‘GUANTANAMO IS A GULAG!’ – says Moazzam Begg

More than 500 demonstrators dressed in boiler suits to symbolise the hundreds of people still held in Guantanamo Bay. Part of a worldwide demonstration taking place five years after the camp was opened
More than 500 demonstrators dressed in boiler suits to symbolise the hundreds of people still held in Guantanamo Bay. Part of a worldwide demonstration taking place five years after the camp was opened

ON THE day marking the fifth anniversary of the first detainees being transported to the US concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay, on the tip of Cuba, more than 500 people demonstrated opposite the United States embassy in London.

Speaking from the mass demonstration, Amnesty International’s UK Director Liz Allen, said: ‘Protesting at the continued existence of Guantánamo Bay on this fifth anniversary has been a sad necessity.

‘As Guantánamo Bay goes into its sixth year, it’s become shockingly clear that the US has created a travesty of justice.

‘Guantánamo Bay has itself become an icon of lawlessness.

‘We are calling for the immediate closure of Guantánamo Bay and for all other “war on terror’’ detention centres to be identified and closed, with detainees being properly charged before fair court or released to safe countries.’

Amnesty’s large-scale demonstration on Thursday outside the US embassy involved a chain of hundreds of people dressed in orange boiler suits – to symbolise the hundreds of detainees still held at Guantánamo – that stretched all the way across Grosvenor Square.

They then assembled in a pen outside the embassy, where they staged a symbolic enactment of a drill by US guards at the camp.

The demonstration was part of worldwide protests organised by Amnesty, from New York to Tokyo.

Also present at the London vigil was former detainee Moazzam Begg, who condemned Guantánamo as a ‘gulag’.

Earlier, a petition signed by 1,400 constituents was handed in to Downing Street by Brent East MP Sarah Teather, demanding that Blair takes action to secure the release of British residents still held at Guantánamo.

Attached to the petition was a handwritten letter to Blair from Anas el-Banna, the 10-year-old daughter of Jamil el-Banna.

The letter read: ‘I am Anas El Banna. I don’t know if you remember me.

‘This is the 4th letter I’ve sent to you.

‘After 4 years my Dad is still stuck in Guantánamo.

‘I know you are very busy all the time, but can Mr Blair give me a second from his day?! and also I want to know if Mr Blair cares after 4 years?

‘No one knows what the meaning of four years without a dad and he is still alive?!

‘Only god knows . . . no one knows how my life changed after my dad was kidnapped from my life, only because he didn’t have a British passport.

‘Tony Blair do you care if my dad is back or stuck there? Please give me an answer.’

Steve Ballinger, a spokesman for Amnesty International, told News Line: ‘It’s five years now since Guantánamo started.

‘The first detainees were taken to the prison camp five years ago today.

‘In that time, over 750 people have been detained at Guantánamo.

‘Nearly 400 are still detained there.

‘Countless allegations of torture have emerged and yet not one person has been given a fair trial and not one person has been found guilty of any offence.

‘We say Guantánamo has become an icon of lawlessness and a symbol of disrespect for human rights and the rule of law.

‘Hundreds of people have been interned in Guantánamo for years.

‘Some, including UK residents, have been there for five years and we’re here today to tell the US government that it should close Guantánamo Bay.

‘We want it closed immediately.

‘Anyone held there should be put on trial if there is evidence against them or should be released to a safe country.’

He added: ‘Amnesty International has not been allowed to visit Guantánamo Bay.

‘But we’ve heard reports of beatings, humiliation of detainees, terrifying people using guard dogs and subjecting people to stress positions and extremes of heat and cold.

‘Omar Deghayes, who lived in Brighton for 25 years before he was detained, is now blind in one eye after a US guard forced his finger into Omar’s eye socket.’

Amani Deghayes, the sister of Omar Deghayes, also joined the protest.

She told News Line: ‘My brother is being held in Guantánamo. He’s been there for almost five years now.

‘We are distressed, yes, but today we feel hopeful.

‘This is amazing that so many people can turn up here today and show their dissent at something so horrendous, which the officials have tried their utmost to brush under the carpet.

‘The whole Guantánamo camp is all about keeping these people hidden and keeping everybody else out and today everyone’s trying to do the opposite and get everyone’s attention about these people who have been hidden from the world for five years.

‘I’ve read my brother’s accounts and the reports of torture don’t even touch on the stuff my brother’s been through. These are censored accounts.

‘My brother talks of beatings, he talks of being forced to lie naked for days.

‘He talks of having someone else’s faeces smeared on his face, not having enough water or food and being given food that’s mouldy or dirty, and having his nose broken.

