By Ollie Hamlet
Opening his speech with a wish for peace and blessings upon us, Moazzam Begg, a man who spent almost three years in Guantanamo Bay detention camp without charge, proceeded to captivate the audience at the Union Society’s debating chamber with stories of his experiences in incarceration as a terror suspect.
Mr Begg, who was taken from his house in Pakistan in 2002 by intelligence agencies, retold his journey from Pakistan to the infamous prison in Cuba, and of his time in jail there. Upon arrest, he claimed to have been asked where Bin Laden was hiding and, failing to co-operate, was told he would be sent to Syria or Egypt to be, he suggested, tortured until a confession was drawn from him.
Taken through a series of secret detention camps, he recalled seeing two people beaten to death in the Bagram facility in Afghanistan, one of whom, he told in gruesome detail, was a taxi diver kicked with perennial strikes at least one hundred times as he wearily exclaimed ‘Allah, Allah.’
Also in Bagram, Mr Begg described how he was psychologically tortured when he was made to listen to a woman screaming, which he was told was his wife, as he was told to sign a confession and work for the intelligence agencies.
When he arrived in Guantanamo Bay, he said, he could hear the screams of prisoners. The new inmates were told by a solider that they were now ‘the property of the United States of America’, and had a copy of the Koran given to them only to have it retaken, ripped up and thrown into the toilet.
Whilst retelling his story, Mr Begg paused to urge the audience to take home a message. ‘The middle ground needs to be repopulated’, he said. ‘There are those who would tell you that you’re either with us or with the terrorists.’ But he stated that whilst it may be easy to hate and destroy at a distance, it becomes much harder when you are close up and talking to somebody, when you’re face to face with the human being.
He explained how he developed a relationship with soldiers guarding the prisoners, recalling a time when a female soldier sneaked him a Creme Egg which he gratefully accepted. He emphasised that ‘I left that place not hating America because of those soldiers’ and asked us students to think twice about the acts committed by our government in our name, including not just the torture but, more importantly, the entire war on terror.
He told of how he saw a bomb called a Daisy Cutter shatter all of the windows in his house and described it as ‘a mower of people.’ He proceeded to ask what good such violence did, and what good torture in the camps did, when no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for their involvement in the 9/11 attacks which, he claimed, were the purpose of the creation of the camps in the first place.
During some more troubling parts of his speech, he suggested that terrorism was relative to what side you were on, for or against a government, and reminded the audience that Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-Apartheid hero, was once imprisoned as a terrorist. He hastened to add, though, that he denounces Al-Qaeda’s actions as unjustified.
Katie Heard, president of the Union Society, said that his stories ‘were horrifying.’ ‘It’s one thing to read about the events in these detention camps’, she said, ‘but another thing entirely to hear a first hand experience of what took place there. She added it was important to host Moazzam Begg to hear as broad a range of views from as diverse a range of people as possible.
Mr Begg was arrested again last year on allegations of attending a terrorist training camp in Syria between 2012 and 2013 and raising funds for terrorist activity, claims that he denies. He was released without charge in October. He now works for Cageprisoners, a human rights organisation aimed at raising awareness of prisoners held as part of the war on terror.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons