Moazzam Begg reflects on his recent investigation trip to Syria to uncover the extent of British and American co-operation in rendition and torture with the Assad regime.
- By Moazzam Begg
It had been a very hectic couple of weeks. Two long weekends in a row of CagePrisoners’ ‘Prayer of the Prisoner’ tour up and down the country. The speakers included popular grass-roots Islamic figures like Uthman Lateef and Imam Shakeel Begg who both addressed the issues of today’s prisoners through the prism of the story of Yusuf [as] (Joseph). They also included our own Yvonne Ridley who spoke about her recent work in Libya and Asim Qureshi explained the origins, aims and needs of the organisation. But the main attraction was Captain Jason Wright, one of the US military lawyers for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
Capt. Wright was limited to what he could say about KSM himself due to the stringent rules imposed on him – and all the other US attorneys representing Guantanamo prisoners –by the US administration but, he did manage to describe his primary client as possessing ‘integrity, piety, devoutness and humanity’. I am certain he could have described him with even more ‘human’ qualities but I sensed that anything more would have made the captain’s life difficult. Wright also went on to describe exactly how the CIA’s method of waterboarding is practiced – obtained of course from open source information – and how KSM was subjected to it 183 times. The most poignant of his descriptions was how he was strapped down to a gurney each time this happened from his arms, legs and head; a cloth placed over his face and water poured over it to induce the feeling of imminent death by drowning. Wright also explained how the US Government is seeking the death penalty in his case, by strapping him down for the 184th time and extinguishing his life and all hope of redemption and understanding with it.
In all honesty it was hard to get into the mood of delivering speeches, seeking pledges for support and conducting auctions after a long day of fasting and travel. Despite that we had a phenomenal response from our supporters and all of our team was left moved by the level of which ordinary people, especially Muslims, are feeling less afraid and more empowered to support an organisation that is often in the sights of Islamaphobes.
But there was another reason my mind was elsewhere. Less than two years ago I could never have believed, with the record of mutual intelligence co-operation with the UK and US between these countries, that visiting Libya, Tunisia and Egypt would have ever been possible for me. Even less of a prospect was visiting Syria. After all, I had been threatened by the CIA and FBI in Bagram that if I didn’t co-operate with them they’d send me to Egypt or Syria and that they had already done so with others and, as I learned later, they were not kidding. The cases of Maher Arar and Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi made this fact clear. But there was so much more I didn’t know.
Although Syria had not been on my list of countries to visit anytime soon we (CagePrisoners) had sent investigators there before trying to trace the whereabouts of individuals who had been captured in Pakistan, held and interrogated by the Americans and eventually rendered to the Assad regime – just as others had been to the Gaddafi regime.
When the revolutions began in the Arab world I was able to visit several of the countries involved and beginmy own investigations into the British government’s role in rendition and human rights violations – just as in the case of the British Guantanamo prisoners.
So I decided to take this opportunity created by the ‘Arab Spring’ to travel once again, this time to Syria. On my way, I met some Libyans fresh from their Nato-backed victory, who had come to assist the Syrian rebels in removing their own dictator who, like Gaddafi, had outlived his ‘war on terror’ usefulness. Amongst these men were those who’d been detained in the UK without charge or trial and then placed under control orders based on secret ‘evidence’ that was provided by the Gaddafi regime.
One Libyan told me that amongst the documents seized by rebels after the fall of Tripoli, which proved that the British Government had facilitated the rendition of Sami al-Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhaj from the Far East to Libya, there was evidence that a phone call made by a British Libyan dissident in Manchester to him while he lived in Syria was intercepted by British intelligence and its contents passed over to the Assad’s mukhabarat (secret intelligence). As a direct result this man was arrested and tortured by the Syrians and rendered to Libya where he remained incarcerated in the notorious Abu Salim prison alongside al-Libi, al-Saadi, Belhaj and others until its liberation last year.
It was a strange feeling entering Syria – it wasn’t like going to Tunisia, Egypt or even Libya. It’s land and its people are special, of that there is little doubt. But the sense of brutal, unrelenting war seemed even more potent here.
There is a famous hadith (Prophetic traditon) from Mohammed (prayers and peace be upon him) which says: “If the people of Syria become corrupt then there is no good left in you. And there will always be victorious people from my nation who will not be perturbed by those who betray them until the last day.”
