Omar Deghayes and Terry Holdbrooks Discuss Guantánamo (Part One): Omar’s Story


On April 30, 2010, The UC Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas organized an event to mark the fifth anniversary of its excellent Guantánamo Testimonials Project. Entitled “Guantánamo: A conversation this side of the wire,” the event enabled, for the first time, a discussion to take place, before an American audience, between a former Guantánamo prisoner (the British resident Omar Deghayes, speaking by video-conference from the UK) and a former Guantánamo guard (Terry Holdbrooks, who converted to Islam and is now known as Mustafa Abdullah), and it was therefore enormously significant.

Facilitated by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, the event was hosted by Almerindo Ojeda, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, and the principal investigator for the Guantánamo Testimonials Project, and took place in a lecture hall on the UC Davis campus. A video recording of the event is available here (via RealPlayer), as is an audio recording, but in the hope of bringing the words of Omar and Terry to a wider audience I’m cross-posting here, in three parts, a transcript of the event, beginning with Omar’s story, in which he provides some detailed insights into Guantánamo that many people will never have heard before. In Part Two and Part Three (to follow), Terry tells his story, and Omar and Terry then discuss other aspects of Guantánamo, including the deaths of three prisoners in Guantánamo in June 2006, which has a great resonance as the fourth anniversary of that dreadful day approaches, in light of revelations in an article by Scott Horton for Harper’s Magazine in January this year.

As Almerindo explained in the introduction to the event, “Omar was imprisoned in Guantánamo from September 2002 to December 2007, [and] Terry served in Guantánamo as a guard from June 2003 to July 2004. So Omar and Terry overlapped in Guantánamo for over a year. They lived though, on opposite sides of the wire, the fence that separates us from them. Today, Omar and Terry are both this side of the wire. And they are willing and able to engage in a conversation about their experiences. This, I should say, is an historic event. For this is the first time a prisoner and a guard will talk before an American audience. Ever.”

Almerindo added, “To facilitate this conversation we have here Amy Goodman … As we all know, she is an award-winning journalist. She is also the producer of Democracy Now!, an independent news program that is now broadcast on over 800 stations. How could she do that? [How can] an independent producer have such a success? Media historians will ponder this question in the future. But I think the answer is pretty simple: She has journalistic integrity.”

Amy Goodman: It’s really a great honor to be here. It’s an honor to be celebrating the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, to be here on its fifth anniversary and to honor the work of this center in gathering the testimony of prisoners speaking for themselves, of guards speaking for themselves — and tonight, as Almerindo Ojeda said, putting the two together: guard and prisoner for the first time before an American audience. This truly is historic. I don’t want to spend much time talking myself because, well, doing broadcast every day, Monday through Friday, I know how tenuous it is when you make a connection with someone somewhere else and I want to take full advantage of our connection to Omar Deghayes and to be able to hear his description of his own experience and then to speak with Mustafa Abdullah Terry Holdbrooks and hear what he has to say. And also listen to them speak to each other. This truly is a very important moment so without further ado we’re going to begin with Omar Deghayes, who is sitting in a video-conference room in Brighton, England.

Omar Deghayes: Thank you very much for your kind presentation and I would like to first thank everyone that invited me to speak to all of you and especially Almerindo and the people who organized this. It’s a pleasure to speak to all of you today and I’m also happy to see Terry on the other side. Where I’ve seen him before, I was inside the cell and he was on the outside of the cage. And then I met him once here, in England, when he came here and we met and he’s a respectful personality, he’s a very good man that I respect.

I don’t know what to say, I mean, there isn’t much to say how it is in Guantánamo, how it feels in Guantánamo, other than my name is Omar Deghayes. It’s a long story how I was caught up in all this. I traveled to the Far East for many reasons. One of the reasons was [that] I just finished a law graduation and it was hard work and I wanted a break. I wasn’t allowed to go back to my own country. I lived most of my life here in England so I was yearning for going to a place which is similar in culture to my own country, because, before I lived a different life, and when I came to age in this country, I started to think about traveling to countries like mine. I wasn’t able to go back to my own country so I went to the Far East for many reasons. One of the reasons [was that] I had friends who invited me to come to Malaysia and India and I was searching for work in Malaysia with my friends. So when I went there, I went to Pakistan and eventually went to Afghanistan.

