Guantanamo account: 'I was shackled, beaten, suffocated by a plastic bag and deprived of sleep. This is how they forced my confession'

Exclusive: account by Briton released from Guantanamo Bay reveals suffering in US captivity
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The Independent Online

It was the moment - almost exactly three years ago - that Moazzam Begg's dreams of setting up an Islamic school in Afghanistan were doused by a ring at the door. It was midnight on 31 January 2001 that the heavily armed Pakistani and US intelligence officials arrived at his doorstep. And it was a year later that Moazzam Begg, 35, a former Islamic bookstore owner from Birmingham, emerged as one of nine Britons imprisoned without trial at Guantanamo Bay, accused of being a senior supporter of the al-Qa'ida network.

It was the moment - almost exactly three years ago - that Moazzam Begg's dreams of setting up an Islamic school in Afghanistan were doused by a ring at the door. It was midnight on 31 January 2001 that the heavily armed Pakistani and US intelligence officials arrived at his doorstep. And it was a year later that Moazzam Begg, 35, a former Islamic bookstore owner from Birmingham, emerged as one of nine Britons imprisoned without trial at Guantanamo Bay, accused of being a senior supporter of the al-Qa'ida network.

Moazzam Begg describes the precise moment of his arrest in the style of a pulp thriller. "Midnight. The door-bell rings, I answer, and guns are put to my head. I'm pushed in, see a Tazer crackle and I am hooded. Shackles and flexicuffs finish the job. They carry me to a vehicle and I never return home again. I could not even say a word to my wife."

That account is one of the key moments in a closely written 25-page statement for an American tribunal hearing in which Mr Begg attempts to rebut US and British government allegations that he was an active member of the al-Qa'ida network or a hardened Taliban sympathiser.

A deeply religious, conservative Muslim, Mr Begg insists he had moved with his wife Sally and their children to Kabul in July 2001 to set up a private Islamic school for boys and girls - a girls' school the Taliban refused to authorise.

And, he writes, going to Kabul that year quickly became his greatest regret. "I have never wept so much in my entire life as during those days ..." he wrote. "I hated myself for being inane enough to bring my family to Afghanistan. It still hurts just to recall the memory. Even these three years in custody bear no equal to how destroyed my heart felt at that fateful time."

He recounts how he and his family fled Kabul after the US invasion began in October 2001 following the World Trade Center attacks, to a town near the Pakistani border. He went back to the capital several times to check on their home, finally on the night Kabul fell. In the "pandemonium", he became lost as refugees and Taliban fighters tried to escape.

The US claims he retreated with al-Qa'ida forces to their mountain stronghold in Tora Bora and fought there - a claim he denies. He used mountain roads to reach Pakistan, he admits, but states: "I do not know what the place was called, nor did I stay to find out."

After several days travelling, he traced his family in Islamabad and began to resettle in the Pakistani capital. Barely three months later, he was dragged barefoot from the house. Held in the Pakistani prison for three weeks, he remembers hearing "yells and howls of pain" from neighbouring cells, which were "black, damp, with dripping water and mouldy walls". One evening, an interrogator assaulted an Afghan prisoner in front of Mr Begg, forcing a confession to theft.

Three weeks later, on 21 February 2002, Mr Begg was flown to Kandahar. Issued with an "enemy prisoner of war" identity card by the International Committee of the Red Cross and a ID number he had throughout his detention, he was soon transferred to Bagram. There, he said, "I was held in cells entitled 'Pentagon', 'Somalia', 'USS Cole', 'World Trade Center' and "Lebanon'."

He was imprisoned for nearly a year in Afghanistan. "During this period, I was forced to share a bucket as a latrine with several others; forcibly stripped naked and photographed in front of several people; forced to take communal showers in freezing cold water, denied natural light and fresh food for the duration.

"Interrogation began in earnest from the outset. I had already witnessed the results of 'unsatisfactory' interrogations: sleep deprivation, racial and religious taunts; being chained to a door for hours - with a suffocating plastic bag as a hood; literal arm twisting and forced bowing and several physical beatings.

"Two of these beatings resulted in the deaths of two detainees in June and December of 2002. I was witness to both, in some fashion." He was subject to "a series of particularly harsh interviews by FBI agents," he alleges. After the interrogation where he was shackled, hooded and assaulted, "they threatened to have me sent to Cairo to face torture by Egyptian thugs in the intelligence service". He was told detainees sent there "confessed" within two days.

