In the wake of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent US-led 'War on Terror', hundreds of Muslim men were handed over by various countries to US intelligence. One of these men was Binyam Mohamed, a British resident of Ethiopian origin, who had gone to Afghanistan and Pakistan to rediscover his faith in Islam and to find a way to kick a noxious drug habit in the process. Binyam succeeded in both but in ways he could never have imagined. He was sold over by Pakistani authorities for a bounty and subsequently remained in US secret facilities and military detention sites for over seven years. On 23rd February 2009 he became the first - and thus far only - Guantanamo prisoner to be released under the Obama administration. Finally returned to the UK Binyam has spoken of his torturous ordeal in two high-profile interviews. However, in this exclusive conversation with Cageprisoners' spokesman, Moazzam Begg, Binyam discusses the cases of people still held in US detention camps - including that of Aafia Siddiqui - and the role faith played during his in incarceration.
Cageprisoners (Moazzam Begg): Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem (In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful).I’m sitting here with brother Binyam Mohamed.Binyam, could you just introduce yourself a little bit and tell us who you are and where you’ve been for the past few years?
Binyam Mohamed: My name is Binyam Mohamed.I’m an Ethiopian citizen, born in Ethiopia.I came to the UK when I was 15 years old...
CP: ...You’re obviously well-known for having been held in GuantanamoBay and the American secret prisons for the past few years.First of all, I’d like to say to you brother, may Allah be praised for your return back to this country.I’d like to begin by asking you: you’ve been held in one of the world’s most notorious - if not the most notorious - prison, for all this time.Lots of people feel that the people there, despite all of the atrocities that they faced, are victims.Would you describe yourself as a victim or as a survivor?
BM: First of all, I would praise Allah for the release, which happened after almost seven years of incarceration.I would say more like a survivor, because we had to survive so as not to lose our minds, and we came up with a lot of ways on how to survive in the situations that we found ourselves in.
CP:You were taken to custody in Pakistan and then moved over to Morocco, where you spent several months, or was it years?
BM: I was held in Pakistan for almost three and a half months, and transported to Morocco, where I spent exactly 18 months.
CP:And then you were moved to Kabul in Afghanistan, to the ‘Dark Prison’?
BM: ...And then I was moved to Kabul, where I spent almost five months.
CP:And then you were moved to the Bagram Detention Facility?
BM: Yes, we were moved to Bagram around June 2004, where we spent three to four months.
CP:I realise you’ve already done interviews with other people- I’m not going to try to focus on the terrible torture that was meted out to you- but what I do want to focus on is people that you witnessed, and people that are still in custody of the USA. When you were in the Bagram Detention Facility after being held in the Dark Prison, you came across a female prisoner - can you describe a little bit about who you think she is and what you saw of her?
BM: In Bagram, I did come across a female who wore a shirt with the number of ‘650’, and I saw her several times, and I heard a lot of stories about her from the guards and the other prisoners over there.
CP: And these stories said what about her, in terms of her description and her background?
BM: What we were told first...we were frightened by the guards not to communicate with her because they feared that we would talk to her and we would know who she was.So they told us that she was a spy from Pakistan, working with the government.And the Americans brought her to Bagram.
CP: So you think they spread the rumour that she was a spy- that would have kept you away from her and apprehensive towards her
BM: Basically, nobody talked to her in the facility, and she was held in isolation, where...she was only brought out to the main facility just to use the toilet.But all I knew about her was that she was from Pakistan, and that she had studied, or she had lived in America.And the guards would talk a lot about her, and I did actually see her picture when I was here a few weeks ago, and I would day she’s the very person I saw in Bagram.
CP:And that’s the very picture I showed you of Aafia Siddiqui?
BM: That’s the very picture I saw
CP:There have been all sorts of rumours about what happened to her- and may Allah free her soon- but part of those rumours include her being terribly abused.Do you have any knowledge of what abuse she might have faced?