‘He’s had his finger broken by the guards, jammed between the gates, and he’s had simulated drowning where they duck his head in water with high-powered water going up his nose, so it feels like you can’t breathe anymore.

‘He’s got a whole document of torture that he’s been through and I try not to remember it because it’s so horrific.’

She added: ‘Even before Guantánamo, it started at Bagram, the US air base, Lahore and Islamabad.

‘He describes being in a cell with lots of snakes, things I didn’t think go on today, anywhere really.

‘Enough is enough. Everybody knows it’s wrong.

‘It’s been condemned by so many officials.

‘I’m sick of people condemning it and doing nothing.

‘Hardly anyone who’s been to Guantánamo has been charged with anything.

‘Five years is more than enough to build a case against someone.

‘They should either present their evidence and take them to a real court or release them.

‘And the irony of it being called “the war on terror’’ – I think they’re committing the worst terrorism itself against these people, and many others, because it affects their families and it affects lots of people.’

Moazzam Begg said: ‘There are children right now whose fathers are still held in Guantánamo Bay.

‘This demonstration resonates all over the world.

‘After hundreds and thousands of interrogations have taken place at Guantánamo, there has still not been one conviction.

‘I hope the British government will see that there are significant amounts of people calling for the closure of Guantánamo Bay and the release of the detainees.

‘These protests are taking place simultaneously around the world.’

In response for further questions from reporters, Moazzam Begg said: ‘Bush’s tactic is a tactic of terror.’

‘This can be seen not just with the decision to send 20,000 more troops to Iraq, but with the recent bombings of Somalia.’

He continued: ‘I haven’t seen this many people in orange suits since I was in Guantánamo Bay. It’s a bizarre feeling.

‘But it’s also a great one, because it shows there are significant amounts of people who are outraged and disgusted at what’s happening in Guantánamo Bay; that they are prepared to demonstrate for its closure.’

Begg thanked Amnesty for campaigning for the release of the detainees since Guantánamo Bay’s inception.

‘It was organisations like this that campaigned successfully for my own release,’ he said.

He stressed: ‘Guantánamo is the end product of the torture camps.

‘People have to go through torture camps to get to Guantánamo.

‘Not only have people been tortured psychologically, physically and mentally, Guantánamo is a gulag where people are held without trial, charge or any meaningful recourse to justice, or even access to family members.

‘Right now as we stand, there are family members, British citizens, whose relatives are still in Guantánamo Bay, who have not been charged with a crime.

‘The British government’s most senior legal adviser has called for the closure of Guantánamo Bay and yet Tony Blair still mentions it calling it an “anomaly’’ and still does not make any direct comment on its closure.

Patrick Churchill, a D-Day veteran who fought alongside the Free French commandos in World War Two, joined the protest with his wife.

They said: ‘It’s disgraceful! These people are not even allowed basic human rights.

‘This is something very, very much against the grain of the general American people and this country, for our leader to follow the American president’s ideas is something just unbelievable.

‘We don’t agree with Guantánamo Bay. We think it’s despicable men should be held in Guantánamo Bay without any true evidence of what happened and without trial. It is absolutely disgraceful.

‘We are not anti-American. Both my wife and I have the freedom of Chattanooga,’ said Patrick.

‘We didn’t fight in the Second World War for things like this!

‘We fought for freedom, freedom of speech, not for a repeat of what happened in Germany.’

Stephen Marsh, one of those protesting in an orange boiler suit, said: ‘I work for Amnesty International in their individuals at risk team and we deal with urgent actions, with people who are facing the death penalty, stonings and disappearances and those kind of issues.

‘One of the big issues for me personally is Guantánamo Bay.

‘I’m a law graduate and I believe you should charge someone with an offence; and if they’re dangerous you have to have evidence.

‘If holding people for 90 days without charge here is not acceptable, then why is holding people for five years acceptable in Guantánamo Bay?

‘I took part in a demonstration at Downing Street before Christmas when we went to protest about the British residents still in Guantánamo Bay and again we demanded either charge them or send them home.’

Louis Flynn, a supporter of Amnesty, said: ‘I think it’s such an injustice for people to be detained for so long without any sort of trial.

‘We want Guantánamo immediately closed.’

Margaret Harris said: ‘I am a lawyer and therefore I cannot support the illegality of it, and the Americans know it’s illegal and that’s why they can’t have it on home soil.

‘We are demanding immediate release or a proper trial – if there is sufficient evidence – for those detained, not a military tribunal.

‘Guantánamo is an affront to anyone who believes in the proper rule of law.’

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