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Moazzam Begg: Why we settled out of court

Written by Moazzam Begg Sunday, 21 November 2010
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Moazzam Begg explains what the Guantanamo settlements have meant to the former prisoners and what lies ahead

Eid ul-Adha is the most important Muslim celebration of the year. It is a time when Muslims commemorate the great test placed on the prophet Abraham who was ordered by the Almighty to sacrifice his son. It is a time for joy and spending quality time with the family. Its timing is directly after the hajj pilgrimage in Makkah, which witnesses the largest single gathering of humanity on the planet at any given time.

 
It is inconceivable that politicians and journalists would be unaware of the significance of such a day – the day that a settlement of the Guantanamo cases in the UK was announced.
 
By the start of this day my daughter was in tears in front of a camera-wielding reporter asking if they’d come to take me again. By the end of it Islamaphobic blogsites, were posting statements like: “Somebody post any of these innocent victim’s addresses and I will save the British taxpayers millions.”
 
None of this mattered to the scores of journalists who incessantly called me, and others, from the point the imminent government announcement was ‘leaked’ to ITN news on Monday, to the present. Neither did it prevent numerous journalists with their cameras and satellite vans turning up outside my house, desperate for a scoop on where the taxpayers’ money had been spent and if our voices, once so profoundly outspoken against the abuses we had sustained - that we alleged had happened with the complicity of our own government - had now been silenced in return for a pay-off.
 
No precedent
 
There is no precedent for such claims in the UK since the ‘war on terror’ began and there is only one other in the world to go by: the case of Canadian, Maher Arar. Arar was rendered as a terrorism suspect by the US to Syria, a country known to practice torture, in 2002 where he was kept for a year without charge or trial and suffered horrific abuses. On his eventual return the Canadian government established the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar and found the actions of Canadian officials led to his being deported by U.S. authorities to Syria. Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to Arar on behalf of the Canadian government and announced that Arar would receive C$10.5 million (£6.5 million) settlement for his ordeal and an additional million for legal costs.
 
It may be argued that Britain is not Canada but, our values and laws are very similar – and the British Queen is still its official head of state. If Canada is a close ally of the US, Britain is even closer. In fact Canada refused to engage in the Iraq war whilst Britain was a key player.
 
Maher Arar’s ordeal was terrible but he was only held for a year and he did not allege that the Canadians were physically present when he was being tortured and abused. Of the 16 men involved in the case against the British intelligence services five were held for two and a half years; five served three years; four others served 6 years; one served eight years and another, Shaker Aamer, is still in Guantanamo nine years on. Collectively, we have spent over sixty-six years imprisoned without charge or trial.
 
Many of us allege that British intelligence was directly involved before and during our rendition. Others maintain they were tortured and abused in front of MI5 agents. All of us affirm that British agents regularly interrogated us, with full knowledge as to the torturous treatment and conditions. Nine of the claimants in this case are British citizens; the others have long-term connections to the UK and had been legally resident here for decades in some cases.
 
So what did we get?
 
According to the terms of the settlement no claimant knows what the other was offered and, we are certainly not permitted to discuss it. But it would be safe to say none of us got even a fraction of the amount duly received by Mr. Arar. And, despite the grand claims in the press I know I’m not a millionaire.
 
I would however like to remind our taxpayers just what their hard-earned money helped to facilitate:
 
Martin Mubanga, three years in Guantanamo. Rendered from Zambia for refusing to become a spy. Daubed by US interrogators in his own waste.
Moazzam Begg, three years in Bagram and Guantanamo. Subjected to sounds of a screaming woman he believed was his wife being tortured. Witnessed beating to death of two prisoners. Two years in solitary confinement. Returned home to meet a three year old son he’d never seen before.
Omar Deghayes, six years in Bagram and Guantanamo, his eye gouged-out during his time in custody. Separated from his son who has never met him.
Jamil Elbanna, six years in the Dark Prison, Bagram and Guantanamo, lost a business worth tens of thousands of pounds. Returned home to a five year old daughter who’d never seen her father before.
Binyam Mohamed, eight years in the Dark Prison, Bagram, Morocco and Guantanamo, his body, including extremities, sliced with a razor blade.
Shaker Aamer, has been in the Dark Prison, Bagram and Guantanamo – where he remains, for almost nine years. Head repeatedly smashed against a wall in the presence of British agents. Has spent more than a third of his time in solitary confinement. Liquid food forcibly ingested through his nose to prevent him from hunger-striking. Father of four, who has never seen his youngest child.
 
This is just a tiny sample of what some of the claimants ‘have got’. All of the men allege they were forcibly stripped naked, paraded like animals in front of others, regularly beaten, kept for extended periods in isolation and held incommunicado for the duration.
 