BM: Apart from her being in isolation and the fact that I saw, when she was walking up and down, I could tell that she was severely disturbed.I don’t think she was in her right mind- literally, I don’t think she was sane, and I didn’t feel anything at that time, because as far as I was concerned, she was a hypocrite working with the other governments.But had we known that she was a sister, I don’t think we would have been silent- I think there would have been a lot of, maybe even riots, in Bagram.
CP:Some of the brothers who later escaped from Bagram spoke about her and said that they learnt afterwards who she was and that they went on hunger strike.You might have left by this time, but were the other prisoners there upset by seeing a woman there- regardless- as a prisoner?
BM: We were upset at witnessing just the weakened, the injured in front of us in Bagram, and had we known that there was a sister over there, I don’t anyone would have been silent.But to keep Bagram as Bagram- quiet- the Americans put out the rumour that she was not a sister…
CP: That she was a spy.
BM: That she was a spy and we had to stay away from her.
CP:Did you ever hear any rumours at that time of her having children, or anything like that?
BM: I had heard, I’m not sure if from the guards or from the brothers, that she did have children, but the children were not in Bagram- they were somewhere else.
CP:And was there any rumour or discussion as to what happened to those children?
BM: We had no idea what happened to the children.
CP:Eventually you moved to Guantanamo Bay afterwards, and one of the things that often comes out about the Bagram Detention Facility is that people were subjected to all sorts of different torture there, and then they compared that to Guantanamo.If you were able to compare the different prisons you were held in- from Morocco, from the ‘Dark Prison’; Bagram to Guantanamo, which would you say is the worst?
BM: Personally, I take the ‘Dark Prison’ as being the worst, and that’s because I was literally there...not for gathering information, it wasn’t set up as a detention centre- it was literally there just to have somebody go insane.
CP:Can you describe a little the ‘Dark Prison’ and what it’s like, because there are many reports we’ve had from those that were held there- and they seem to be consistent- but just to hear from you in terms of what effect it had on you: how was the ‘Dark Prison’?
BM: Right from the beginning of where you can’t sleep unless you literally...you’re so tired you can’t stay awake- that just tells you that you’re in a place where your mind starts telling you that, to me, literally that I didn’t know I existed...In the other prisons I was in, it was ‘when is this going to end?’In the ‘Dark Prison, it wasn’t, ‘is this going to end?’; it was, ‘is this real?’
CP:One of the hardest things I found, for me- being held in Bagram myself- was, I knew that I could deal with my own abuse- when they abused me in Bagram or Kandahar or Guantanamo- but the hardest thing was to watch it happen to someone else.Did you regularly see other people being abused by the American soldiers?
BM: I used to literally see all kinds of abuses, and the humiliations, degrading treatment, but the Americans usually did it as a way of separating between those whom they liked and those who they didn’t like.
CP:Those who co-operated and those who didn’t?
BM: Yeah - even in the prison systems.If you were safe from being abused, you literally didn’t want to be standing up for those who were being abused, because you would find yourself being in front of their abuse, and, for example, this happened in Bagram, where there was this Afghan who had been shot at least twenty times, and the guy had...he was just a skeleton, because he couldn’t eat.And they’d flown him from the hospital where he was staying to the Bagram Facility- just to instil fear into the population...American’s don’t care- they find you outside, shoot you twenty times, put you in a hospital- you start walking well, they put you in the system.Literally, the guy couldn’t even...let alone walk, he couldn’t even sleep well.He was in the shower, where he was forced to go out back to his isolation, and the man couldn’t walk, so he asked to sit down.And these are the very guards who - yesterday were smiling and laughing with us - they were telling this guy he had to talk.I tried to intervene - I couldn’t; the other brothers tried to intervene - they couldn’t.So we got into this confrontation where we tried telling them - they’re not going to have it.And this is in Bagram, so what happened was very simple.So we got into this confrontation where the guy at the...what they call ‘the Catwalk’- the bridge above us watching the showers- he was just about to shoot us, because we tried to tell the guards to let the guy to sit down and have a rest and then go back to his cell.
