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SYRIA: My journey to the land of blessing, and torture

Tuesday 25 February 2014
Written By: Moazzam Begg

16 August 2013

It had been a very hectic couple of weeks. Two long weekends in a row of CagePrisoners’ ‘Prayer of the Prisoner’ tour up and down the country. Speakers addressed the issues of today’s prisoners through the prism of the story of Yusuf [as] (Joseph). They also included our own Yvonne Ridley who spoke about her recent work in Libya and Asim Qureshi explained the origins, aims and needs of the organisation. But the main attraction was Captain Jason Wright, one of the US military lawyers for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Capt. Wright was limited to what he could say about KSM himself  due to the stringent rules imposed on him – and all the other US attorneys representing Guantanamo prisoners –by the US administration but, he did manage to say that his client possessed ‘integrity, piety, devoutness and humanity’. I am certain he could have described him with even more ‘human’ qualities but I sensed that additional information might have made the captain’s life difficult. Wright also went on to describe exactly how the CIA’s method of waterboarding - as opposed to methods  used by the Japanese Army in WWII or the US Army in Vietnam - is practiced and how KSM was subjected to it 183 times. The most poignant of Wright's descriptions was how KSM was strapped down to a gurney each time this happened by his arms, legs and head; a cloth placed over his face and water poured over it to induce the feeling of imminent death by drowning.  Wright also explained how the US Government is seeking the death penalty in his case, by strapping him down for the 184th time and extinguishing his life and all hope of redemption and understanding with it.

Our final event in London ended with two small speeches from two very old men, with tears in their eyes, as they both fight for the same thing, but in reverse. Ashfaq Ahmad is the father of Babar Ahmad who has been held in British prisons for eight years without charge and fighting to prevent his son from being extradited to the US; Saeed Siddique is the father-in-law of Shaker Aamer who has been in Guantanamo for ten years without charge and is fighting for his son-in-law to be returned by the US to his wife and children in the UK. Sitting on the table waiting to open my fast with these men and three boys aged 14, 11 and 10 who have either never met their father or are too young to remember him I realised there is nothing I can say anymore. No words of condolence, except to be patient, Allah will surely find a way out for whoever keeps his duty to him and I’ve been saying that to so many people over the past seven years.

One of the stories I recalled was about approaching the last nights of Ramadan one year when a prisoner opposite my cell in Guantanamo said, “I hope they put me in isolation soon.” When I asked why he’d want such a thing, he replied, "So I can be in 'itikaaf (religious meditory seclusion).” I answered, “We've been in 'itikaaf for three years, brother!” Eight years later, just like Shaker and 166 other prisoners, he’s still there.

In all honesty though, it was hard to get into the mood of delivering speeches and conducting auctions after a long day of fasting and travel. Despite that we had a phenomenal response from our supporters and we were all left moved by the level which ordinary people, especially Muslims, are feeling less afraid and more empowered to support an organisation that is often in the sights of Islamaphobes.

But there was another reason my mind was elsewhere. Less than two years ago I could never have believed, with the record of mutual intelligence co-operation the UK and US had between these countries that visiting Libya, Tunisia and Egypt would have ever been possible for me. Even less of a prospect was visiting Syria. After all, I had been threatened by the CIA and FBI in Bagram who said that if I didn’t co-operate with them they’d send me to Egypt or Syria and that they had already done so with others. As I learned later, they were not kidding. The cases of Maher Ararand Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libimade this fact clear. But there was so much more that I didn’t know.

Although Syria had not been on my list of countries to visit anytime soon we (CagePrisoners) had sent investigators there before trying to trace the whereabouts of individuals who had been renditioned by the Americans and sent to the Assad regime – in the same way as others had been handed over to Gaddafi.

When the revolutions began in the Arab world I was able to visit several of the countries involved and begin my own investigationsinto the British government’s role in rendition and human rights violations – which we'd already been doing in relation to the British Guantanamo prisoners.

I decided to take this opportunity created by the ‘Arab Spring’ to travel once again, this time to Syria. Along the way, I met some Libyans fresh from their Nato-backed victory, who had come to assist the Syrian rebels in removing their own dictator who, like Gaddafi, had outlived his ‘war on terror’ usefulness. Some of these very men had been detained in the UK without charge and placed under control orders based on secret ‘evidence’ provided by Gaddafi's intelligence service.

One Libyan told me that amongst the documents seized by rebels after the fall of Tripoli, which proved that the British Government had facilitated the rendition of Sami al-Saadiand Abdel Hakim Belhajfrom the Far East to Libya, there was one that proved a phone call made by a British Libyan dissident in Manchester to him (while he lived in Syria) was intercepted by British intelligence and its contents passed over to Assad’s mukhabarat (intelligence). As a direct result this man was arrested, detained and tortured by the Syrians and rendered to Libya where he remained incarcerated in the notorious Abu Salim prison alongside al-Libi, al-Saadi, Belhaj and others until its liberation last year.

