships with.
Yes I did indeed. I had lots of relations with a lot of the guards in different places and a lot of them turned out to be good decent people. I am in communication with one of the guards sometimes on the phone and sometimes on e-mail.
You’re supporting calls for new PM Gordon Brown to pull British troops out of Iraq. How hopeful are you that he will make the right decision?
In all honesty probably not. I’m not that hopeful that he will make the right decision yet. I think that because he has just come into power everybody will give him a few weeks to be able to make statements about what he might do about pulling people out of Iraq but he is part of the same problem, the very same machinery that financed the war in Iraq. He was the guinea writing out the cheques to Blair when he wanted to engage in that war. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see what decision he makes.
For more information on the work of Cageprisoners log onto www.cageprisoners.com