As British resident Binyam Mohamed stepped off
a plane at RAF Northolt on Monday Feb. 23, six years and 10 months since he
was first abducted by the Pakistani authorities at Karachi airport, it was
impossible not to sympathize with the words written in a
statement by the tall, thin, slightly stooped 30-year-old and delivered
by his lawyers at a press conference.
"I hope you will understand that after everything I have been through
I am neither physically nor mentally capable of facing the media on the moment
of my arrival back to Britain," the statement read. "Please forgive
me if I make a simple statement through my lawyer. I hope to be able to do
better in days to come, when I am on the road to recovery."
For the last three and a half years, since Binyam Mohamed's lawyers at Reprieve,
the legal action charity, first released his
harrowing account of his torture in Morocco at the hands of the CIA's proxy
torturers, the British resident's story has, understandably, had few bright
episodes. As Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve's director, explained in his book
O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side, during the three days in Guantánamo
that Binyam related the story of his horrendous ordeal – for 18 months in Morocco,
and then for another five months at the CIA's own "Dark
Prison" near Kabul, until he finally made false confessions that he
was involved with al-Qaeda and had planned to detonate a radioactive "dirty
bomb" in New York – he explained, "I'm sorry I have no emotion
when talking about the past, 'cause I have closed. You have to figure out the
emotion part – I'm kind of dead in the head."
And yet, as Binyam embarks on his long "road to recovery" – attended
by his lawyers, and, mercifully, by his sister Zuhra, who flew from her home
in the United States to meet him, and to fill what would otherwise have been
an aching void, as Binyam has no family in the UK – it is unlikely that the
media will, in general, manage to report much on the man besides the myth that
has grown up around him.
To that end, I thought it appropriate to relate a few anecdotes that bring
Binyam the human being, rather than Binyam the prisoner, to life. The first
comes from Stafford Smith's book, where he describes his first meeting with
Binyam as follows:
"Binyam was twenty-seven. He was tall and gangling, dark-skinned,
originally from Ethiopia. He smiled and immediately told me how glad he was
to see me. He spoke quietly, with a particular dignity. Some prisoners would
take many hours of convincing that I was not from the CIA, but Binyam immediately
Of particular interest is an extraordinary chapter, "Con-mission,"
which relates the farcical story of Binyam's first hearing for his proposed
trial by military commission at Guantánamo, in 2006, just before the
commissions were declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. It's worth buying
the book for this chapter alone, as it explains in extraordinary detail quite
how farcical Guantánamo's rigged
trial system was, and how it was exploited mercilessly by Binyam, who arranged
for Stafford Smith to get him "a proper type of Islamic dress," dyed
orange (he wanted a Dutch football shirt, but Reprieve couldn't find one),
to make a clear visual statement in court that he was no ordinary defendant
and this was no ordinary trial. He also asked for a marker pen and a piece
of card, and, during the hearing, after he had thrown the judge, Marine Col.
Ralph Kohlmann, off his stride by launching into a rambling monologue about
justice that Kohlmann found himself unable to interrupt, he took the marker
pen, scrawled "CON-MISSION" on it, showed it to the gathered journalists,
and declared, "this is not a commission, this is a con-mission, is a mission
to con the world, and that's what it is, you understand."
Warming to his theme, as Col. Kohlmann "was staring into the headlights
of Binyam's speech and could see no way to cut him off," he continued,
"When are you going to stop this? This is not the way to deal
with this issue. That is why I don't want to call this place a courtroom,
because I don't think it is a courtroom.
"I am sure you wouldn't agree with it, because if you was arrested
somewhere in Arabia and bin Laden says, 'You know what, you are my enemy but
I am going to force you to have a lawyer and I give you some bearded turban
person,' I don't think you will agree with that. Forget the rules, regulations,
and crap … you wouldn't deal with that. That is where we are. This is a bad
place. You are in charge of it…."
Clive Stafford Smith continues:
"It was an extraordinary lecture. Binyam finally came to a firm conclusion.
'I am done. You can stop looking at the watch,' he said. He then turned away
from Kohlmann, as if to ignore any response. He was holding up his sign, 'CON-MISSION,'
and waving it to the journalists behind him, just in case they had missed it
the first time."
The other story was related by another British resident held at Guantánamo,
Bisher al-Rawi, who was released in March 2007, and his words capture how Binyam's
concern for justice permeated his entire approach to his imprisonment, and,
in Bisher's opinion, also reflected a very British approach that he had learned
during the seven years he had lived in the UK before his capture:
"He is so British – I mean so British! The way he stands, the way
he talks, his painstaking use of logic. He's such a gentleman. And he is knowledgeable
and he stands up for his rights in a really British way. Like with S.O.P. This
is something the guards have. It is called Standard Operating Procedure
– S.O.P. And the funny thing about this Standard Operating Procedure is
that it changes every day. Every day you have new Standard Operating Procedure.
And Binyam, he draws attention to this and insists on his entitlement to be
treated the same way as the Standard Operating Procedure dictated the day before.
And they hate him for this. But he's just being British."
Perhaps the media
snipers who are asking why Binyam should be allowed back into the UK would
like to dwell on this as they ignore both the seven years that he lived in
Britain, when, as MI5 confirmed, he was "a nobody" and was not wanted
in connection with any crime, and the seven years that he spent in the custody
of the United States – or its proxy torturers – when, as David Miliband, the
foreign secretary, has
conceded, he had "established an arguable case" that "he
was subject to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by or on behalf of the
United States," and was also "subject to torture during such detention
by or on behalf of the United States."
In addition, as the British government struggles
with claims that it has regularly fed intelligence information about British
"terror suspects" seized in Pakistan to Pakistani agents, knowing
full well that the Pakistanis regularly use torture, those same critics might
want to recall the words of the judges who reviewed Binyam's case in the High
Court last summer. The
judges explained that the British government's involvement in Binyam's
case, and its relationship to the U.S. – which involved sending agents to interview
him in Pakistan, even though he was being held illegally, and providing and
receiving intelligence about him while he was being tortured in Morocco – "went
far beyond that of a bystander or witness to the alleged wrongdoing."
There are more revelations to come about torture policies that involve – or
involved – the U.S., the UK, Morocco, Pakistan, and a host of other countries,
but for now I'm content to let one of its victims try to rebuild his life in
peace. As Binyam also explained in his statement after his release,
"I have been through an experience that I never thought to encounter
in my darkest nightmares. Before this ordeal, 'torture' was an abstract word
to me. I could never have imagined that I would be its victim. It is still
difficult for me to believe that I was abducted, hauled from one country to
the next, and tortured in medieval ways – all orchestrated by the United States