CP: The guard put a round in the chamber - he cocked the gun?
BM: He was ready to shoot...he was ready to fire.And this was the kind of confrontation where when we tried to stand up against the oppression we saw inside the system, we can’t.
CP:One of the things that I remember from Bagram was that, even the issue of being able to pray together, to call the Adhan (call to prayer), to read the Qur’an, was regarded as a crime.Did you experience any of this?
BM: In Bagram, we literally couldn’t pray- two people together- let alone a group.If they saw you praying just next to each other, they would force you to stop.And if you didn’t stop, you get put in isolation and suffer all the other abuses that they have- of tying you up for six hours or eight hours or whatever it is.
CP:Do you think that the American soldiers were doing this because they genuinely hated Islam- they were ignorant- or they were being told to do this?
BM: I would say it’s a mix.I mean, most of them, they literally...I would say, were doing it because they hated Islam.And there were a few who were doing it because they were ordered.The ignorant I would say was one percent- there weren’t many ignorant people over there.
CP:I think ignorance breeds hatred, so my experience was that most of these guys- because they were ignorant, they had hatred.But if they had known properly, they would have had some respect for the religion of Islam.But even the idea of some of the basic normality that one would expect in that place- after all, they’re in a Muslim country administering Muslim prisoners- do you really think they had much knowledge of the culture, language and religion of the people they were guarding?
BM: The problem with the Americans in Afghanistanthey hated the Arabs, and yet they hated the Afghans even more, and they tried to play the game of one above the other, and they tried the system of trying to get us to hate the Afghans, or getting the Afghans to hate the Arabs.
CP:So divide and conquer?
BM: Divide and conquer.I don’t think that the decision-makers were stupid enough to not know enough of Islam to be in Afghanistan.The ones at the bottom- the foot soldiers- they were just taking orders, and at the end of the day they’re still going to take orders whether they know Islam or not.
CP:Following on from that, did you come across any soldiers there who do you think were good, ordinary, decent people who you could have a conversation with, and who were understanding?
BM: I was actually in the position of talking to a lot of them because I knew English.Whenever they used to go on their files and check the profiles of people, they used to find out that I was in the US, so they had something to talk to me about.It was some kind of...something in common that they wanted to talk about.But with the rest of the people, it was basically that they didn’t want to know them.
CP:And did you find that being an English speaker was a blessing at the time, or was it a blessing and a curse, or was it just a curse?
BM: Literally, it was a blessing at times and a curse at times.
CP:And that’s because everyone wants to interrogate you; that you understand what every order is?
BM:Yeah...It works both ways - they find they can’t abuse me as much as they abuse a non-English speaker because they weren’t afraid of someone who couldn’t speak English reporting an incident that happened- a non-English speaker needs a translator, and the translation gets lost.
CP:One of the things that I came across in Bagram also was somebody who’d been terribly wounded - he’d been shot in his eye, and he had two huge exit wounds in his shoulder and chest.And that is the young boy Omar Khadr, who is the only Canadian- the only Westerner - still in Guantanamo.I didn’t meet him in Guantanamo- I only met him in Bagram, and I was...my heart bled for him, because he was a very sweet young boy, and even to see him try to recite Qur’an used to bring tears to my eyes.Did you have much interaction with Omar?
BM: Omar Khadr was that sweet young boy, but I met him as a young man, and I met him while we were commissioned - we were put in the same block.
CP: You were both charged under the Military Commissions?
BM: Both of us were charged almost the same time in 2006- around November- so we met up in the beginning of 2007, back in Camp 5.And we started getting to know each other.I’d seen him before- I’d met with him before in the other block, but not like there, because we started going out to break together…
CP:That’s recreation, in the recreation yard?