They didn’t require any visas to go to Afghanistan. The Taliban at the time were big news and they were always in the news, and the rule of Sharia and how the Sharia law was, and so on. So it interested me because of my background; I am a law graduate. I went to Afghanistan because you didn’t need a visa, you didn’t need anything, you were able to do that just by crossing the border. I went to Afghanistan and met my wife there. I’m married to an Afghani wife. I like the place.

All this happened a long time before September 11. When September 11 happened, people everywhere inside Afghanistan were bombarded by planes and I felt for the safety of my small family. I had a newborn child. So we left Afghanistan to come back here to England. When we were in Pakistan, the American authorities of the government of Bush at the time was paying lots of money to people, any people, who would hand them any Arabs. They were buying Arabs from Pakistan. So [we were] rounded up, in our village and our house, we were captured and then taken to lock-ups where we were mistreated in Pakistan and then sold to the Americans.

Amy Goodman: Omar Deghayes, what happened to your wife and child?

Omar Deghayes: I was very concerned about them, because I did not know what happened to them in the beginning. I was smuggling letters to their father in Afghanistan when I was in prison. They were locked up in another house and I knew afterwards that this is what happened to them, so I smuggled a letter from prison to their father in Afghanistan to come and collect them, which he was able to do. He came and he eventually took them back to Afghanistan.

Amy Goodman: And where were you brought to?

Omar Deghayes: I was kept in prison for a few months in Pakistan, mistreated and then sold — handed [over] — to the Americans in Islamabad airport. Our heads were covered and then we were handed [over] to Americans. We didn’t know at the time, because our heads were covered by black bags. So we [were] handed [over] and two people roughly pulled us out in the airport and then they stopped us in front of a mirror somewhere in the toilet of the airport and they changed the black bag on my head and put another worse bag, more thicker bag where you can’t breathe properly. When they took the bag off I could see in the mirror there were two Americans, so it was another transformation from Pakistan to American abduction. So they took us from Pakistan to Bagram base, where we again were badly treated. Bagram base is now in the news because it was a lot worse than Guantánamo Bay. Treatment in Bagram was — and still is — worse than when we were in Guantánamo Bay. We were badly mistreated in Bagram for another two months and then transferred to Guantánamo Bay.

Amy Goodman: Omar Deghayes, you kept referring to “we.” Who else were you imprisoned with when you were taken from Islamabad airport to Bagram?

Omar Deghayes: We were put in lock-ups, they seemed to be private lock-ups. They were not military prisons nor are they normal police prisons. They were lock-ups and there were a group of people there. Every time they picked up somebody from the streets, an Arab, [they] brought them to this lock-up. They interrogated — the Pakistanis tortured them and then either they gave him or sold him to the Americans, because [there was] an American group of people who we met in Pakistan, who came to meet us first in Pakistan, and they asked certain questions and then they probably decided whether to buy someone or not. And some people they bought, like me, and they took us from there to Guantánamo.

And some people they didn’t buy them, so they weren’t released, but they were sent back to their own countries where some of them were — if they were to be returned to their own countries — they were, as we heard afterwards, some of them died or were killed in prison, some of them are still locked up in prison because they were wanted people, because some of them were, for example, living all their lives in Pakistan for a long time since the very old Russian war against Afghanistan. Some of them participated in that war, and because of that they were considered by their own countries in the Middle East as terrorists and bad people. So they couldn’t go back from Pakistan to their own countries — this was like more than 20 years ago — and because of that they were living in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So when they were picked up by the Pakistanis to sell to the Americans, the Americans realized they didn’t need these people, they didn’t want them. So the Pakistanis sold them to their own Arab countries — some of them to Egypt, some of them to Libya, some of them to Tunisia and so on. So after that we ended up in Guantánamo and everybody knows what happened in Guantánamo.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about what happened to you first in Bagram and then in Guantánamo? Because of course, you’ve lived this yourself and you’ve retold the story, but for people in the United States, I think we know very little about what actually goes on there.

Omar Deghayes: It starts from Pakistan. In Pakistan when we were locked up we were taken to different, private locations. We were not taken to police stations, but usually we were taken out to private locations, different villas, different hotel rooms, where we were met by American personnel wearing civilian clothes. At one time one of them introduced himself as the head of the CIA, Libyan section, and he said he was in Libya in the 60s, and he even heard about my father and he said he was a noble man — he knew about him when he was in Libya and things like that.

Amy Goodman: Can you explain what your father had done?

