Who Is Binyam Mohamed, the British resident released from Guantánamo?

24.2.09

As British resident Binyam Mohamed stepped off a plane at RAF Northolt on Monday February 23, six years and ten 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 made 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 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 (known in the UK as Bad Men), 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 of the man behind 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 US 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 Kolhmann, 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.

Stafford Smith then proceeded to explain:

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 US — 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 US, 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.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com, CounterPunch, AlterNet and ZNet.

For a sequence of articles relating to Binyam Mohamed, see the following: Urgent appeal for British resident Binyam Mohamed, “close to suicide” in Guantánamo (December 2007), Guantánamo: Torture victim Binyam Mohamed sues British government for evidence (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed’s letter from Guantánamo to Gordon Brown (May 2008), Guantánamo trials: critical judge sacked, British torture victim charged (June 2008), Binyam Mohamed: UK court grants judicial review over torture allegations, as US files official charges (June 2008), Binyam Mohamed’s judicial review: judges grill British agent and question fairness of Guantánamo trials (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Guantánamo torture victim Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), In a plea from Guantánamo, Binyam Mohamed talks of “betrayal” by the UK (September 2008), US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (October 2008), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), The Betrayal of British Torture Victim Binyam Mohamed (February 2009), Hiding Torture And Freeing Binyam Mohamed From Guantánamo (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Coming Home From Guantánamo, As Torture Allegations Mount (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s statement on his release from Guantánamo (February 2009), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009), Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture (includes the Jeppesen lawsuit, May 2009), UK Government Lies Exposed; Spy Visited Binyam Mohamed In Morocco (May 2009), Daily Mail Pulls Story About Binyam Mohamed And British Spy (May 2009), Government Bans Testimony On Binyam Mohamed And The British Spy (May 2009), More twists in the tale of Binyam Mohamed (in the Guardian, May 2009), Did Hillary Clinton Threaten UK Over Binyam Mohamed Torture Disclosure? (May 2009), Outsourcing torture to foreign climes (in the Guardian, May 2009), Binyam Mohamed: Was Muhammad Salih’s Death In Guantánamo Suicide? (June 2009), Miliband Shows Leadership, Reveals Nothing About Torture To Parliamentary Committee (June 2009).

12 Responses

  1. BN: Binyam Mohamed released from Guantanamo « Tango ’til i’m sore says...

    [...] After looking into the debate of Guantanamo Bay, the politics behind his imprisonment and the dark foreboding commentary from right-wingers it is refreshing to learn about the man behind the detainee, as written by Andy Worthington. [...]

  2. shocked says...

    i never expected this from american! i thoght the ver good people..,
    but can’t realy blame them., something had 2 b done 2 ans al-qaida., but not till such an extent!
    is this wt al-qaida wanted? innocent people from the same community as him gettin tortured for his wrong doing?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi “Shocked”
    To answer your question, I’m sure those involved in al-Qaeda had no idea that the Bush administration would be so foolish as to create a lawless prison, fill it, for the most part, with people who were not terrorists, and then humiliate them, abuse them and torture them for over seven years. But having done so, of course, it’s paid great dividends for the al-Qaeda brand.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Clive (Stafford Smith) just sent me a brief but very welcome message:

    “I spent two hours today walking with Binyam, the first time he has gone more than 5 feet without shackles in 7 years.”

    Just so we can all keep some perspective about the Geneva Conventions to which Guantanamo now allegedly conforms …

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Just received the following:

    Hello Andy,

    I’m curious to know if you have the sense of the public’s reaction to Binyam’s arrival in the UK? You mentioned in a posting that the media probably won’t provide any sympathetic characterizations of Binyam and that some have questioned why he should be allowed to return. But there is sometimes a great expanse between the views reported in the press and real public sentiment. I know, however, that this is difficult to measure.

    Would you know if there is any discussion of the Jeppesen case in the press too?

    On a personal note, as someone who has tried to follow Binyam’s story for some time now, I can’t believe he’s home and still can’t believe that it took all these years. I just searched through my emails for when I first learned about his story, way back in Sept of 2006, at a presentation given at NYU. It’s truly incredible to reflect on what the US government has done to human beings…

    Best,
    Elena

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Hi Elena,
    I think opinion about Binyam is very divided — some people are very supportive, others are incredibly opposed to his return. I’m getting more snide comments on my site than at any other time – except perhaps in connection with Omar Khadr. That was a real low point, when people took exception to me suggesting that someone who was 15 when seized should perhaps have been rehabilitated rather than abused.
    The Jeppesen case caused a stir when the Obama administration flatly refused to consider it, but it soon died down. As I wrote at the time, I can understand why the Justice department didn’t want to open up a route that would allow all personnel involved in rendition and torture to criminal liability, which I’m prepared to accept, but only if the administration eventually pursues those responsible for authorizing rendition and torture. I’m not holding my breath, of course, but I really don’t see how they can refuse point-blank, as the only message that sends is that you can do whatever you want, and break whatever laws you want, so long as you get voted out of office at the end of it all.
    Best,
    Andy

    The Jeppesen case was discussed here:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/02/12/hiding-torture-and-freeing-binyam-mohamed-from-guantanamo/

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And Elena’s reply:

    Hi Andy,

    It’s interesting and a little surprising to hear that opinion is so divided. Somehow I always have the impression — maybe it’s a naive hope — that people outside the US are savvier when it comes to seeing through issues like torture and rendition. That people would reject the idea that a boy of 15 should be rehabilitated and that expression of such a view marked a low point on the site is astounding. Sensibility, reason, and morality are indeed in short supply.

