â€¨By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Newspapers
BIRMINGHAM, England — From childhood, Moazzam Begg relished tales of heroes, those who protect the very weak from the very strong. In his Jewish school, he heard them from his teachers. In his Muslim home, he heard them from his father. Later, on weekends, he heard them from an English lady-friend of his father.
The stories were about vastly different peoples: from ancient Jews to Arabian legends to more modern Britons. But to Begg the stories had several things in common: All were about people who stood up for what was right, no matter how strong the opponent. And all inspired him.
He never dreamed, however, that an arrest and three years of what he calls "torture light" in a superpower's prison would put him in a position to carry on their fight. Today, as he travels around the United Kingdom, speaking to university gatherings, politicians and civic groups, exposing what he describes as the inhuman nature of the U.S. Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison, he thinks that it has.
Begg was arrested on Jan. 31, 2002, at his home in Islamabad, Pakistan, while his wife and children slept nearby. During the next three years, U.S. authorities would accuse him of operating, funding and supporting al Qaida camps and operations. He maintains that while he'd supported Islamic causes in the past, including Kashmiri groups favoring secession from India in the mid-1990s, he'd never been involved in al Qaida or any movement that promoted violence against the West. In the 1990s, he'd traveled to Bosnia during its war and he'd attempted to travel to Chechnya during the conflict in that breakaway Muslim republic of Russia.
He says that what the U.S. claimed was an al Qaida camp he'd funded and was directing in Afghanistan was a girls school. The school in Kabul was an experiment under Taliban rule, which didn't allow co-education, to prove that girls could be well educated within a Muslim country. He says that he and his wife raised money for two years before heading to Afghanistan in 2001, and both taught there. His daughter even attended the school, he said.
He said they fled Afghanistan for Pakistan when the U.S. began bombing to oust the Taliban regime, and hoped to return to Afghanistan to reopen the school. He'd been in Islamabad for about three months when he was arrested.
Begg said that from the first moment of his arrest, he was convinced that the Americans had no idea whom they were seizing.
"When they put me in the vehicle, an American guard, who was trying very badly to look Pakistani, showed me a pair of handcuffs and told me, 'These were given to me by the wife of one of the September 11 victims. I promised her I'd use them to handcuff one of the men responsible.' He then put the handcuffs on me. All I could think was, 'Won't he feel stupid when he realizes I'm the wrong guy.' In the end, I don't think he cared. I was dark-skinned, that's all that mattered," Begg said.
By the time he reached Guantanamo prison, after a stretch at Kandahar and Bagram, he said, he realized that he didn't have to be an enemy or a combatant to be considered an enemy combatant of the United States. He was assumed to be an enemy because he'd been arrested, and that's all anyone cared about, he said.
His time in Guantanamo was different from that of many others, as he spent most of it in solitary confinement, unable to communicate with other inmates, he said. He thought that was because he was seen, at first, as a high-value prisoner. That was a case of mistaken identify, he said, because U.S. authorities were looking for a man of the same name. That man, though, was a foot taller and had a bullet wound in his chest, he said. The authorities accused Begg of being an al Qaida official who'd recruited for the terrorist group as well as provided money and training, he said. U.S. officials also accused him of having had extensive weapons training, all of which he denied.
Later, he suspects that because of his language skills — which include Arabic and Urdu — they sought to convince him to work for the U.S. in gathering intelligence from other inmates.
"They'd threatened me with execution, with violence towards my family, with an endless incarceration; they were holding me without charges for years, and they thought I'd want to help them out?" he said.
As far as his treatment, he said he was humiliated frequently, subjected to sleep deprivation and "loud, bad music"; he singled out Marilyn Manson and Eminem.
Finally he was taken in shackles and hooded across Guantanamo Bay to the airport, he said, where he was presented to British police. The U.S. soldiers who were handing him over unlocked him and said, "Do you have shackles for the trip home?" The British police said, "No, there's no need."
Begg said the flight back was full of lavish meals and snack foods.
"It was the first time I'd taken three free steps in three years," he said.
After landing in London, he was taken in for questioning, but he said that his examiners were apologetic and seemed embarrassed by the process.
These days, he's devoting his time to informing the rest of England what happened to him. He's a busy man. He's written a book, "Enemy Combatant: The Terrifying True Story of a Briton in Guantanamo." He works for a group called Cagedprisoners.com, which seeks the release of those still at Guantanamo. He travels around England making speeches and denouncing Guantanamo, talking to university crowds, politicians and the general public.
When he was driving a reporter across Birmingham last year, his phone rang again every time he clicked it off. The callers included politicians, journalists and group organizers hoping for a speaker and other former detainees asking for advice.
Begg said he also was back to being a husband and father now. He drives a minivan, and apologized for the fact that he'd had time for only a quick wipe-down of the back seat after one of his children had gotten sick in it that morning. He spoke about taking his 9-year-old with him to a speaking engagement recently and how it had disturbed him. He said his 10-year-old had studied photos of shackled prisoners and asked whether he'd endured such treatment.
British officials, he noted, have made no move to arrest him or question him about terrorism. He said that before he'd been arrested in Pakistan, British officials had called on him several times in England to inquire about his support for Islamist causes. Since he's returned, however, they've ignored him.
"I could spend all my time speaking to the Muslim population here," he said. "But I prefer to go to the most skeptical people. I remember after one speech a member of the House of Lords came up afterwards to shake my hand, and said, 'I didn't know they had people like you in Guantanamo.' That's the point I want to get across."