BM: What they call the recreation yard, where it is just a small cage- a four by four cell over months and months, and we used to sit down together and we used to talk a lot.
CP:So they’d let you talk and walk together in the same recreation yard?
BM: Actually, I had my own cage and he had his own cage- there was not that much interaction.But, I mean, at least we could talk much more freely than inside the block.
CP: What were your impressions of Omar Khadr?
BM: Kind of ridiculous: having a youngster being charged by the Commission system, and portrayed as this evil person.The reality is, here’s where the Americans have got it wrong- Omar stands as this youngster Muslim who’s been oppressed by the Americans, for no apparent reason except just being Muslim.So there it is, and, I mean, if you go to Guantanamo, you know...I mean, he’s just a normal person.
CP: One of the people that I came across in Bagram and now an American interrogator has turned against the American military in terms of what they did in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.He knew Omar Khadr also, and I spoke to him- I phoned him a couple of weeks ago, and he now is being a witness for the defence of Omar Khadr, because he was an interrogator and the time and he said I’ve now recognised what took place was wrong and I’m going to try and do something about it.
BM: I think it’s been a long time, where we were expecting people were going to start taking responsibility for the crimes they’ve done.And portraying the allegations against us, whether we’d been charged or not, as criminals, and yet the real criminals are there in the White House, or in the Pentagon- wherever they are...people have to start taking responsibility.
CP: What is it that gives you, as a prisoner who served all this time in US custody, the strength to even say that I could have survived that- where did your strength come from?
BM: Strength comes from Allah - there’s no other place it comes from except from Allah, and if it wasn’t for Allah we would have been completely lost.
CP: Some of the American soldiers used to say to me: if I was in a cell like this, if I was imprisoned, I would have broken.And I used to respond by saying at least I have five things to look forward to every day.But it wasn’t completely normal- even those five things that you did- the five prayers.How did you manage to perform your prayers for Jumu’ah (Friday), for Eid, in congregation...how did you do all these things?
BM: Sadly I didn’t have any congregational prayer in any of the prisons I’ve been in.
CP: Seven years- you’d never pray in congregation, in jama’ah?
BM: I don’t...there was no congregational prayer in any of the places I’ve been.
CP: And Jumu’ah and Eid?
BM: No Jumu’ah, no Eid- none of those prayers were in congregation and the only congregational prayer that was allowed- which could have happened- was in Camp Four, and I never stayed in Camp Four.
CP: In the blocks, it’s not a congregational prayer, but people still pray behind one another.And this is just to explain that inside each block there’s 24 cells in CampDelta, and 24 cells on either side- 48 altogether.The person who’s in the front would lead the prayer regardless of who he was.And this is what used to happen, but nobody could actually physically stand together.
BM: No, there was no standing together.I mean, even my experience was mostly in Camp 5 and Camp 6, where you’re actually don’t even see the person in front of you- it’s just a wall.
CP: These are concrete cement walls, as opposed to the cages, where you can see other people.
BM: And the sound was just faint- it would just come through the crack of the doors, and it’s not like the cages, where the sound just travelled.But people kept up the prayers- as they called them, congregational prayers - to be together, because the one thing that the brothers wanted to do was to be together, and...it’s still being practised in Camp 5 and Camp 6.
CP: You say of course the brothers wanted to be together, and the concept of brotherhood there is extremely important, particularly because of the adverse circumstances.There’s one brother there, in particular, who’s regarded in some of the press as one of the most influential people in GuantanamoBay.But this brother was supposed to be on the plane with you- or so you thought- when you returned to the United Kingdom.Can you tell me something of this brother?
BM: This brother, who was Shaker Aamer, who was meant to have been on the plane with me- he was very influential in Guantanamo.I mean, he changed a lot of stuff- a lot of the abuses the brothers were going through- he changed a lot of that.
CP: And he changed it by..?