Omar Deghayes: My father was a well-known lawyer in Libya and he was fighting for Libyan independence. He was a well-known politician, one of the first lawyers in the country, and afterwards, because of his opposition to Gaddafi’s dictatorship, he was assassinated, and because of that, afterwards, the whole family was harassed and mistreated in Libya, when we were young children. My age was ten. I had younger brothers and a younger sister and older brothers. Some of them were six years old. So we were badly mistreated, we had demonstrations in front of our house and so on. So my mother feared for our safety and she took us all, and she really ran away to come and live in this country, because it was a place where we used to come to learn English.

So this is the story of my father. He was a well-known politician at the time, in the 50s and 60s. So this man, he introduced himself as CIA, he said he knew my father and he asked me a couple of questions about opposition leaders, political opposition leaders, well-known in Libyan opposition, just to start the conversation, and then he started to ask why I was there and what happened and was asking lots of questions. I think he had another person, an assistant, they were finding out whether I was worth the money they’re paying or not. That time the meeting happened twice in Islamabad and they were in control of those lock-ups in Islamabad. Because we were taken to meet them and then if they said something, like if they said, “I want you today to write down this or do this,” they were thinking back to the lock-up and the Pakistanis. You’d think that the Pakistanis didn’t know anything because the Pakistanis were not present in those private meetings. So we would go back to the lock-ups, the Pakistanis came and they gave you the same instructions that the American man gave you, and if you don’t do [that] obviously they will torture you, beat you up, things like that.

Amy Goodman: Were you ever waterboarded?

Omar Deghayes: In Pakistan what happened was, not waterboarding, but it’s like a big bucket of water and then they drown you inside. They put your head down inside it. This happened to me in Pakistan, but the closest I came to something like drowning, waterboarding, in American possession was in Guantánamo.

Everybody in Guantánamo, if you continued to fight back, there were five guards who come to your cell and come in wearing riot gear and they come in and beat you up badly if you just objected to certain orders. Sometimes they make commands which are very humiliating and they expect you to oppose it, like “take off your trousers” or do something really stupid. Or they come out for searches, sometimes they do it sexually, there was some sexual abuse in it. So they realize that you either would object to it and then there’s the chance for them to come in with five guards to beat you up badly. Or if you say yes and you consent to it then you become psychologically disturbed because you didn’t object to it. So we object to those kind of conducts.

So what happens is they come in and beat you up badly, and then they hold you down to the floor, your hands tied behind your back and then they have a tube of water where you drown your face until you suffocate from that. And they say to you, “Stop resisting, stop resisting,” because what they mean by that is if they command you to do something you have to do it. This is something that is always happening in Guantánamo. This is not waterboarding as we know it but it’s something else, the drowning by water in a different way than waterboarding. This is the nearest [thing] to waterboarding.

Amy Goodman: Omar Deghayes, what happened to your eyes?

Omar Deghayes: It’s the same thing. Making the story short, five people came into my cell. We were in an isolation block called Oscar, and they wanted to make an example of us and to frighten other people. There was a big riot going on, it was under General Miller at the time. They came into my cell — five people, I would say. I was fighting back, so when I pushed them in the corridor, it was five people in the corridor. When they held me down they chained me and one guard was holding my head. The other guard sat down and he pushed two of his fingers inside both of my eyes. There was an officer standing above him. And the more he pushed his fingers, because I didn’t scream he thought he wasn’t doing enough so he was pushing more his fingers inside my eyes. The officer was telling him to do more because he couldn’t hear me shouting. After that he pulled his fingers away and I had water coming out from both of my eyes. I lost sight of both of my eyes.

I was taken to the rec yard and then again, this water stuff happened; they put me inside water, suffocating and then they turned me back inside the cell. I couldn’t see from both of my eyes for a couple days, and then I regained sight in the left eye. The right eye, I had a minor injury when I was young so it was weaker than the left eye. I kept losing sight, it went worse and worse until now I can hardly see from my right eye. I can only detect light and things like that.

As I say, I was physically abused, when you say physically abused it’s like my fingers are crushed by an officer to the bones. He closed the beanhole on my finger and then he crushed it. And again because I was trying to stop him spraying pepper on my face. Another incident, I was beaten badly; my nose was broken because they said, “He keeps fighting back, let’s break his f***ing nose,” so they put me down to the floor and start kicking by the boots and punching and broke my nose. My ribs are badly battered because of some of these incidents. This is the physical abuse, but the psychological abuse that went on and the psychological engineered schemes that went on are a lot worse and more deep the wounds than the physical abuse.

Amy Goodman: Can you describe what the psychological abuse was? And also, how long, Omar Deghayes, were you held at Guantánamo?

