Guantanamo Voices

Not Talking About Torture

It’s strange that everyone everywhere asks the same questions about Guantanamo. With few memorable exceptions, journalists from Finland have the same questions as young Muslim girls from Birmingham and the French film crew runs through almost exactly the same list on camera as the old Liverpool socialists do around the dinner table.

There’s the War on Islam question, the American response question, the Who’s to Blame question. But the worst question, Moazzam and Chris agree, is the Torture Question. They discuss the Torture Question as the car speeds toward Leeds.

‘People want to know the gory details,” gripes Moazzam, “Some people will be as brazen as you can imagine, “So were you tortured?”‘
‘Like: pow!’ says Chris. “And then they always seem kind of frustrated. I always try to start that off with: putting people in cages is torture. Period.”
‘The U.N. conventions against torture clearly outlaw physical or psychological torture. And so people should recognize that it’s psychological torture. And even then there’s this discussion over “What is torture?” And to try to narrow it down, that it can be some sort of: This is torture, this isn’t torture. Well, why? “Well, because I’ve written down and said so, not because I’ve experienced it. Some people say, putting someone an air conditioned room isn’t torture. Torture is pulling someone fingernails out.’
‘They’ll say, “So did you torture them?”‘ continues Chris, ‘And I’m supposed to be like, “Boy howdy, did we! First we tied em up to a bed frame and then we connected that up to a couple car batteries and then we hooked that to their testicles!” That’s what they think we’re going to say up there! And it’s like, no! It’s temperature controls, these much more subtle techniques. And then they’re like, “Oh, well, that’s not as torturous as we thought it was.” And it’s like, “That’s why they make these rules, man! Because these things sound less impactful!”

Talking With Hicham
January 23, 2009, 10:18 am
Filed under: Islam, legal loopholes | Tags: ,
Hicham and Moazzam talk it out

Hicham and Moazzam talk it out

Monday night at Nottingham University, one bizarre legal case met another: Moazzam Begg, who was detained in American prisons for three years after traveling to Afghanistan to build a school, shook hands with Hicham Yezza, a University of Nottingham employee and peace activist who was arrested last April, imprisoned and nearly deported for having a copy of an Al Qaeda training manual. This manual was downloaded off the U.S. Department of Defense website for a student who was writing a research paper about Al Qaeda. As England’s Home Office is pushing to deport Hicham, he has become a symbol in Nottingham of the University administration’s repression of academic freedom and an example nationwide of the sometimes ludicrous enforcement of anti-terror laws.

Hicham is an artistic and soft spoken 30-year-old. For the last eight months, Hicham has not been allowed to hold a job and has been completely supported financially by friend and donations to the FREE HICH group. When we met up Monday night, he was preparing to sell all his books to help pay legal fees.

Why wasn’t this something you and the university couldn’t just talk out?free hich

Because the people who are running this university which is similar to people around the country who run similar institutions are extremely scared and, I’m afraid to say, bigoted, they think it’s will just it’s not worth taking the risk when it comes to Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, it’s us as people who think do we take a chance on this guy who’s lived here for 15 years, who’s been a very prominent peace activist on campus, who’s done a lot of work for the university. Do we just give him the benefit of the doubt and ask him or do we not take any chances and go to the police directly? Even the government says, do your own inquiry first and then come to us but there was no independent inquiry. Within two hours they called the police, they said, ‘The guy has a funny name, he’s Muslim, let’s let the police deal with him.'”

Do you think that all this marching and protesting for you has actually been effective or are all the decisions being made by out-of-touch bureaucrats at the top who don’t care about all the shouting?

Free Hich March - from The Guardian

Free Hich March - from The Guardian

Let’s just look purely at the concrete achievements of this campaign. Eight months ago, I was locked up in a cell, solitary confinement, with a plane ticket booked me with the direction of the Home Office saying, ‘This guy is getting on that plane. Essentially what we have is a massive campaign, students turning out for demos, succeeded in stopping the deportation, in getting me out and for eight months, paying my bills, my living expenses and my legal expenses. This is a campaign that essentially has more than 70,000 members and this is how they have essentially succeeded in beating a very stubborn, very powerful system.

