Face to Face with an ex-Guantanamo Detainee

By Alejandro Beutel


On January 17, 2007, the fifth anniversary of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, I attended an event by the University of Georgetown’s Law School entitled, “Face to Face with an ex-Guantanamo Detainee.” The event featured former detainee Moazzam Begg and Gitanjali Gutierrez, a habeas lawyer working at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, as the main speakers. Begg spoke from his home in the United Kingdom via Internet video teleconference.

Former detainee Moazzam Begg opened by remarking that the whole system of American detention facilities abroad housing enemy combatants has been, “five years of tears, fears, sorrows” and people being “excommunicated from their families,” while not one person has been convicted of anything. He echoed the sentiments of a senior British judge, who decried such facilities and their treatment of detainees as a “mockery of justice.”

In comparison to Bagram and Kandahar, Guantanamo was the best of facilities, not the worst. At Bagram he experienced and saw physical torture, including the death of two detainees. When interrogated, he was threatened with being transported to Egypt where he knew he would be torture by security forces there.

The entire torture interrogation apparatus had consequences reaching far beyond him and the other detainees. At Bagram Begg personally witnessed the torture of Ibn Shaykh al Libi, allegedly a high ranking member of Al-Qaeda. Libi then gave false information to interrogators claiming that Al-Qaeda had an alliance with Saddam Hussein and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This information deemed “reliable and credible” by the Bush administration, was used by Colin Powell to argue for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 at the UN Security Council. This was one frightening example of how what he said under torture “could be used to kill, capture and torture others.”

Begg criticized the term “extraordinary rendition,” deeming it to be a euphemism for “abduction, kidnap, torture and in the most extreme cases, murder.”

In spite of his horrific experiences, he knew that not all Americans are the same, including the guards. Some were kind to him and he even managed to befriend a few of them, who realized that not all of the people being detained were terrorists.

Begg analyzed the relationship between the rule of law and the fight against global terrorist networks. He opined that the phrase “defending freedom” is misleading. In his analysis, invasions of Afghanistan and (arguably) Iraq were not about defending freedom, but people’s security. Al-Qaeda can threaten people’s security, but only governments have the power to curtail civil liberties and destroy people’s freedom. The Taliban could only threaten the freedom of the Afghani people when they held political power.

He also stated that the US and UK are not the only culprits in indefinite detentions and extraordinary renditions, but took note of the various “proxy” states involved, most from Muslim-majority states. Most of these proxy states do not respect the due process and human rights. Sadly, these countries now have little incentive to change their legal and human rights practices because the United States employs the same methods as these other countries. He came to this conclusion by sadly recalling when he first entered detainment camp, being told by a guard with an M-16 rifle pointed at his head saying, “‘you have no rights.’”

Rather than following its current path of secrecy, rendition, indefinite detention and torture, it is in the “interests of the United States” to have trials for the detainees. Instead of stopping terrorism, it is “proliferating in a way not possible before.” In spite of the words of the guard, it seemed at first the United States was going to follow the rules of the Geneva Convention and had issued prisoner of war cards. However, a few weeks later, officials at the detention facility realized their “mistake” and took away these cards, replacing them with white identification cards that only had a number.

Begg then analyzed what he saw as “the dehumanization process” that has occurred throughout the “war on terror” and how that contributed to his detention and torture at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar. He sees a “common denominator” in the US that tends to lump people (Arabs and Muslims) together and make the dehumanization process easy. This is allowed torture and the detention of innocents – some as old as ninety-five and others as young as eleven – to occur. He vividly remembered how one guard at Guantanamo remarked to him that in order for him to do his job, he had to regard the detainees as sub-human because he was not used to treating people like that where he came from.

He ended his remarks by asserting that Guantanamo and the other detention sites are “simply wrong” and that “if the world remains silent it will only be a worse place.”

Gitanjali Gutierrez of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) followed Moazzam Begg and began with an overview of the mission of CCR. Following the 9/11 attacks, CCR made the institutional decision to choose to represent people being detained on suspicion of terrorism because of the ramifications for the country of practices they understood to be illegal. In 2004 Ms. Gutierrez became the first habeas lawyer to visit Guantanamo and was shocked by the isolation of the detainees at the facility and how other governments were complicit with the isolation and degradation that was taking place. Thus far, there has still not been a single habeas hearing for any of the detainees at Guantanamo.

