Our incoming Website Director Francesca Butler reports on a fascinating talk by an ex-prisoner of the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
YorkX are a new society with an aim to deliver a platform to high-profile, controversial speakers. Last Wednesday they hosted a talk-show style event with ex-Guantanamo prisoner Mozzam Begg. Like the other 779 prisoners detained in Guantanamo since 2002, he was imprisoned without a fair trial. Begg is a British citizen, but he was denied the rights we take for granted. Yet Begg considers himself fortunate: he only experienced the horrors of unjust detainment for 3 years; his friend, Shaker Aamer, over 13.When I arrive outside the room I am taken by surprise. There are security guards at the door to ensure no bags are taken inside the lecture hall. I am forced to question the threat a group of students at an event staging a released prisoner of torture are considered to pose. Begg, an anti-Prevent believer, tells us that this is the third time he has spoken at the university but the first occasion that there has been any security. At the end of the event we are asked for donations. Not because Begg charged the society for expenses, but because the university said the event could only go ahead with security, and security costs money.
But any thoughts I have about the university’s imposed regulations are quickly dissipated when the event begins. Begg is engaging and humorous, telling us about his British upbringing in which he attended a Jewish school in the daytime and Qu ‘Aran class in the evening. The questions then move to the more controversial parts of Begg’s past. Although Begg was released on the grounds of innocence, Begg was residing in Afghanistan at the time of 9/11, a fact used by some to try to justify his unjust imprisonment. However, Begg was in Afghanistan to spread education to girls under the Taliban. Begg believes his imprisonment was the result of an MI5 agent intercepting a request from a friend of his already held in Guantanamo to find him an international lawyer.The talk takes an anticipated dark turn. Begg tells us how he was arrested at his home in Pakistan. A bag was thrown over his head as soon as he opened the door and he was held in a truck. Begg was then taken to Bagram, a US-run detention facility in Afghanistan, where he witnessed two fellow inmates being beaten to death, and while being interrogated heard screams in the next room, which he was led to believe were his mother’s.
After Bagram, Begg was taken to Guantanamo Bay. Despite his initial belief that the Americans would be the “good guys,” things got worse. Those seen praying were held to ground with a soldier’s boot on their heads and told “I am your God now.” The prisoners were beaten for speaking to one another. They were subject to physical and psychological torture, including waterboarding. Begg was told that if he didn’t cooperate his family would suffer.
A soldier known as the “King of Torture” gave Begg Catch-22, Heller’s brilliant work of satire reflecting the absurdity and tragedy of war. This irony is reflected in aspects of Begg’s story. He tells the audience of a “Bible basher” soldier who tried to convert him to Christianity. The very fact that he was given an anti-war novel by those detaining him illegally because of a conceptualised War on Terror is another example. His father was asked about the accusation and he replied he was proud. When the reporter asked why he answered, “Because at school my son could not do biochemistry, physics, and chemistry. Now you are telling me he is an expert in all three.”
In spite of what one might expect, Begg does not harbour hatred towards America. He tells us of the few soldiers which kept his faith in humanity, and how he made close friendships with some of the guards during his time in solitary confinement. When asked if he has a dislike of the West, Begg states that there is not a clear divide between East and West and that to hold to this idea is regressive.
I remember my Year 8 history class when our teacher told us Obama was going to close Guantanamo. We cannot forget that eight years later this still hasn’t been achieved. Someone asks Begg why he thinks 80 men are still held:
“Until the word innocent is used to describe those imprisoned, Guantanamo Bay will not close.”
The British and U.S. legal systems both operate on an “innocent until proven guilty.” The same should extend to the men in Guantanamo. Imprisoning people without fair trial and extracting “information” via torture methods is not the way to stop terrorism.
I hope YorkX will continue to bring speakers to the university who enlighten students to injustices across the world as well as our doorsteps. After requesting donations to cover the cost of security, it is with a Heller-esque irony that Begg holds up his black duffle back-pack.
“The one man accused of being a terrorist, and the one man allowed to bring in his bag.”