Guantanamo Bay detainee speaks at Cathedral

TORTURED: Moazzam Begg

TORTURED: Moazzam Begg

First published in News Lancashire Telegraph: Photograph of the Author by , Deputy news editor

IN 2001 Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, travelled to Afghanistan to start a girls' school with his wife.

Within a year he had been captured by American forces as part of the "war on terror" and was transported to Guantanamo Bay, where he was kept without charge until his eventual release in 2005.

Mr Begg was at Blackburn Cathedral today speaking about his experiences, which he said included being tortured and held in solitary confinement.

MOAZZAM Begg said he knew what it was like "not to have a voice".

And he said he therefore believed that members of all faith communities in East Lancashire needed to make sure they articulated well - and avoided violence.

He said he wanted to tell all people, not just Muslims, that they have a voice.

He was invited to Black-burn Cathedral for the final Crypt Conversation, a series of lunchtime dialogues which are designed for reflection and discussion so different people can find common ground.

Mr Begg said: "I want to tell normal people that you have the chance to make yourself heard and it doesn't need violence.

"I have learnt a lot through all that I have experienced and I know that only those who are imprisoned do not have a voice. Everyone else can articulate themselves and try to make a difference.

"It is when discussions and dialogue fails that problems start and that is relevant in East Lancashire as much as it is anywhere in the world."

Mr Begg has had a lot of time to think things over.

Often kept in solitary confinement he said that he came to accept his position as a prisoner and his faith helped him through.

Speaking at the debate he said: "A central part of Muslim faith is a belief in fate. I knew everything that happens is meant to be and I would be released eventually.

"After a while I thought - What can they do? If they take me away from my home then it is a holiday.

"If they put me in solitary confinement then it is a place for meditation. If I am killed then I become a martyr."

Mr Begg, from Birming-ham, said he travelled to Afghanistan in 2001 where he built a girls' school near the capital Kabul, despite the Taliban policy against women's education.

He had travelled with his wife and three children.

He had previously visited Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Turkey and said he was motivated by "a desire to support Muslim human-itarian causes".

Following the September 11 attacks in New York and the war in Afghanistan Mr Begg said he fled the American bombings to North Pakistan where he was staying with family.

On January 31, 2002, he said he was captured at the house in Pakistan and taken to a prison at Bagram air base near Kabul.

Mr Begg, who is now a human rights organisation spokesperson, said: "My first though was - Why me? I think it was because of my aid work in the 1990s and my support for Muslims who had been tortured and abused across the world."

He said at Bagram he was shackled, spat at, punched, kicked and attacked by dogs.

Mr Begg said: "I was interrogated with a loaded gun to my head while on my knees with my hands tied behind my back to my legs.

"I was not given access to my family and on one occasion I was shown pictures of my children and was told that a woman's screams I could hear in a nearby room were my wife's.

After an "unbearable" 11 months at Bagram he was taken to Guantanamo Bay, an American-run prisoner camp in Cuba.

He said he was looking forward to his new surroundings.

He said: "I knew nothing could be as bad as Bagram."

But at Guantanamo he said he was in for a shock. He said he was held in a tiny cage almost entirely in solitary confinement.

He said that necessities such as toilet paper, drinking water and the chance to brush his teeth were "privileges" that had to be earned.

Mr Begg said he struggled to keep sane, but books he was allowed to read helped him through.

He said: "I memorised large parts of the Koran and studied languages.

"I memorised the periodic tables and did a lot of push-ups."

Eventually he was released in 2005 after three years apart from his family.

His wife gave birth to his fourth child five months after he was first captured and he only saw the youngster for the first time when he was almost three-years-old.

He has now written a book, Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim's Journey to Guantanamo and Back, and has taken part in many debates and talks on his experiences.

He said he is still angry about his capture: "I was released thanks to British diplomatic efforts.

"I faced no trial or explanation for why I was held and I was offered no apology or compensation."

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