Book Review by Deirdre Sinnott
Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim's Journey to Guantánamo and Back, by Moazzam Begg, Free Press, 395 pp., 2006
July 4, 2006
"Being in solitary confinement for such a long time gave more opportunity than I could have imagined to reflect on my life. …I knew about death. I was not scared of it, but I was afraid of my judgement in the ultimate court of the Hereafter. So I embarked on a journey that would help secure my fate in the afterlife, by helping the poor and oppressed from amongst the people I related to most: Muslims. That is what I was doing when I traveled around Europe and Asia, learning about a world that had been alien to me. This was part of the reason I was here (in Guantánamo-ds)."
Moazzam Begg wrote this after being in US custody from January 2002 to January 2005, mostly in solitary and without legal recourse to challenge his imprisonment.
Begg's harrowing journey is movingly told in his memoir, soon to be released in the United States, entitled Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram, and Kandahar, by The New Press. Born and raised in Britain, Begg has given a voice to the hundreds of men held by the United States and designated as "enemy combatants" in named prisons and unnamed rendition centers scattered around the world.
He was arrested in Pakistan and turned over to the US military soon after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, October 2001. Never formally charged with any crime, he was accused of having "terrorist sympathies." He believes that his detention was based on fundraising that he did to help Bosnian Muslims in the 1990's, including going on aid caravans to the war-torn region, and a short 1993 visit to a military training camp in Afghanistan. Begg ran an Islamic bookstore and was under surveillance by the M15, (British Secret Service) since the mid-1990's.
The Bush administration chose Begg and five other men in Guantánamo to face military tribunals. He declined to participate and was told that the tribunal would continue without him. Before the process was finished, and during elections that endangered Tony Blair's position as Prime Minister, Britain responded to public anti-war pressure and lobbied the US to return some of its citizens held in Guantánamo. When the US finally released Begg to the British, January 2005, he had endured more than 300 interrogations, three long years of incarceration without formal charges, and daily humiliation. The British government questioned him once and released him without perusing any legal action.
The US Supreme Court recently struck down the tribunal system as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration maintained that as "enemy combatants" the men they held had no rights under the Conventions. The Supreme Court cited Common Article Three that covers prisoners caught in conflicts that do not involve "High Contracting Parties" (or states). Because the Court also ruled that existing US laws did not apply to the pending cases, some members of Congress are beginning the process of drafting a new, more draconian law to replace the "Detainee Treatment Act" of 2005. That Act was the basis for the continued detentions.
Whatever law is cobbled together, its goal won't be fair trials for people who have been imprisoned for years without charges or much legal recourse. Begg's experiences and subsequent book have proven that allowing present and former detainees a voice, in court or in public, will have a devastating effect on US policy. His account reveals the inhumane conditions, torture, deprivation of human rights, and outright murders that have occurred in the brightly-lit prisons run by the US. And his story is just one of thousands.
Because Begg writes in English, he brings his experiences to a British and US audience that has only glimpsed the routine brutality of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Enemy Combatant opens a small window into several high-security facilities and invites readers to experience life somewhere between limbo and hell.
Begg's book is so dangerous that the New York Times took the unusual step of printing a front-page story challenging the veracity of his statements on June 15, 2006 in an article entitled Jihadist or Victim: Ex-Detainee Makes a Case. Despite media scrutiny no solid evidence has emerged that shows Begg's to be a "sympathizer, a recruiter and a financier" for terrorists, as he has been described by the Defense Department. If all memoirs were as closely monitored for factual information the US publishing industry might collapse.
The strength of Begg's account is his humanity. He details life inside Guantánamo including the horror of being transported for hours with a bag over his head and entombed in blacked-out goggles. He treats each of his jailers as individuals, some of whom oppose the US war against Afghanistan and Iraq. He mourns the long separation from his family and describes the constant struggle that the imprisoned men endure to keep themselves sane, even though they have little hope of relief from their long detentions.
With fresh headlines of the suicides of three men from Guantánamo, and the dismantling of the so-called "legal basis" for the continuation of the prisons, Begg makes a compelling argument for tearing down the walls. Guantánamo has become synonymous with the Bush administration's disregard for international law. Like the Bastille, the prison stormed by a revolutionary grouping of Parisians on July 14, 1789, its name will live on as a symbol of oppression long after it is dismantled.
He says it all when he writes, "The sad fact is they (the British government-ds) have acted duplicitously, immorally and unlawfully. It is not just their uncritical acceptance of and obedience to torturous conditions, regimes, and physical restraint or worse. They were there by choice. These are the lessons of Nuremberg. You cannot simply be present in these circumstances and escape your own role. The definition of torture under the UN convention is the application of extreme mental or physical pressure by a state on an individual for the purpose of obtaining information. Any complicity in that, as well as direct application, is in breach of international law and is criminal by definition."
Copyright © Deirdre Sinnott, 7/4/06.