Omar Deghayes: I was locked up in Guantánamo for about six years, so five years and seven months. But remember, there are people still locked up there, which is now nearly nine years, nearly a decade without being charged with anything and never being convicted of anything. They are not being charged and it’s been nine years. One of them is a colleague of mine who lived here, in London. His name is Shaker Aamer. He hasn’t even seen one of his youngest kids, his name is Faris, he’s never seen his father and now he’s about nine years old. I’m sure that’s hard on people who are imprisoned there.

Amy Goodman: Can you describe what happened to you psychologically in Guantánamo?

Omar Deghayes: Extremes, you see the extreme ugliness of people, the worst things that can happen. Before Guantánamo I never thought that people could be deeply cruel to each other to that extent, even if they were their enemies. Because we kept saying to them, even to the interrogators, we kept saying, even if we were your enemies and if you convicted us of anything — which they haven’t — we don’t see why it is, for six years, your demand for revenge is deeply continuous and you’re doing all these kind of things. We can understand the first year, the second year, we can understand you’re reacting to something deep.

But to continue that kind of treatment for seven years, because what we had, we had a system where every six months they’ll change the guards. The guards won’t stay there, they have to change them every time to change the whole system. Every time they had a new engineered policy to cause really deep harm, like sexual abuse, they came up with some sexual stupid stuff, they came up with something that would really irritate people. And that was continuous. It wasn’t like first year, second year.

We know that even in countries like Libya and Tunisia and Egypt, the Middle East — these are worse prisons than Guantánamo — but we know that [in] these prisons, usually people are tortured for a couple of months and then they live normal lives inside their cells. But under those conditions in Guantánamo, it was continuous for six to seven years. They were relentlessly, continuously subjecting us to those types of abuse and that was — I think it was very ugly to know about, it was very sad, I was very surprised, not because they were Americans, but I was very surprised that any human being can go down to that level. It was an extreme that I had never seen in my life, as I described it before. It was a sadness that I had never experienced in my life before. It was the extremes of feelings, I think.

Amy Goodman: Omar Deghayes, what about the Koran? We heard stories about abuse of the Koran.

Omar Deghayes: I think it’s a stupid thing to do. They had a policy where they thought that they’d use anything and everything to break people down and they thought if they broke you down it would be a better source of information, they could extract more information. So they disrespected the Koran. They used to throw the Koran in toilets, kick it like a football in Bagram, threw it, as I said, in toilets. They used to use it in interrogations, sometimes inside the interrogations if they wanted to irritate people and cause some kind of a riot, they would throw it to the floor in front of someone who was a prisoner, then they trod on it with their feet. Or sometimes even in their cell, like inside those Oscar cells, which were isolation cells, you’d open the Koran, and you’d find writings, abusive writing in it, like “f***ing Koran” and “f***ing this religion.” Or sometimes you’d find somebody’s feet, you know boots, are stamped inside the Koran, and things like that. And they used to use it so much, and they used to, you know, swear against Islam, against our religion, against our prophet, Allah our God, and so on. And we used to say to them, “If you say your fight is against Al-Qaeda, and only that group of people who are, you know, what has Islam got to do with it? Why are you abusing the Koran? Why are you making fun of prayers? Why are you doing all these things?” And, I don’t know, some of the interrogators were so stupid to say, “If I had the power, I would have locked up all the Muslims inside Guantánamo Bay.”

Amy Goodman: So you were held at Guantánamo for more than five years?

Omar Deghayes: Yes, it was about five years and seven months or six months, I think.

Amy Goodman: When did you hear that you might be released?

Omar Deghayes: It was one month, I think, before we were released. I wasn’t even told by the Americans themselves. I was locked up most of the time in Camp 5, which is the worst prison than other prisons. As soon as they built Camp 5, which was about 2005, I was moved to Camp 5, and I was locked up in Camp 5, so I was in complete isolation. Even before that, in the cells, I was usually locked up in Oscar or November, those isolation cells. So I was in isolation, I didn’t know nothing. Then they moved me to another caged prison cell, which is not usual for me to be put in those cages. They put Jamil El-Banna next to me, another prisoner who is from this country [UK], and he told me the news. He said to me that he met the lawyers, and the lawyers told him that we’d be released soon.

Amy Goodman: Did you get to see your lawyer in Guantánamo?