In February 2003, Mr Begg was flown to Guantanamo Bay, and quickly moved into new high-security isolation cells at Camp Echo - the section reserved for "the worst of the worst". On 13 February, he was presented with a statement "that I was made to sign, in effect, by coercion, and under duress". It was that statement, thought to include his confession of active involvement with al-Qa'ida that led to Mr Begg being one of the first six Guantanamo detainees designated for trial as terrorists by President Bush later in 2003. For nearly two years, until his transfer to the more open conditions of Camp Delta last November, Mr Begg was held in solitary confinement and denied access to daylight or regular human contact.

The US and British intelligence agencies insist Mr Begg had a record of allegiance to Islamist terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden, including his visits to several "training camps" during the 1990s. They claim to have found a money order with his name on it in an al-Qa'ida house in Kabul in 2001, a document his lawyers claim could easily be a child's fees for Mr Begg's school.

Security sources also say Mr Begg has never fully explained why he visited Afghanistan during the 1990s, a claim he attempts to rebut in his testimony.

Mr Begg admits visiting several camps, but insists they were brief trips as an observer to learn more about Pakistani-based Islamist groups, including some fighting in Kashmir. Those camps, he said, were originally set up with CIA support to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan. All were eventually shut down by the Taliban after ideological clashes. One camp had links to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and none taught typical al-Qa'ida tactics of suicide missions, car-bombings or hijackings. Mr Begg denies taking military training.<</p>

Additional reporting by Paul Lashmar

Rambling, hand-written and disputed: the evidence the US relied upon

Martin Mubanga

A joint British and Zambian citizen, he was arrested in Zambia in February 2002 after allegedly fleeing Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A former motorcycle courier from Wembley, London, Mr Mubanga, 32, was accused of helping al-Qa'ida plot terrorist attacks on the US. He allegedly carried a list of 33 Jewish organisations in New York when he was arrested. He denied the allegations and retracted all his previous confessions at Guantanamo last November. Mr Mubanga claims his passport had been stolen and was a victim of identity theft. As The Independent on Sunday revealed last year, Mr Mubanga wrote letters that accused Guantanamo guards of threatening him with rape, of assaulting him and offering him to prostitutes.

Feroz Abbasi

An "autobiography" written by Abbasi, the former student released from Guantanamo last week, suggests the Londoner advocated "martyrdom" attacks by Muslims on US military targets.

The admissions are among a series of claims in a batch of rambling handwritten documents, released last week by the US authorities to justify their claims that Mr Abbasi, 25, is a committed supporter of al-Qa'ida.

To the anger of his lawyers, the batch of documents includes frank admissions about Mr Abbasi's childhood and emotional problems as a teenager - breaching, they claim, an agreement with the US courts to keep those pages confidential.

Often decorated with doodles, elaborate chapter headings and small sketches, the documents expose him as a deeply troubled young man. That, his lawyers claim, explains why he became attracted by the teachings of the radical cleric Abu Hamza at Finsbury Park mosque.

Mr Abbasi admits joining Abu Hamza's militant Supporters of Shariah group in November 1999, and offering to leave for Chechnya to fight the Russians.

The cleric said he needed to prove himself and began actively to cultivate the then 18-year-old. He was given militant tapes, books and lectures.

Mr Abbasi insisted he only wanted to protect threatened Muslims in Kashmir or Afghanistan, not directly attack the US or the UK. Despite volunteering to fight the US invasion of Afghanistan, he denies ever taking part in battle.

He also alleges that US interrogators subjected him to abusive internal body searches, and to a series of unexplained injections at Guantanamo Bay.

His lawyers are adamant that these documents, written by a man held for two years in solitary confinement and subjected to torture, are wholly unreliable.

Richard Belmar

A former Royal Mail worker, he is accused by the US of being trained at an Afghan terrorist camp run by al-Qa'ida and of fighting for the Taliban.

Mr Belmar, 25, a Muslim convert from north-west London, admitted many of the US allegations at a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay last November, including hearing Osama bin Laden speak and learning basic military training.

But he also accuses his US interrogators of torturing him at the US airbase in Bagram, including the claim he swore allegiance to Bin Laden and assaulted a suspected spy.

One of four Britons freed from the US base last Tuesday, Mr Belmar is now recovering with his family. His lawyers insist his admissions are unreliable, because he was coerced into confessing.

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