    I can understand why the Obama administration has taken the position it has. But that position is entirely inconsistent with any promise of change. It’s a veritable slap in the face to all those who know very well that crimes have been committed. Sweeping such crimes under the state secrets rug doesn’t make them any less real.

    I hope the demands for investigation and prosecutions continue. Hopefully, these calls will actually lead to some serious accounting of the last eight years. You’ve probably seen that today’s NY Times reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee will continue to investigate the rendition program. But somehow this news isn’t particularly heartening given that among the questions the Committee apparently plans to pursue is “did it work?” That is, does rendition, a web of secret prisons, and torture work?

    Putting aside the fact that countless scholars and experts in law enforcement and intelligence have already addressed the question of whether torture ever works (the answer to that question, being no), let’s just imagine for a second that someone argues that it did work. What’s the Committee’s next step? Does it legalize torture? Alan Dershowitz’s dream will have come true. I shudder to think that these are the Senate’s best efforts at seeking accountability.

    Keep writing, sensible people will find you.

    Elena

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    And my reply:

    Thank you, Elena. That last line is particularly heartening!

    Couldn’t agree more about the Senate’s deliberately circumscribed plans to investigate whether torture worked. What depresses me is how unwilling most elected representatives are to hold the executive to account. It’s ironic that Cheney and Addington in particular had such disdain for Congress, when all the evidence shows that, had they been less secretive and less disdainful, the politicians would have approved almost every piece of torture legislation that was pushed their way.

    If we are going to see real change, Obama needs to get the politicians working on the side of justice …

    Best,
    Andy

  9. Hugui says...

    I am doing an essay about extraordinary rendition and I haven’t heard about it before. I am aware of now because it is talked about in the media and because of the case of Binyam. It is heartbreaking to know that people don’t care about other human being. How such Prison can be open. I don’t agree with terrorism, how is it better to fight terrorism with terrorism?

    For answering the question about the public opinion, well people don’t know what’s going on and they don’t care to know really because it doesn’t concern them. However, those issues need to be in the public eye, in order for people to have an opinion or even sympathize with someone like Binyam because he wasn’t treated as human.

    I would like to know if you can advice me on what to read, where it is explained better on Extraordinary Rendition. And thank you so much for your articles and your information.

    Best,

    Hugui

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Hugui,
    I recommend my book “The Guantanamo Files” for the stories of the Guantanamo prisoners subjected to “extraordinary rendition”:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/the-guantanamo-files/
    And a few additional stories here:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/the-guantanamo-files-website-extras-11-the-last-of-the-afghans-part-one-and-six-ghost-prisoners/
    I also wholeheartedly recommend Stephen Grey’s “Ghost Plane” for the bigger picture, as it’s the only book to date that attempts to cover the whole sordid saga:
    http://www.ghostplane.net/

  11. Jason says...

    An interesting article Mr Worthington but hardly very balanced.

    What exactly was Binyam doing in Pakistan? Who financed his travel? Who does he know in Pakistan or Afganistan? What exactly were the circumstances of his arrest? What are the suspicions of the Pakistan security services that led them to arrest him? What was the visa contravention? Was it that he was travelling on a false passport?

    There are many questions that the British public should be provided answers to so, if you wish to prove yourself as a truly good journalist, rather than someone who appears to be doing nothing other than promoting your agenda [whatever it may be], then please go and investigate what it was that led to his arrest in the first place. That would be a ‘real’ story.

    And last of all, let us not forget that he is [apparently] an Ethiopian, and if he is so distressed by his treatment here [in the west] he is always at liberty to return to his native country where I am quite sure he will enjoy a tranquil and prosperous future.

    I don’t believe in torture as it happens, but then the definition of torture has been hijacked to the extent whereby denying an individual things, that were only a decade previously considered to be luxuries, is considered by the bleeding heart liberals to be an infringement of human rights and ‘torture’, so please let us try and keep this event within context.

  12. UK Judges Order Release Of Details About The Torture Of Binyam Mohamed By US Agents by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] to take the heat off both the British and American governments, Binyam Mohamed was actually released from Guantánamo, arriving back in the UK on February 23, but the case, of course, had a lumbering legal life of its [...]

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