Gutierrez predicted that within five to ten years Guantanamo will be seen as a “moral failing,” not just a “policy failing.” However, currently the Department of Defense is in an aggressive PR campaign to “whitewash” Guantanamo and “show the media how it has improved.” Although the military personnel are rotated out of the facility every ten to twelve months, the prisoners remain the same. According to her account, camps five and six consist of small prefabricated cells with no windows. Camp five strictly consists of isolation units with a thin two inch bed pad that “is considered a privilege [by the guards], meaning that it can be lost or gained anytime”, depending on the “cooperation” of the prisoners.

She then detailed how the prisoners experienced sleep disruption from guards banging loudly on their cells and waking them up to at midnight “for ‘recreational’ time.” In addition, according to what she was told by the detainees, there was interference with prayers and other provocations by guards to justify the use of the Extreme Reaction Force. Furthermore, she described the detainees’ isolation as “mind-numbing” leaving them with little opportunity to divert their mind. The only thing they have to read is the Qur’an and the “occasional Harry Potter book.” As a result many of the detainees have begun to lose their grip on reality and are put on psychiatric medicine.

According to Gutierrez:

·     As many as 790 men have been detained at one time at Guantanamo Bay, with another 400 still remaining

·     A survey of 512 Guantanamo detainees by the Department of Defense showed that a shocking 92% were not classified as Al-Qaeda operatives or fighters

·     Many of these detainees have said they were fleeing from the conflict, not fighting, thus making of them little to no intelligence value and little to no threat to American national security.

The habeas lawyer concludes that Guantanamo needs to be closed. In her view the war on terror need not violate existing laws. Any captive guilty of a crime on the battlefield should be court martialled where captured and any captive guilty of terrorism should be punished according to the civilian laws and locked away in a civilian detention facility.

After the program, I managed to catch up to Ms. Gutierrez and I asked where she envisioned how the fight against Al-Qaeda would be had the United States and other nations decided not to engage in indefinite detention and torture of suspected terrorists. She responded immediately that had the Bush administration decided to fight terrorism within a rule of law framework, America would be much safer. She told me that there were men detained at Guantanamo who were willing to help us, but were instead tortured. Now, intelligence organizations are finding it “very hard to find people willing to cooperate with us because Guantanamo is seen as a violation of the human rights of all Muslims.” Furthermore the administration has misallocated its intelligence resources by bringing knowledgeable and experienced personnel over to Guantanamo to torture and interrogate people who mostly have little to no intelligence value, when they could be put to better use elsewhere. She reiterated that we currently have the adequate military and civilian legal systems in place to prosecute suspected terrorists. In her view, “Making up kangaroo processes are devastating to our country.”


Alejandro Beutel is program assistant for the Minaret of Freedom Institute with expertise in religious freedom, democratization and security issues.






3 responses to “Face to Face with an ex-Guantanamo Detainee”

  1. […] Face to Face with an ex-Guantanamo Detainee | Home […]

  2. david Avatar

    want the restoration of habeas corpus?

    get involved at:


    Join the project!! Moazzam Begg has!

  3. PeteinDC Avatar

    It is time for us to act! Locally this is what we are organizing:

    5 Years is enough of Guantanamo…
    6 months is enough of the
    Military Commissions Act…

    Join us for a 24-hour vigil at the
    U.S. Justice Department, April 27
    9th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
    12:00 PM White House Vigil,
    1:00 PM Procession to
    Justice Department
    To begin a 24-hour Vigil

    To call for:
    § Ending the use of torture
    § Upholding the Geneva Convention
    § Adherence to the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
    § Repeal of the Military Commissions Act
    § Closure of Guantanamo Bay and several “Black Sites”

    Groups and individuals are signing up for two-hour blocks of time
    (3:00 PM Friday until 1:00 PM Saturday). To get involved and sign up,
    please call the Washington Peace Center at 202-234-2000.

    A couple lawyers representing detainees are expected to speak during the vigil.

    Endorsed by the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC International), Dorothy Day Catholic Workers and the Washington Peace Center.

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