Human Rights & Public Liberties

Human Rights & Public Liberties

Published on: 13 Jan, 2021

‘I am still looking for trouble’: former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg speaks to AJ Liberties (Part 2)

Published on: 1 November, 2021
Moazzam Begg with one of his sons, 2015  [Courtesy of Moazzam Begg]

Moazzam Begg with one of his sons, 2015 [Courtesy of Moazzam Begg]

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, is a former Guantanamo prisoner and director of outreach for the UK-based advocacy group CAGE.

In the second part of a two-part interview, Moazzam Begg speaks to Mia Swart of Al Jazeera Public Liberties.

Swart: Why is there still a  lack of accountability for the wrongs committed during the war on terror?

Begg: The demonisation of the Muslim world has been so complete for the past 20 years that it is almost impossible for those in power to see past the demonisation.

In the US the war on terrorism has been a bipartisan project: Democrats and Republicans and black and white are in agreement. Also those on the East Coast and on the West Coast.

There was so much the Democrats could have done but failed to do. They ramped up the rhetoric about closing Guantanamo but they actually introduced some things, such as drone strikes, that even their predecessor didn’t practice. The majority of prisoners that were released from Guantanamo were released by George W Bush. He still holds the record for the number of prisoners he released.

Trump released one Guantanamo prisoner. By the time Trump came the language of the war on terror has solidified so much that he, the most powerful man in the world, could say ‘I  believe torture works’ and there was basically no backlash. Not a single country attacked him for this.

Obama is a constitutional lawyer. He knows that the law says: you are innocent until you are proven guilty. He never once described the prisoners as innocent. He never said ‘we are holding innocent men’. Had he done so the ability to close Guantanamo would have been politically so much easier. He knew that he jettisoned the idea of the presumption of innocence. And as he was doing this he starts initiating and boasting about the drone programme.

Obama said ‘forget that, lets just kill them without trial.’ And that was his political genius because what he is saying is: ‘no one is going to call me a torturer, we will send the planes, there will be no harm to American citizens.’ The thinking is ‘We will drone strike these places, who is going to know better, they were terrorists.’ So there was extrajudicial detention versus extrajudicial killing.

And the drone programme was so successful that it ‘travelled’ from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Somalia and  Libya. And as a result of this success other countries like Russia started using it. What you can do with a drone strike is to not only kill someone, the target. You can kill the target’s family as well. And there will be no process according to which you will be accountable. In the detention programme you can at least say those guys lived to tell the tale.

Begg with US soldier and former Guantanamo guard Albert Melisse in 2016.

Swart: Why are you so controversial?

Begg: I’m still looking for trouble.  I still expect that they take my passport away or that they try to imprison me. I’m prepared for it. They made me who I am. I was working in aid, in education. They made me into an anti-war-on-terror  campaigner and an activist. I faced the worst of it. They took me away from my family. They took my freedom.  But the organisation CAGE is crucial as my support base.

Swart: CAGE focuses on prisoners who were in the same position you were in?

Begg: CAGE does a lot more than that. Cage looks at the entirety of the war on terrorism including the laws that emanated from that, the detentions process in the UK, the targeting of Muslim civil society, the spying process, the ‘Guantanamisation’ of the legal process here, primarily against Muslims.

When I came back from Guantanamo the first thing I said was  that we must negotiate with the Taliban. I was badly attacked for this, even by high level people in Amnesty International because the Taliban are human rights abusers against women etc. But I even said: ‘We should negotiate with Al Qaeda’. What we have seen from that point until now is that Al  Qaeda is relatively tame compared to Isis. You could talk to Al Qaeda. Isis is different. Their methodology is about savagery and they are happy to target anyone. I can’t say I am unhappy to see the ‘fall’ of Kabul. I am  happy to see my oppressors defeated.

Even if you do not agree with the Taliban there is a symbolism in that success. The Americans are defeated. Its just like watching a big bully walk out of the playground. He had to walk out of the playground because the people he were bullying just had a bit more stamina than he did.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.