It was a strange feeling entering Syria - it wasn't like going to Tunisia, Egypt or even Libya. It's land and its people are special, of that there is little doubt. But the sense of brutal, unrelenting war seemed even more potent here and the legacy of imprisonment and torture can be felt the moment you talk to the people.

There is a famous hadith (Prophetic traditon of Mohammed pbuh) which says: "If the people of Syria become corrupt then there is no good left in you. And there will always be victorious people from my nation who will not be perturbed by those who betray them, until the final hour [comes]."

On the outskirts of the city of Aleppo I stayed with a group of pious, well-educated, relatively young and very hospitable fighters. They were as concerned about the country’s future and avoiding a repeat of the Iraqi-style disaster as they were with ridding the country of Bashar al-Assad. They reminded me of the good that still exists in Syria, despite the betrayal they've faced from their own government - and others. Like many of the people leading the rebels several had been imprisoned and survived tragedies like the 2008 Sednaya prison massacreand the “underground tombs” and “graves” of Palestine Branch Military Intelligence (Fara’ Falasteen).

Under the drone of Mi25 attack helicopters and random artillery shelling one former prisoner asked me if I knew Jerome Hibbell, a British Muslim who he’d spent time with in Palestine Branch. I remembered the case well. Hibbell had been convinced that his ordeal, both in Syria and what later followed on his return home, was precipitated by the British Government. Hibbell told me recently that he was denied consular access in Syria, asked questions that could only have come from the UK while being tortured and abused and how his captors said that the British were preparing a terrifying reception for him. After several months of arbitrary detention he returned to the UK and faced numerous difficulties and although his life eventually returned to some sense of normaility the scars of Syria and the betrayal of Britain is still with him.

The surprising thing for me was just how many of the Syrians I met had been imprisoned and how widely the cases of Syrian rendition victims, including Guantanamo prisoners, are known.

Some had heard the screams of Yusra al-Hussein, wife of Jihad Diyab a Syrian I was held in Bagram with and who remians in Guantanamo ten years on. Al-Hussein was abused in incommunicado detention for a year simply for contacting human rights groups to help her husband. One man I was attempting to trace, simply known as Noor al-Deenwas just a teenager at the time of his capture in Pakistan and subsequent rendition by the CIA to Morocco and Syria. 

All the prisoners were familiar with the horrifying cases of Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Mohammed Hayder Zammar, Mustafa Setmariam Nasser, Saïd Arifand several others who had been rendered with the complicity of countries like the US, Canada, UK, France, Sweden, Germany and Denmark  - all of whom claim to be human rights defenders and  are signatories of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The people I spoke to understood, from all they had witnessed, that some people lose their rights of protection from abuse the moment they are labelled ‘Islamist’ – whether by Middle Eastern despots or Western champions of freedom.

My investigations in Syria have just begun and I intend to uncover much more about the unholy alliances created through the network of international antiterrorism renditons and torture, but if recent history has taught us anything, especially in the UK, it is that whatever we may have done in the name of supposed ‘national security’ – like being complicit in the abuse of basic human rights of minorities – it may well come back to haunt us.

Last year several of the former Guantanamo prisoners gave evidence to British police investigating allegations that our government and intelligence services were complicit in torture. The police have already spokento al-Saadi and Belhaj and are following suit in the case of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantanamo. They will undoubtedly be directed to similar cases of complicty between the British and Syrian governments - and we will assist them in doing so.

The dreaded Palestine Branch was damagedin a bombing in May and shortly after the Free Syrian Army announced the captureof Brigadier General Munir Ahmad Shlaybi, head of Palestine Branch. The roads to evidence are being paved.

Many western leaders and senior former Syrian ministers have predicted the imminent downfall of the house of Assad. If Palestine Branch is captured by the rebels and intelligence secrets are laid bare, just as they had once been in Tripoli, Scotland Yard will have its hands full- again, and we’ll hear more about British ministers suffering amnesia, instead of justice.

During these last ten nights of Ramadan, like many Muslims, I have been spending a lot of time in the mosque. This year I decided to spend my nights at a new mosque where I recently spoke to the Imam who comes from North Africa. When I told him about my recent trip to Syria his expression contorted to one of pain. “I was imprisoned during my time there a few years ago. Being a practicing Muslim, an ‘Islamist’, is enough to get you there. Being severely tortured, even for the relatively few months I was there is the norm. May Allah secure the release of the prisoners there -and everywhere- and bring aid and victory to the people against the brutality they are facing.”

My only possible response was, ”Ameen brother, ameen.”

 



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