Omar Deghayes: I did meet the lawyers. My lawyer was Clive Stafford Smith, who has done so much for Guantánamo, and he worked so hard and he was hated by many people. I mean, they tried to even accuse him of things when he came to Guantánamo Bay. He endlessly campaigned [against] Guantánamo. So did many other lawyers, really, I mean so many American lawyers. Some of them were honest and brave and they had good conscience to stand by the truth, and they did a lot, like people who were appointed from the CCR [Center for Constitutional Rights] and other organizations, who worked tirelessly, and still [do]. You know there are some lawyers who deserve respect, they’ve worked hard and are brave enough to change some things.

So yes I met the lawyer, but the last year in Guantánamo I had some problems with my lawyer. Even though he worked hard and good, but we had some problems and issues. I told him I won’t work with him inside Guantánamo because it was so difficult for us. Because if he was to do anything outside, even if we objected, we weren’t able to say anything because we were inside prison, our voices weren’t heard outside. So I didn’t meet the lawyers. I stopped meeting with the lawyers until I was released, and now I meet him and work with him closely. Actually one of my jobs is working in Reprieve, which is an organization which Clive Stafford Smith has founded. And I also work with many other organizations in England, like Cageprisoners and Guantánamo Justice Center, and many other law firms.

Almerindo Ojeda: Omar, if I may, this is Almerindo. Can you tell a little bit about the medical personnel there — psychologists, psychiatrists, or physicians?

Omar Deghayes: Yes, you know, that’s another sad side of the story. It’s that, even doctors, which I had never imagined that they went to a level … The doctors were part of the interrogations. The doctors who were working in Guantánamo Bay used to work closely with interrogation. Sometimes people were very sick, they had kidney failures or problems and they would start screaming and shouting. The doctor would come in, and he’d look at him, and he’d give them — well, if he wanted to, he’d give them sometimes relief tablets. But he’d say, “No medicine. I can’t do anything until you cooperate with your interrogation.” This is something that used to be largely — I mean, if you speak to anyone in Guantánamo he could tell you about that.

One of the most frightening things to us when we were locked up in Guantánamo is that we feared that we would catch any disease, or any illness, because that disease would be badly used against you. Because we saw lots of people who had even operations. Sometimes they had young, junior doctors, just — I don’t know why they did that. They probably had somebody in the Army, a family [member] or relative. They came in and made, like, complicated operations on people. They used people like experiments. And most of these operations were failures. This one guy had a heart operation like nearly eight or nine times, and every time they’d say it failed, it failed, it failed. Another person, his name is Abu Saleh, a Yemeni, he’s the heart failure. And Abu Amran Al-Taifi, another man, they amputated his leg, then they said the operation was a failure, then they amputated it again, and then they did something else again. It was like endless.  And this wasn’t like once or twice. This was the practice.

If you agreed to have an operation, a serious operation, inside Guantánamo, it was usually junior, inexperienced doctors who are using Guantánamo as a training field, maybe because there was some connection, somebody in the military, or someone like an uncle or someone like that. And because of that, people had serious illnesses, and sometimes, even when they are offered an operation they are scared to take it, because of people who were in front of us who had experienced all these kinds of things. So the doctors were working very closely with interrogators.

Some of them, the psychiatric doctors, would stand there in interrogations, they’d assess what could be said against you, what is not to be said, what is to be revealed. Because every person in Guantánamo was differently treated. That’s why every person, I think, has a lot to say about Guantánamo, because one person was treated completely differently than the other person. They call it phobias, they use phobias. So every person has different, they think, different fears about something in particular. And that thing itself would be used against him more than others, or he would be mistreated in a different way than others.

So that’s why they have guards going all the time round the cages, all the time. like every hour, Terry will tell you, they had to write down what every prisoner was doing each hour. They would say, “He’s sitting down,” “He’s laughing,” “He’s exercising,” “He’s eating,” “He’s depressed.” And they used anything, even your family connections, the letters to your family. For example, me and my wife, I didn’t receive any letters from my wife for seven years inside prison, and neither did she. I wrote a lot to her, and she wrote a lot to me, but we both of us didn’t receive any letters. And when I came out from prison, she said to me, “Why did you not [reply to my letters]?” Our marriage actually completely broke because of that. And many people’s ties and relationships with their families were broken because of the abuse and the censorship. They used everything, every means was lawful to those people in Guantánamo.

Note: Omar Deghayes features prominently in the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington) and has been touring the film with Andy in the UK since February this year. Copies of the DVD of the film are available here, and also see here for clips of Omar discussing the involvement of the British intelligence services in his interrogations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Guantánamo.

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 (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and currently on tour in the UK), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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