I was a Guantanamo detainee. Those DeSantis allegations didn’t surprise me

Former prisoners I’ve spoken to have identified DeSantis as someone who was present during their torture and abuse in Guantanamo. If he became president in 2024, it would be a new low for the US

Moazzam Begg
Monday 20 March 2023 13:36 GMT
Guantanamo Bay is still open, despite previous promises to close the facility
Guantanamo Bay is still open, despite previous promises to close the facility (Getty Images)

Seventeen years have passed since I last stepped on Cuban soil — that is, US-administered soil on the island of Cuba. Since my release from that place, I’ve been campaigning for justice and accountability regarding the 31 prisoners still held there. They have now been there for over two decades, most of them without charge or trial.

Before being sent to the US military prison facility at Guantanamo Bay — built in 2002 to hold 779 suspected members of Al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks — I’d never even heard of it. After I’d spent two years of torture and isolation in US custody without access to any legal recourse, visits, phone calls or contact with other prisoners, FBI special agents told me that I was the first to be “designated for by military commission” — a hastily devised tribunal system that was deemed equivalent to a kangaroo court by leading jurists. Although they didn’t specify what crime I’d committed, they did say it would be a swift, summary process with no jury, a military defense counsel not of my own appointment, no defense witnesses, no right to appeal convictions, and the possibility of execution.

Despite this, America’s finest tried to convince me that pleading guilty to unspecified crimes at the commissions would be my best way of obtaining justice. They cited a film as evidence. Really. A Few Good Men, the movie starringTom Cruise as a young military lawyer who fights the top military brass headed by Jack Nicholson to try to get justice for his client, was the ray of hope they offered. The logic was that if Tom Cruise could get justice for his client, so could a US officer potentially representing me.

I had seen the film some years back. In an unconvincing attempt to boost my confidence in their delusional visions of Hollywood justice, they reminded me that it was set on the US naval base at Guantanamo. What I remembered most from this film, however, was the fiery court encounter with Cruise in which Nicholson declares, “You can’t handle the truth.”

The truth my FBI interrogators couldn’t handle — and the US still can’t handle — was that they were participating in war crimes including kidnap and torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. There was no due process and no application of the rule of law. All of this was in the name of freedom. The US military’s motto at Guantanamo was “Honor-bound to defend freedom.” Nothing could be more ironic — except perhaps the results of the US justice system.

The military commissions were primarily set up to try those responsible for attacking America on 9/11. After 21 years, not a single prisoner has been successfully tried, let alone convicted, for involvement in those attacks. That’s another truth America can’t handle.

A Spanish song I’d heard long before captivity, whose words at the time sounded to me like “one dollar mirror,” was in fact Guantanamera — the song was about a girl from Guantanamo. A Hispanic US soldier told me about the song and added that we were not even in the true Guantanamo. The real Guantanamo was on the Cuban side, devoid of prison camps, screaming soldiers, interrogation cells and watchtowers. I hope to visit one day and even begin to try and disassociate all that is bad with the name Guantanamo.

So far, US President Joe Biden has repatriated or resettled eight prisoners from the facility over three years. The first was Abdul Latif Nasser — who I visited recently in Morocco — and the last was Ghasan al-Sharbi, who was repatriated to Saudi Arabia last week. In recent days, I’ve spoken to Ahmed Rabbani who, along with his brother Abdul Rahim, was repatriated to Pakistan in February. Ahmed returned home to meet his 21-year-old son Jawwad for the very first time. I can’t begin to imagine what that must be like for Ahmed but I have seen many similar cases over the years. Extraordinarily, I’ve not come across a single one of these prisoners who exudes hatred and vengeance. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There is a certain camaraderie that exists between the former Guantanamo prisoners. This is true whether they were held for three years, like me, or 21 years, like some of those freed in the past few weeks. Many of these men were deprived of the most basic human rights for seven times longer than me. Often, I feel unqualified to speak about their plight.

At the start of his presidency, some of us wrote an open letter to Joe Biden. Not only did we explain to him the pain of returning home to grown children and dead relatives but we also presented a plan of how he could end Guantanamo once and for all. We didn’t get — or expect — a response, but several prisoners were eventually cleared for release.

Former prisoners I’ve spoken to have identified Ron DeSantis — the Republican governor of Florida who is expected to be a 2024 presidential contender — as someone who was present during their torture and abuse in Guantanamo. If DeSantis became president, it would be a new low for the US. This wouldn’t be Donald Trump boasting that he believes torture “absolutely works” or talking about his desire to “load Guantanamo with bad dudes”. This would be something much more tangible.

If that happens, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. The US regularly claims to embody the very highest ideals of justice and accountability, while in practice doing the complete opposite.

Nonetheless, the former prisoners I know live by the principle of “my oppressor is not my teacher.” Several of us have met with our former US Guantanamo guards and welcomed them into our homes.

It’s as if the final verse of Guantanamerawas written for us:

I am a truthful man from the land of the palm trees

Before dying I want to share these poems of my soul

My verses are a clear green, and they are a flaming crimson

I grow the white rose in June as in January

For the sincere friend who gives me his hand

And for the cruel one who would tear out my heart with which I live

I do not cultivate thistles nor nettles

I cultivate a white rose.

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