Ex-guard, prisoner speak out against Gitmo
February 9, 2009
Before they met last month in London, Chris Arendt and Moazzam Begg could have crossed paths at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Arendt, a former Michigan Army National Guard soldier, spent much of 2004 deployed at Guantanamo, where Begg, a Briton considered an "enemy combatant" by the Pentagon, had been held since 2002. Arendt, 24, left in October 2004 and has since floated between odd jobs and school.
Begg, 40, was released without being charged in January 2005 and now acts as spokesman for Cage Prisoners, a Muslim-led group that campaigns against the detention facility.
Four weeks ago — on the seventh anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo — Arendt became the first American to join Begg on a national tour for Cage Prisoners named "Two Sides, One Story." The tour wrapped up last week in Cardiff, Wales.
Along with Sami Muhyideen Al Haj, another former Guantanamo detainee who is also still considered an enemy combatant of the U.S., the two men criss-crossed the country speaking about their experiences at the much-criticized facility.
"[The tour] had a very positive effect generally," said Begg, who’s in the process of connecting with other former U.S. servicemembers who have served at Guantanamo or other terrorist detentions sites in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Begg claims he was abused while in prison and witnessed the murder of a fellow prisoner at the hands of U.S. personnel. The husband and father of four wrote the book "Enemy Combatant."
Born in Birmingham, England, to a family of Pakistani descent, Begg said aligning with Americans on the issue brings more credibility to the cause.
Arendt, a native of Charlotte, Mich., who served in the National Guard from 2001 to 2007, said he hopes "to change people’s minds about what is actually happening" in Guantanamo.
Working mostly as a guard at the prison camp, he said that he witnessed excessive violence during his 10-month deployment. Arendt said that on at least 15 occasions he was tasked with filming routine "beat downs" of detainees. He also claims to have participated in "frequent flyer" assignments that had him moving prisoners around by the hour to induce sleep deprivation.
"The worst thing I saw was the complete bastardization of our legal process," he said. "Everything in America is about innocent until proven guilty. But down there they were guilty before being charged."
Arendt said he felt uneasy about his duties at Guantanamo and that "numbing myself was necessary to get through everything. I felt it was wrong."
Arendt, who is also a member of the Philadelphia-based Iraq Veterans Against the War, said he is speaking out not only to change public perceptions about Guantanamo but to reach out to troops who feel similarly about their experiences. Arendt was never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan during his time in the military.
The Cage Prisoners tour got a shot in the arm when President Barack Obama announced within his first days of office that the detention center would be shut within a year. Arendt and Begg say they are heartened by Obama’s executive order, but contend the matter is far from resolved.
"I’m not going to believe anything until we see results," Arendt said.
The Guantanamo prison once swelled to roughly 800 detainees, but is now down to an estimated 250. Obama has ordered that the prison be closed, but U.S. officials have yet to address a number of issues, including where they will keep prisoners who will be charged and how they will try them. They are also working to find other countries to accept Guantanamo prisoners that will not be charged with crimes and who are no longer deemed a threat.
Begg said he is concerned that Obama has not addressed what he plans to do with camps similar to Guantanamo in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also worries that Obama will do nothing to stop "rendition" flights, the secret transport of terrorist suspects to other countries for interrogation and prosecution.
"The CIA wants autonomy. To cut something like extraordinary rendition, that came before Sept. 11, is going to require more than the face of a president but the agreement of a nation," he said.
During a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, Leon Panetta, Obama’s choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, said the CIA would continue to send terrorist suspects to other countries for interrogation and imprisonment, but only on the condition that they are treated humanely and not tortured.
Begg, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, said he supports Islamic radicalism but has never participated, encouraged or witnessed violent terrorist activity. The Pentagon says otherwise.
"Moazzam Begg is not who he claims he is," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, Pentagon spokesman.
The Pentagon says Begg helped raised funds for terrorists while living in the U.K. and attended three terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
"None of that has been substantiated," Begg said. "Here we are seven years later and we’re still having this discussion."
Despite those allegations and others, the United States in 2005 released Begg and three other Britons who also had not been charged, at the urging of the British government.
The majority of detainees kept at Guantanamo have not been tried for war crimes, but are being held legally to keep them from attacking coalition forces and civilian populations, Gordon said.
There is no evidence to support Begg’s claim of torture, he said.