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February 24, 2009

Who Is Binyam Mohamed?


by Andy Worthington

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 Eight 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 opened up."

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 government."

 

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  • Andy Worthington is a historian based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in Guantanámo. He writes regularly on issues related to Guantánamo and the "War on Terror" on his Web site.

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