BM: By gathering the brothers together and actually working a deal with the Americans, and going to Americans- going to the Americans with a proposal of what he wanted to change.And, it was working well until some interrogators interfered with what was happening, and Shaker got the blame for it.
CP: You’re speaking of the hunger strikes, and the rights that he was trying to advocate for the prisoners- for better food, for non-abuse of the Qur’an, for the prisoners not to be strip-searched every time, and those sorts of things.That’s correct?
BM: These were the things Shaker was working on, and I was literally next door, next to his cell- he was in cell 17, I was in cell 19 (there was just one cell between us), and I knew exactly what he was trying to do, and we did try and work on all of this, and we accomplished a lot of things – that was back in 2005, but just one interrogator- he beat up one of the prisoners in interrogation, which just turned everything into a riot, and then Shaker was isolated from us from 2005.
CP: And he was taken away completely from everybody and held in one of the isolation camps in CampEcho.
BM: He was held in CampEcho from 2005, to, I think, 2008, when they decided to take him out- just a few months ago.
CP: Shaker Aamer was one of my closest friends, though I never saw him in Guantanamo or Bagram, and one of the worst things for me was the knowledge that both of us had sons born whilst we were in detention in Guantanamo.His family are all here in Great Britain- they’re all British- his youngest child is almost 8 years old and he’s never seen him in his life.Do you remember Shaker talking anything about his family at all, or how he used to deal with being separated from them for such a long time?
BM: When I was with Shaker, he was literally preoccupied with the hunger strikes, as though always in Guantanamo.He did speak about his son, and how much he would like to come and stay with his son, and he was actually looking forward to coming to the UK to see his family here, and live with them.And, I think, back in 2005, there was an expectation that he would be here- I mean, he did expect there would come a day when he would come to the UK and meet his family.
CP: Shaker is still not being returned, but you were led to believe that he was going to be on the plane with you?
BM: I spoke to the Foreign and Commonwealth officers on the plane about Shaker, and they did say that he was meant to be on the plane, and the UK had requested from the US for his release.But the only problem they’re having right now is that the US is refusing Shaker’s release to the UK.
CP:They’re refusing this- ironically- not because he was going to be charged under the Military Commissions or anything like that, but because he’s an influential person.
BM: I would say the Americans are trying to keep him as silent as they could.It’s not that he has anything- what happened in 2005 and 2006 is something that the Americans don’t want the world to know- hunger strikes, and all the events that took place, until the three brothers who died- insider information of all the events- probably, obviously Shaker doesn’t have them, but the Americans think he may have some of them, and they don’t like this kind of information being released.And they try and delay a person’s release, because I was in the same position- back in 2007, I was supposed to be released with the other three residents, but since I was right in the American authority, on this very issue- the hunger strikes in 2005, and the deaths...they decided to delay my release.
CP: You’ve spoken much of the hunger strikes.I know I’ve gone to Northern Ireland many times and spoken with a lot of former Irish prisoners and spoken to a lot of the hunger strikers, and have even met people who were with Bobby Sands before he died, and those people.Do you think that the hunger strike really made any difference?
BM: Back in 2005 it actually did- it changed everything.The Americans did come and say that they were going to implement law, because in Guantanamo before 2005, there was no law, there was no rule.The colonel’s saying ‘I do what I like’, but after the hunger strike- the big hunger strike of 2005- they actually started implementing some kind of law that we knew about- not that we liked it, but we knew that...discard the rules that apply in Guantanamo.
CP: You weren’t- none of us were- treated as prisoners of war, but do you think that, had they done this, there would have been less problems between the prisoners and the administration?
BM: Well, if you look at it, I mean...Camp 4, where there was a lot of people in Camp 4, there’s never been any kind of problems between the prisoners and the administration, or the guards.Even though Camp 4 is not like a POW camp, but there’s never been any kind of problem.But the isolations and the segregations that the Americans don’t want to admit as being segregation- like Camp 5, Camp 6- that’s where all the problems are.
