Bagram: Where the future of Guantanamo meets its tortuous past
- Moazzam Begg is Director for the British organisation, Cageprisoners. The opinions expressed are his own. -
Little seems to have changed regarding the treatment of prisoners held at the U.S. military-run Bagram prison since I was there (2002-2004). The recent study conducted by the BBC shows allegations of sleep deprivation, stress positions, beatings, degrading treatment, religious and racial abuse have gone unabated. On a personal level though, I can’t help wonder if British intelligence services are still involved.
In April this year, a report issued by Cageprisoners entitled Fabricating Terrorism II highlighted through eyewitness testimony the cases of 29 people, all of them either British residents or citizens, who had allegedly been tortured and abused in the presence of British intelligence agents or at their behest.
One of them, the case of Farid Hilali, featured in the Guardian newspaper, showed how allegations of complicity in torture against British intelligence predated the Sept. 11 attacks. The story of Jamil Rahman too – regarding allegations of British complicity in his torture in Bangladesh – would have been included in the report but he was worried at the time about the safety of his family. The recurrent factor in all these cases is the extent to which denial and prevarication remain as much a part of the intelligence services’ arsenal as outsourcing torture and abuse. The others include the British cases of Omar Deghayes, Bisher Al-Rawi, Jamil Elbanna, Richard Belmar, Shaker Aamer and Binyam Mohamed – all of whom were held at Bagram.
Shortly after I returned from Guantanamo my father showed me a letter he received from the British Foreign Office. The letter, written in 2002, claims that UK officials were not given access to prisoners in Bagram. At the time, I was being held captive there by the U.S. military and, amongst other alphabet intelligence agencies, was being interrogated by MI5, who were aware that torture, abusive and degrading treatment was being meted out to prisoners– including British citizens.
During my time there I saw two people being beaten severely: one after he’d lost consciousness following days of having his hands shackled to the top of a cage; the other after a very crude and ultimately futile escape attempt. Both were killed.
In eleven months of custody in Bagram I was hogtied, punched, kicked, shackled to the top of a door, hooded, strip-searched regularly, put in stress positions and deprived of sleep.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case, and there were some decent soldiers who balked at the very idea of such abuse. (Some of the soldiers have even expressed clear remorse and regret to me since my return. One of them is Damien Corsetti who was brought up for charges of detainee abuse in both Bagram and Abu Ghraib prisons).
Nonetheless, such treatment wasn’t unusual. The worst of it for me was hearing the sounds of a woman screaming I was led to believe was my wife being tortured while an interrogator waved pictures of my children in front of me asking: “Do you think you’ll ever see them again?” or “What do you think happened to them the night we took you?” Several months later I learned that my family were safe but, those screams I knew were not make-believe.
In July 2005, four prisoners carried out an unprecedented but successful escape attempt from Bagram. Later, they participated in an interview on an Arabic language television channel describing how they had seen a woman in custody. After his release from Guantanamo earlier this year, Binyam Mohamed told me that he recognised the picture I showed him of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman – whom the U.S. authorities deny was ever held at Bagram – who he had last seen in Bagram in a state of near insanity.
I met at least five children in Bagram (2002) – four of whom were taken to Guantanamo and two of whom are still there. One of them, Omar Khadr, a Canadian national, was brought in at the age of fifteen so terribly wounded he looked like he was dead. His left eye was shot out and there were two huge exit wounds to his shoulder and chest. Another, a young Afghan teenager called Shams was shot in his hip by a U.S. soldier and unable to walk. I used to help to carry him to take him to the improvised barrel we had to use as a toilet – amongst 10 of us. Other than that walking and talking were prohibited in Bagram.
Earlier this year, when the new U.S. president was promising the world he’d close down Guantanamo and the secret detention sites and put an end to torture, I was touring the UK with a former U.S. soldier who had guarded some of us in Guantanamo. We were both telling the world that while we welcomed the announcement of the closure of the world’s most infamous prison, nothing was being said about places like Bagram. Several films, including the oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, were made about this place, but still little Bagram was off the international radar. As people who had served time on both sides of the wire we hoped that someone was listening. The truth is that by the time I’d passed through Bagram I was looking forward to Guantanamo.
After becoming the public relations disaster Guantanamo clearly is, we’re told days are numbered. But judging by the escalation of military activity in Afghanistan and the possibility that some Guantanamo prisoners might be transferred there , the abuses in Bagram may continue to get noticed – every couple of years or so.