 
War and lies costs more than justice
 
Of course, we understand the aversion some people have to us receiving anything. Some politicians – and commentators – have clearly expressed how they find the settlement ‘unpalatable’. But even if this case would have gone through the courts and followed its logical conclusion we are certain the government would have lost. The tax-payer would of course then have been outraged that the case, compensation and inquiry had cost them upward of £50 million. I’m sure that would be even bitterer on the palate. What seems to have been brushed aside however is the reason why the present British government is so keen to resolve this nightmarish inheritance.
 
But in all honesty, are we suggesting that people can be kidnapped, falsely imprisoned, abused and tortured, released without charge – while we not only sit and watch but take part in and facilitate – and then have no recourse to justice at all?
 
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the British taxpayer in excess of £20 billion. These unjust and immoral wars have caused the deaths of millions. Greater numbers have been injured and displaced. British soldiers’ lives too are lost daily as a result of obedience to a failing US strategy. The British taxpayer was either duped or remained silent in the knowledge that we partnered a regime that carried out severe human rights violations in Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and secret rendition sites across the globe in the name of security. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of people held under anti-terror measures, whether in Guantanamo or the UK, have never been shown to have posed a threat to national security at all. In fact, it was our security and freedom that was not only threatened but arbitrarily removed.
 
We had expected our government to act in the interests of its own, British citizens and residents. Instead, once again, the British government was more concerned with the policies of other countries.
 
Our friend of the waterboard
 
Only last week former US president George Bush released his memoir and said that he’d ordered waterboarding and that it had saved British lives. He offered no evidence for his claim.
 
In 2002 the CIA told me about the fate of a man they’d interrogated before me and that I would meet the same end as him if I failed to comply. When Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by the US he was trumpeted as the most senior Al-Qaeda figure in custody at the time. He was then rendered to Egypt where he was waterboarded and made a confession that was used as a major justification to invade Iraq. Al-Libi told his US interrogators that he was working with Saddam Hussain on obtaining chemical and biological weapons. This information was presented by Colin Powell as ‘credible evidence’ to the UN Security Council in 2003 as a tangible link between Al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. It was a fabrication – and they knew it. There were no WMDs in Iraq and no presence of Al-Qaeda there before the invasion. I told MI5 agents what I’d been threatened with. They responded saying they could do nothing and that I should just co-operate with the Americans. What would they have done if I’d been waterboarded into giving such confessions?
 
Waterboarding is crime. It was first used during the Spanish Inquisition and was originally called ‘tortura del agua’ - torture of the water. Japanese soldiers were successfully prosecuted for ‘war crimes’ at the end of World War II for waterboarding American POWs. The man who ordered this in our times– and much worse – was Britain’s closest ally, even as we were being abused. Both Bush and Blair, who have accrued immense personal fortunes from the misery of millions should have been made to foot this bill – and many others. But how could that happen in the absence of a legal process?
 
The former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, confirmed this when earlier this week at the Baha Musa lecture he reiterated that the United States had a clear obligation to bring proceedings against President George W. Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, because of torture inflicted on detainees at Guantanamo.
 
I have even less doubt that our own government knew exactly what was happening because British intelligence agents were there at every leg of the journey on the road to Guantanamo.
 
Why the settlement?
 
We, the claimants, did not enter this action for the sake of monetary compensation alone. We wanted to get our lives back. We wanted not to be stopped at the airport just because we were in Guantanamo, every time we return this country. We wanted to repay our friends and relatives who had spent tens of thousands of pounds fighting the campaigns for our return and looking after our families. We wanted to support the organisations and charities that had once supported us. We wanted to have removed the stigma that will forever be engraved on our names as ‘terrorism suspects’. And most of all, we wanted the last remaining British prisoner, Shaker Aamer, reunited with his family. That is why he is one of the claimants in absentia – and why we told the government that having Shaker back was more important to us than any settlement amount they were offering. We are pleased to see that the government has clearly placed his case back on priority. His presence is also necessary regarding potential criminal charges against British intelligence agents.
 
We agreed to settle because we do not want to have to relive this episode indefinitely in court for years on end and, being unentitled to legal aid, many of us simply cannot afford it. It may mean different things to different people but to me this is at least a partial victory. They wouldn’t pay up if they thought they could win. What remains is an apology.
 
The inquiry into the actions of British intelligence in all cases where it is alleged they were complicit will now go ahead. We shall see where that leads us but I know one thing for sure: the allegations of British complicity in torture are too concurrent, recurrent and corroborative for it to be ignored. How far up the chain this goes seems clear to us but it is unlikely the inquiry will reach so high. 
 
British complicity in torture goes well beyond the Guantanamo cases. Cageprisoners intends to submit its findings of 29 such cases to the Gibson inquiry and we, the former prisoners, will continue to speak about the abuses we endured, in the hope that it shines a light on many other cases. There is no settlement available that could silence that.
 
An edited version of this article appeared in the Independent on Sunday
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