Guantanamo Voices

Meet Moazzam
Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg was born in Birmingham, England to a family of Indian descent. HIs family was tight-knit, but they were not practicing Muslims. Begg actually attended Jewish primary school because his father thought it was the best education to be had in Birmingham. As a teenager, Begg joined ranks with a Southeast Asian gang called The Lynx, which fought a few times with white supremacist gangs bent on “Paki-bashing.” Eventually, in his twenties, Begg gave up the gang and began working for his father’s company. He became more interested in Islam, especially after vacations to visit family in Pakistan.

In the 1990s, Begg became personally involved in Muslim causes. He traveled with a group to Bosnia to distribute aid to the Muslim refugees and anti-Serbian army. He also attempted to bring money and supplies to fighters in Chechnya, but was turned away at the border. In 1993, while visiting family in Pakistan, Begg and several friends were invited to visit a training camp for Muslim fighters, called mujahdeen. Begg says that many thousands of people visited these camps and the one he visited in the mountains of Pakistan wound up at one point fighting the Taliban. He stayed at the camp for several days and the pious, strenuous life of fighters training there made a major impression on him. This visit would play a major role in his later detention and interrogation by the United States.

After these trips, Begg returned to Birmingham and opened an Islamic bookstore with his friend Shakeel. The bookstore sold Muslim books and products from all over the world and Begg also ran an Islamic study group there.

In 1999, British intelligence officers suspected that Begg was involved with Islamic terrorist activities in some way. Police obtained a warrant and searched his home and also arrested Begg, asking him where he had gone in Bosnia and Pakistan and who came to the bookstore.

In June 2001, Begg and his family moved to Kabul, Afghanistan. The Birmingham bookstore had become a major funder of a charity project which built wells across the drought-stricken country as well as providing money for a girls’ school in Kabul. Begg moved to Afghanistan to help run these two charity projects. When Americans invaded the city after September 11th, Begg’s family evacuated with the rest of Kabul and wound up living in Islamabad, Pakistan. It was there, on January 31st, 2002, that Begg was abducted and detained. He describes his processing at Kandahar Air Force Base  in his memoir Enemy Combatant:

“I was past a state of shock, I couldn’t believe all this was happening to me. The noises were deafening: barking dogs, relentless verbal abuse, plane engines, elecrticity generators, and screams of pain from other prisoners. Maybe I screamed, too. I was tripped onto the ground to the prone position again. This time I felt knees pushing hard against my ribs and legs, and crushing down on my skull simultaneously. I was pinned to the ground by this massive weight; I was not sure how many of them were on me — perhaps three. I couldn’t move an inch. I felt the shackles being undone from the ankles, and then I felt a cold, sharp metal object against my legs: they were using a knife to slice off all my clothes, and I felt cold even more, though the humiliation was worse. With the trousers off, the shackles were replaces against my bare skin. The process was repeated with the shirt — my arms twisted behind my back, until the reshackling was complete. I was pulled into a standing position and the hood removed. I thought that a pipe would be used next, to hose me down. Instead I was confronted with the sight of soldiers encircling me, screaming abuse and taking pictures again.”

Life for inmates in Kandahar was rough — they were not allowed to exercise, shared one bucket as a toilet between ten of them and ate one half of an army MRE for a meal. Begg worried about his family a lot, since he had no way to contact them.

After several months in Khandahar, Begg was transported to Bagram and finally Guantanamo Bay. For two years, Begg lived in an eight by six foot solitary confinement in Camp Echo. Since he speaks perfect English, Begg often spent the long hours conversing with guards, some of whom he says came to confide in him and discuss both their personal lives and intellectual subjects like world history. Begg devoured the few books he was allowed and spent much of his time memorizing the Koran and thinking about his family. The occasional letters which arrived from his family, including those from his six year old daughter, were often completely blacked out by censors.  Near the end of his time in Guantanamo, Begg was moved to Papa Block, which consisted of wire mesh cells resembling dog kennels.

Many people ask Begg if he was tortured in Guantanamo. He was never waterboarded or subjected to the sexual humiliation that some prisoners were, but he was deprived of sleep for days at a time, denied the right to exercise and threatened, beaten up by guards and forced into stress positions for hours at at a time.

While he was never charged with a crime or put on trial, interrogators accused Begg of running Muslim training camps for fighters who attacked American forces. After the intervention of British prisoner-rights legal group Reprieve, Begg was finally released in 2005, after three years in American detention. He was hooded and shackled for the plane ride back to the UK, which swiftly cleared him of all wrongdoing. His experiences in Guantanamo, Bagram and Khandahar led him to become a lecturer and organizer for detainee human rights group Cageprisoners and to write his memoir, Enemy Combatant.

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[…] (the British equivalent of Control Unit Prisons in the US). The Director of CagePrisoners is Moazzam Begg who is a Guantanamo Survivor. Other former prisoners are also on their […]

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