Moazzam has spoken about the idea that being locked up in Guantanamo Bay was an experience that made some of the detainees more political, more radicalized. How does that compare to your experience? Has this made you more political or has there been a strong incentive to back off?

Well, I’ve always been real political beforehand, which is part of the reason I got into trouble. Essentially when I got arrested, I had these guys questioning everything I did, from the work in theater I did, to my photography, my cartooning, my art, my interests in music, my trips to book festivals, anything that in a normal human you’d treat as a good thing, as a commendable thing, they were treating as suspicious they were for no other reason as far as I could tell than for me being a Muslim. They thought it was strange that a Muslim would go to a book festival. It couldn’t be my interest in books, it must be something more sinister. I didn’t get more political in that sense I knew there was a lot of pressure on me to take a step back but I refused to.

Iguana Rights VS. Human Rights

Guantanamo Bay prison is filled with some bizarre creatures. “Banana rats” the size of opossums scurry around under the blocks, freaking out soldiers and detainees alike — though Chris remembers the time when one soldier from his unit drunkenly hurled rocks at a banana rat, killed it, grilled it and, yes, ate it.

Gitmo Iguana Basking in Full Iguana Rights

Gitmo Iguana Basking in Full Iguana Rights

And then there’s the iguanas. Iguanas make driving around Guantanamo’s base a harrowing activity because the lizards are protected by the Endangered Species Act. While U.S. judicial code does not apply in Guantanamo, the Endangered Species Act apparently does because soldiers are warned that if they accidentally run over an iguana they can be fined up to $10,000.

The irony of this is not lost on Moazzam Begg, who spent two years detaineed in Guantanmo. He summarizes the iguana situation for audiences most nights:

“The iguana, which is a lizard, is a protected creature in Guantanamo. It is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The detainee has no rights. The first statement made to us as detainees under United States custody was, ‘You are the property of the United States and you have no rights.’ And that’s the distinction, particularly because five people have died in Guantanamo. Because if you kill accidentally an iguana in Guantanamo, you face a fine of $10,000.”

Chris sees the disparate rights of humans and iguanas as an offshoot of an environment designed to totally dehumanize the detained terrorist suspects.

“I don’t think they wanted us to consider you as humans, I don’t think they wanted you to consider yourselves as humans. They took away from you everything you could possibly have,” says Chris, explaining the military strips detainees of their rights and also their names and possessions — detainees are known only by numbers and are allowed only a one-inch toothbrush, a Koran, a foam prayer mat and eight sheets of toilet paper. “And that’s exactly the training they used on us soldiers as well,” adds Chris, “take everything from them and break them down.”

Ex-Detainee Describes Life After Guantanamo
January 6, 2009, 6:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

The New York Times put together a great piece this week about former Guantanamo detainee Muhammad Saad Iqbal, who was picked up in Jakarta in 2002 allegedly for bragging that he knew how to make a shoe bomb. From there he was held in Egypt, Bagram and finally Guantanamo Bay for five years. The NYT describes what Iqbal was like this August,when he was released after six years of detentions, never having been charged with a crime.



… he had difficulty walking, his left ear was severely infected, and he was dependent on a cocktail of antibiotics and antidepressants. In November, a Pakistani surgeon operated on his ear, physical therapists were working on lower back problems and a psychiatrist was trying to wean him off the drugs he carried around in a white, plastic shopping bag

The maladies, said Mr. Iqbal, 31, a professional reader of the Koran, are the result of a gantlet of torture, imprisonment and interrogation for which his Washington lawyer plans to sue the United States government.

Iqbar’s story is similar to those of many detainees and I wonder about his threat to sue. As former detainees feel safer speaking up with Bush moving out of office, I would imagine many would bring lawsuits — especially since lawyers have been the ones on the front lines fighting for human rights in Guantanamo for the last six years.

The article also includes this confusing line:

“But the full stories of individual detainees like Mr. Iqbal are only now emerging after years in which they were shuttled around the globe under the Bush administration’s system of extraordinary rendition”


A solid number of detainees have been telling their stories for several years. Moazzam Begg’s in-depth book about his experience, Enemy Combatant, came out in 2006. Is the “full story” available now because government officials are more willing to talk and documents are easier to obtain? Detainees have been speaking up for a while — they’ve just had trouble finding an audience.