The jail, the torturer, and the most unlikely defence witness

Two years after his release from Guantanamo Bay, Moazzam Begg was asked to stand up for one of his captors. By Robert Verkaik
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The Independent Online

Two years after US soldiers used bolt-cutters to break Moazzam Begg's shackles and release him into British custody, America has found a new way to torment the man leading the campaign to close his former prison.

Attorneys acting for one of the guards accused of torturing captives held in the "war on terror" asked Mr Begg to be their client's character witness. It seemed an extraordinary request to make of a man who is still coming to terms with the three years of psychological and physical torture he endured in the notorious prisons of Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and later at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The guard in question is Damien Corsetti, a specialist Bagram interrogator who even among his colleagues was known as the "king of torture".

"They asked to give evidence on this man's behalf. It is quite bizarre - a strange, strange paradox," said Mr Begg. "Yes, I remember Corsetti. I remember him particularly because he gave me a book called Catch 22, the great anti-war novel of our time. I was allowed to keep it through my time in Guantanamo and I still have it on my bookshelf in Birmingham."

But Mr Begg, 38, said he has tried to be fair in dealing with the lawyers' request. "I said while it was true I didn't experience any of the things that Corsetti was accused of, people had told me that he done these things.

"A Saudi still in Guantanamo, Ahmed al-Darbi, told me in Bagram that Corsetti had taken out his penis, threatened to rape him and, while pointing to his manhood, screamed, 'This is your God!'"

Corsetti stood trial in America for allegedly beating and threatening to sexually abuse prisoners held at Bagram. He was recently cleared of all charges after his defence team argued that he was not responsible for the discipline at the camp.

Since his repatriation to Britain on 25 January last year, via RAF Northholt and Paddington Green police station, Mr Begg continues to struggle with the psychological scars with which Guantanamo has marked him. Today, he appears much smaller than the impression given in the pictures that stared out of British newspapers during his captivity. He still has the signature beard but looks to have built up his weight after the deprivations of Guantanamo.

He readily admits he is not the same man he was when he was bundled into the back of a police car in the middle of the night in Pakistan and flown to Bagram before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

In times of stress and contemplation, he still finds himself unconsciously marking out the boundary of his cell, three steps forward, three steps back. "I think it has been quite hard for everyone, the adjustment has been slow," he said. "For the first few months I spent all my time with the children doing all the things that I had promised myself I would do. I took them to Warwick Castle, camping in Snowdonia, Alton Towers and a trip to Sherwood Forest. I have also become very closely involved in their education."

He says the readjustment has also been difficult for his wife who has had to learn to cope without him, and now finds that he has usurped her as the "figurehead" of the family. "I admire her patience and fortitude," he said. "While I was away she has had to learn how to drive a car and is now training to be a teacher."

But it is the relationship with his youngest son, Ibrahim, born while he was in Guantanano, that has been the most strained.

"I just got a message from the International Red Cross, telling me I was a father," he said. "I didn't know whether he was a girl or boy. While I was away, he used to sleep with his mother but when I came back I kicked him out of the bed. So it's not surprising that he sees me as something of an intruder."

The support he has received from of his extended family has helped him to build a platform on the world stage where he campaigns for the end to all unlawful detention centres.

Then there are the bonds he has with the other former British Guantanamo inmates. "I suppose I am closest to Feroz [Abbasi who was with him in Guantanamo]," he said. "It is to him that I turn when perhaps no one else can really understand. We have a commonality of experience which I can tune into."

Mr Begg, now a spokesman for the charity Caged Prisoners, has become the central figure for many of the former British detainees who have formed a kind of Guantanamo survivors' club. "We all keep in contact by e-mail so that we are all in the loop about what's going on. Most of the time it is to help families of those still being held in the camps."

But occasionally they do all meet up. "We may not even talk about our experiences in Guantanamo, it is just enough to know we were there," he said.

On the odd occasion when one of the group might need more direct help, the group provides a kind of emergency cover. The three men from the West Midlands, branded by sections of the media as the "Tipton Taliban", have had the most difficulties settling back into their community. "They are living in a big BNP area and so there was quite a bit of racism," said Mr Begg. "At one point people were burning effigies of them that wore orange boiler suits.

"But this is very exceptional. I cannot recall a single racist or abusive incident against me since I returned. Last week I was in a restaurant with my wife and a diner came over and asked for my autograph."

One reason for this acceptance, suggested Mr Begg, is that he has been prepared to deal with everything thrown at him. Questions about his reasons for travelling to Afghanistan, his views on Islamic extremism and his detention in Guantanamo Bay. These have all been met with an honesty and intelligence that has done much to undermine US arguments for keeping open Guantanamo.

But he also remains committed to the Birmingham community he left seven years ago to help children in Afghanistan. His eldest child has just failed her 11-plus by a "few marks" so will be sent to a private Muslim school. "We would send her to one of the comprehensives but I don't think they are very good in this area."

The Beggs are partly able to pay for their daughter's education because of Mr Begg's ability to articulate his experience in public. His book continues to sell well and he was paid an undisclosed sum by Channel 4 for an exclusive interview.

He says he has not closed the door on contact with his former guards. "I hope I can rise above that," he said. "My answer isn't vengeance. I want justice, I want the people held in Guantanamo to be released and returned to their own homes. This thing is much bigger than any of the soldiers and much, much bigger than me."

Life after Guantanamo

Shafiq Rasul, 30, Asif Iqbal, 25, and Rhuhel Ahmed, 25, were among the first Britons to be released from Guantanamo Bay in 2004. They have since returned to Tipton in the West Midlands where they grew up but they have encountered some hostility.

After spending a year keeping a low public profile they decided to make a film about their experience called The Road to Guantanamo. One of the three is now working as a plumber. This month, Mr Iqbal returned to Guantamo to protest at its continued existence. Jamal al-Harith, 40, released with the Tipton three, has returned to his home city of Manchester. Tarek Dergoul, 29, from London lost an arm during his detention and has been the most reclusive of the nine Britons released from Guantanamo. Martin Mubanga, 32, from north London, is working as a personal trainer to finance his university studies. Feroz Abbasi, 25, from Croydon, is in the second year of a sociology course at a London university.

Richard Belmar, 25, is believed to be still living in north London.