CP: When you say segregation, what do you mean?
BM: Segregation, according to my reading on it, is being isolated in a cell, where you’re in your own cell- you’re being segregated from the next person.The American type of segregation is where you separate them from the public [general population] and you don’t get to see another person, so they don’t classify Camp 5 as a segregation camp, nor Camp 6 .
CP: And these were then in fact isolated in cells, where you don’t see or interact with any other people?
BM: That’s exactly what Camp 5 and Camp 6 is.
CP: And do you think that much has changed since Barack Obama came into power, and what was the feeling in GuantanamoBay when this happened?
BM: When the administration changed over, Guantanamo Bay didn’t change anyhow- I mean, the prisoners didn’t even care- neither were they upset, nor were they happy- they didn’t really care, because we don’t look upon an administration and build our hopes on some administration to come and change oppression.Our belief is in Allah, and Allah’s the One who’s going to change this oppression- not some new administration.So the people in Guantanamo really didn’t care- there was no emotion to it.The side of the administration in Guantanamo, they started being more oppressive, and it’s like...started implementing rules, degrading rules, where they pushed most of us to actually go on hunger strikes, and if you look at the records before the new administration took over, there was only about ten to twenty people who were on hunger strike, and right after the new administration took over, it went all the way to forty-something on tube-feeding, and another hundred just on hunger strike.
CP: Do you mean this is when they force-feed, they tie somebody down and they force a tube into their nose and force liquid food into them?
BM: Yeah, that’s exactly what we call tube-feeding in Guantanamo.
CP: And so you say the hunger strikes- even now as we speak, or when you left- were still taking place?
BM: I was registered the 41st tube-feeder, and after me there was another three who were being registered for tube-feeding- this is just in Camp 5.So, I mean, right now, I would say, unless the administration has worked out a deal with the hunger strikers, I would say the numbers are way above fifty right now.
CP: Even now, as after Obama has said that he will close Guantanamo, he’s even said that I will no longer call these people ‘enemy combatants’- just last week- even despite all of this, people are hunger-striking?
BM: The administration says a lot of things here, but they don’t control Guantanamo- Guantanamo is controlled by JTF (which is Joint Task Force), and JDG (which is Joint Defence Group), and they make the rules in Guantanamo, and the way they’re going on is...when I was there, there was no change- it’s just going to get worse, that’s the way it is.
CP: What do you think will happen, should happen- with the prisoners who are still over there?
BM: I mean I had heard that this new administration that said they’re going to close the place down in a year- it don’t take a year to release people, it don’t take a year to shut down a place.If this administration was trying to do right to a wrong, all they have to do is open a gate and let people out.
CP: The largest number of people still held there are the Yemenis.Is there anything particular about the Yemenis that you think has prevented the Americans from releasing them so far?
BM: I think the Americans are expecting, they’re pushing for a lot in Yemen, and the politics over there is keeping the Yemenis from release, and here’s where we have politics interfering with justice, and it should be justice above politics, but the world we’re in right now, that’s not the way it is.
CP: A lot of people who were affected by the “War on Terror”, and of course the people detained in Guantanamo, are exclusively Muslims.What do you think is the duty upon people from the Muslim world in particular, towards those held in Guantanamo and the secret detention sites?
BM: Don’t forget them from your prayers, and support them anyhow you can.
CP: There are many people who would think that what this whole episode would mean- for you, for me, for anyone else who’s been held in Guantanamo and so forth, is too much for a person to bear, and that after this sort of an experience, one should just come back home, keep your head down, and not get involved in anything, in terms of fighting for the rights of other prisoners.What response would you give to that?
BM: These seven years has taught me a lot- I’ve learnt things which I didn’t even know, things that I couldn’t have learnt except through this experience.Putting your head down because of fear, that shouldn’t be an excuse to do your duty.There’s oppression here- we have to stand up to it.