On the outskirts of the city of Aleppo I stayed with a group of well-educated, relatively young and very hospitable fighters. They were as concerned about the country’s future and avoiding a repeat of the Iraqi-style disaster as they were with ridding the country of Bashar al-Assad. They reminded me of the good that still exists in Syria, despite the betrayal they’ve faced from their own government – and others. Like many of the people leading the rebels several had been imprisoned and survived tragedies like the 2008Sednaya prison massacre and the “underground tombs” and “graves” of Palestine Branch Military Intelligence (Fara’ Falasteen).
Under the drone of Mi25 attack helicopters and random artillery shelling one former prisoner asked me if I knew Jerome Hibbell, a British Muslim who he’d spent time with him in Palestine Branch. I remembered the case well. Hibbell had been convinced that his ordeal, both in Syria and what later followed on his return home, was precipitated by the British Government. He told me that he was denied consular access in Syria, asked questions that could only have come from the UK while being mercilessly beaten and how his captors said that the British were preparing terrifying reception for him on his return. After several months of arbitrary detention he returned to the UK only to be placed on a ‘control order’ and later imprisoned in Belmarsh prison for absconding.
The case against Hibbell was eventually dismissed and he won his freedom, but the scars of Syria and the betrayal of Britain is still with him.
The surprising thing for me was just how many of the Syrians I met had been imprisoned and how widely the cases of Syrian rendition victims, including Guantanamo prisoners, are known.
Some had heard the screams of Yusra al-Hussein – and other women – wife of Jihad Diyab, a Syrian who is still in Guantanamo. Al-Hussein was abused in incommunicado detention for a year simply for contacting human rights groups about her husband. One man, simply known as Noor al-Deen was just a teenager at the time of his capture in Pakistan and subsequent rendition by the CIA to Morocco and Syria.
All the prisoners were familiar with the horrifying cases of Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Mohammed Hayder Zammar, Mustafa Setmariam Nasser, Saïd Arif and several others who had been rendered with the complicity of countries like the US, Canada, UK, France, Sweden, Germany and Denmark – all of whom claim to be human rights defenders and are signatories of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The people I spoke to understood, from all they had witnessed, that some people lose their rights of protection from abuse the moment they are labelled ‘Islamist’ – whether by Middle Eastern despots or Western champions of freedom.
If recent history has taught us anything, especially in the UK, it is that whatever we may have done in the name of supposed ‘national security’ – like being complicit in the abuse of basic human rights of minorities – it may well come back to haunt us.
Last year several of the former Guantanamo prisoners spoke to British police investigating allegations that our government and intelligence services were complicit in torture. The police have already spoken to al-Saadi and Belhaj and are following suit in the case of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantanamo.
Many western leaders and senior former Syrian ministers have predicted the imminent downfall of the house of Assad. If Palestine Branch is captured by the rebels and intelligence secrets laid bare, just as they had once been in Tripoli, Scotland Yard will have its hands full- again, and we’ll hear more about British ministers suffering amnesia, instead of justice being done.
Our final event in London ended with two small speeches from two very old men, with tears in their eyes, as they both fight for the same thing, but in reverse. Ashfaq Ahmad is the father of Babar Ahmad who has been held in British prisons for eight years without charge and fighting to prevent his son from being extradited to the US; Saeed Siddique is the father-in-law of Shaker Aamer who has been in Guantanamo for ten years without charge and is fighting for his son-in-law to be returned by the US to his wife and children in the UK. Sitting on the table waiting to open my fast with these men and three boys aged 14, 11 and 10 who have either never met their father or are too young to remember him I realised there is nothing I can say anymore. No words of condolence, except to be patient, Allah will surely find a way out for whoever keeps his duty to him – and I’ve been saying that to so many people over the past seven years.
Approaching the last ten nights of Ramadan one year, a prisoner opposite my cell in Guantanamo said, “I hope they put me in isolation soon.” When I asked why he’d want such a thing, he replied, “So I can do‘itikaaf (religious seclusion).” I answered, “We’ve been in ‘itikaaf for three years brother!” Eight years later, just like Shaker and 166 other prisoners, he’s still there.
During these last ten nights of Ramadan, like many Muslims, I have been spending a lot of time in the mosque. This year I decided to spend my nights at a new mosque where I recently spoke to the Imam who comes from North Africa. When I told him about my recent trip to Syria his expression contorted to one of pain. “I was imprisoned during my time there a few years ago. Being a practicing Muslim, an ‘Islamist’, is enough to get you there. Being severely tortured for the relatively few months I was there is the norm. May Allah secure the release of the prisoners there -and everywhere- and bring aid and victory to the people against the brutality they are facing.”
My only possible response was, ”Ameen brother, ameen.