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Moazzam Begg's story of detention and abuse
This is Bush's war on terror

Review by Elizabeth Lalas | October 27, 2006 | Page 13z

Moazzam Begg with Victoria Brittain, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram and Kandahar. The New Press, 2006, 416 pages, $26.95.

WITH THE signing into law of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 in mid-October, Congress voted to codify the Bush administration's repressive powers over detainees in prison camps in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and around the world.

The president claims that all these prisoners are "enemy combatants" who form a network of terrorists the U.S. is fighting in its "war on terror."

It allows the president to identify enemies, imprison them indefintely and interrogate them beyond the reach of the full court reviews traditionally offered prisoners, and broadens the definition of "unlawful enemy combatant" to include not only those who fight the U.S. but those who have "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the U.S."

This law, as Amnesty International recently wrote, has turned "bad executive policy into bad law." This legislation, passed right before the midterm elections, is an opportunitic ploy by both political parties to play on what they believe is their strong suit--fighting terrorism and homeland security.

The day after Congress passed the Act, the New York Times wrote, "Law professors will stay busy for months debating the implications." But we do not have to wait that long.

The "implications" are obvious in Moazzam Begg's book Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram and Kandahar. In it, he gives a vivid picture of the day-to-day horror of detention for a suspect in the "war on terror."

Begg, a 38-year-old British citizen, was born and raised in Birmingham, England. His book, the first published by a former Guantánamo detainee, is the story of his capture by the CIA from his home in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2002. He was imprisoned for nearly three years in U.S. camps in Kandahar and Bagram, Afghanistan, and finally in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he spent 20 months in solitary confinement.

He witnessed the murder of two detainees by U.S. soldiers, one in Bagram and one at Guantánamo, which he believes is why he was kept isolated for so long from fellow prisoners. No reasons have ever been given for Begg's arrest, and, even though he was never charged with a crime, the U.S. government labeled him an "enemy combatant."

He was subjected to more than 300 interrogations as well as death threats and torture. Released in early 2005, Begg has never received an apology or compensation for the time he spent wrongfully in prison.

"Much of the Moazzam Begg story is consistent with other accounts of detention conditions in both Afghanistan and Guantánamo," says John Sifton, a New York-based official from Human Rights Watch who has interviewed numerous former Guantánamo prisoners in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "It is now clear that there is a systemic problem of abuse throughout the U.S. military's detention facilities--not merely misbehavior by a few bad apples."

In Enemy Combatant, Begg doesn't initially realize the full extent of U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

His feelings of disbelief run throughout his book, as Begg desperately tries to find a rational explanation for what is happening to him and others. Disbelief turns to shock and horror, as Begg vividly recounts the psychological torture he and his fellow Muslim detainees endure:

"I was bracing myself for brutality, brutality that was, unbelievably, happening to me...The most humiliating thing was witnessing the abuse of others, and knowing how utterly dishonored they felt. These were men who would never have appeared naked in front of anyone, except their wives; who had never removed their facial hair, except to clip their moustache or beard; who never used vulgarity, nor were likely to have had it used against them. I felt that everything I held sacred was being violated, and they must have felt the same."

These "enemy combatants" are ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis, mainly Muslim, many poor and unable to speak English, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. As Begg writes, "[T]he ICRC (Red Cross) viewed our status as POW, as far as rights were concerned, but that the Americans had labeled us 'illegal combatants,' with no rights at all."

But Begg is different from other detainees in his self-conscious opposition to racism and imperialism. In Enemy Combatant, he eloquently tells his own personal journey to becoming a political activist.

Begg grew up middle class, but as a teenager, joined a youth gang called the Lynx, which fought against anti-Pakistani racism in Birmingham and joined with other gangs to physically fight the fascist National Front when they tried to march in the 1980s.

He was attracted to Islam as a way to oppose imperialism against Muslims throughout the world. "Many young people were becoming interested in Islam, rather as I had in the early nineties," Begg writes, "often airing their frustrations about the state of the Muslims and their increasing demonization and humiliation in the world."

The book also chronicles his extensive travels to help other Muslims, including going nine times to deliver food and other supplies in the mid-1990s during the war in Bosnia and to set up a school for girls in Afghanistan. All this made Begg a target of the British Secret Service, but he was never charged with anything--until after September 11, 2001.

"The process of removing a detainee from the cell demonstrated for me the larger picture of U.S. military procedure, epitomizing the war on terror," writes Begg. "Every time, the overkill amazed me, and that resentment of overkill used on me stays with me still."

After enduring years in some of the worst U.S. military prisons, Begg continues to speak out about his detention and why we need to oppose racism and imperialism. For this alone you should pick up his book.

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