London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Omar Al-Deghayes, the Libyan national living in Britain, considers his six-year incarceration in Oscar Block and Fifth Block in Guantanamo as a service to God. He does not harbor any ill will towards his jailers and views those days as a trial and tribulation. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in London, Al-Deghayes recounts how he lost sight in his right eye while in detention and says that three of his American guards came to London to apologize to him after they left their military service for their treatment of the prisoners, as he says. Al-Deghayes goes on to say that two of them embraced Islam and “proclaimed their sincere and irrevocable repentance”. He goes on to say: “We introduced them to a number of British universities where they talked about the absence of the human conscience in Guantanamo and about the violations being committed there against the Muslim prisoners”.
Al-Deghayes says he still recalls the dream that he had in the US Bagram Base in Afghanistan. According to Al-Deghayes, this base was really unforgiving on the body, mind, and soul. In the dream, he recalls seeing the cages in Guantanamo surrounded by barbed wire and the cells one overlooking the other. However, he could not get out although the key to the cell was in his vest pocket. He could not interpret the dream until after three years in Guantanamo when he narrated it to Muhammad al-Zahrani, his Saudi colleague in the cell next to his. Al-Zahrani, one of whose legs was amputated, interpreted the dream to him by saying that “the key in the dream stands for prayer to God Almighty because prayer brings a happy ending after suffering”. Al-Deghayes adds: “I prayed day and night, since prayer is the core of worship, and the happy ending came after a few months”. Omar Al-Deghayes, who is 40 years old, remembers two important dates in his life. The first is the day he was arrested in April 2002 in the Pakistani city of Lahore. The members of a full Pakistani security squad wearing black uniforms and covering their faces surrounded the house where he was living with his Afghan wife and young child. Some members of his wife’s family had also come to visit. The Pakistani security squad raided his house in search of weapons and took him to the interrogation center where, according to him, he was subjected to all forms of torture. He did not see his Afghan wife or his child who is now eight years old until now although his child lives in Dubai. He is still banned from traveling and is waiting for British travel documents in order to rejoin his son Suleiman. However, he is happy that he can speak to his son in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashtu. He learned the three last languages from his Afghan mother who, according to Al-Deghayes, was his best friend during his years of incarceration in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.
Omar Al-Deghayes recalls his interrogation in Lahore and Islamabad. He says that this interrogation did not stop for two months before he was transferred to the detention center of ill-repute in Bagram in Afghanistan and later to Guantanamo. Al-Deghayes says that he did not despair and remained resolute. These days, his detailed description of what he went through indicates his strong memory and sane mind despite all the scars and pains. But there is one incident that he will never forget. Al-Deghayes says that he does not recall the pain that he suffered when one of the guards in the detention center caused him to lose sight in one eye. The reason was because he and several of his companions protested a new kind of humiliation that forced the detainees to take off their trousers and move around only in their underwear in Camp Romeo. In retaliation to the protest, the guards tied him with chains and beat him before subjecting him to that operation that caused him indescribable pain. Recounting what happened to him that day, Al-Deghayes says: “I did not know what was happening to me until I felt cold fingers probing inside my eye. At that point, I realized that someone was trying to gouge out my eye from its socket”. Al-Deghayes adds: “After he withdrew his fingers, I recall that I did not see anything. I had lost my sight in both eyes”. Omar goes on to say that after that, his guards threw him in his cell with fluid flowing out from his eyes. He regained sight of his left eye while he is blind in the right eye. He says that two years after he was released, he is forced to live the rest of his life with the darkness of Guantanamo, particularly since there are still many things that remind him of this detention camp. This is especially true because the detention center is still open at present and Al-Deghayes himself does not want to forget it in order to expose more of what went on in there, as he says.
Al-Deghayes considers his time in Guantanamo as bitter as the toxic colocynth plant, with one exception of one good thing that he and several other Muslim prisoners benefited from. This was learning the correct science of recitation of the holy Koran “at the hands of several fellow inmates from Saudi Arabia and Libya who are scholars in Shariaa”. He pointed out that the detention camp administration realized that the youths were more occupied with the Koran than with their interrogation sessions. In other words, says Al-Deghayes, the prison administration realized it had failed in brainwashing them and alienating them from their God. They used to take away the holy books from them and return only after the inmates protested. He said: “They put Taliban leaders who were provincial governors and ministers next to the Arabs and these Taliban elements benefited from the Arabs as they were exposed to the other jurisprudential schools of discipline without any embarrassment”. Omar points out that despite the hard days and the torture, “A number of poets emerged in Guantanamo: Bahraini national Salman al-Balushi, whose poems talked about lost glory and the ordeal of captivity; Saudi national Yasser al-Zahrani; Yemeni national Nasser Muhammad Ali al-Abi; and Saudi national Mani al-Utaybi. The latter three dead at Guantanamo”. Al-Deghayes went on to say: “We used to exchange poems about the ordeal of captivity”.
Deghayes’s facial features contract as he talks about the Oscar Bloc inside Guantanamo where he spent most of his days there in solitary confinement. He says that the camp is depressing. The floor is of steel and the cement is cold. We could not put on slippers after the guards took them from us. The air conditioning is very high and the glaring light very strong around the clock. These are tools of the devil intended to deprive us of sleep”. Al-Deghayes told Asharq Al-Awsat that he would spend one full month in Camp Oscar, be transferred to Camp Delta for one day, and then returned once again to Camp Oscar. This way they would be abiding by the provisions of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners. He said that the prison administration planted spies among us disguised as mujahidin. One of these was an Iraqi youth, another was Syrian, and another was Pakistani. They collected information, spread fear and rumors among the prisoners, and planted certain stories among the prisoners. They admitted to us that they were recruited in Bagram in Afghanistan before they were brought to Guantanamo. Despite the restrictions imposed on the prisoners about communicating with one another, Al-Deghayes says that the relationship among the prisoners was not interrupted in the maximum security camps: “We used to communicate with one another through the pipes or by shouting from the bottom of the doors or by a special communications code. We used to pass on news on our interrogation to one another. Anyone that refused to cooperate during the interrogations or refused to leave his cell was beaten severely. I personally was beaten over 30 times but I managed to overpower them and escape from inside the cell to the corridor. One time, I overpowered a senior officer but they put me in chains, threw me to the ground, and attacked me. The guards were afraid to step in the cells because they viewed the inmates as terrorists or bloodsuckers. Their faces contorted with fear when they came to tie up a prisoner because they did not know what to expect”.
Talking about his compatriot Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi (Abdulaziz al-Fakhiri) who was handed over to Libya and died in Abu-Salim Prison in Tripoli last year, Al-Deghayes says: “I was touring British universities after my release from Guantanamo and was afraid for his life there [Guantanamo]”. Deghayes says that Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi confessed under torture in an Arab country that Iraqi agents trained senior members of Al-Qaeda on the use of biological and chemical weapons. These confessions were a “pivotal point” for the Administration of former US President George Bush in justifying the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His testimony provided a justification for the invasion of Iraq. Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, had exploited Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi’s allegations in his speech at the United Nations Security Council a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq. Powell used that as proof of a connection between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the terrorist Al-Qaeda organization that is responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks against New York and Washington. However, after the invasion, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi retracted his testimony and no evidence was found to corroborate this, as the US Senate intelligence committee reported in 2006, according to Al-Deghayes. He also talked about some offensive scenes, such as US guards throwing copies of the Koran in the lavatories.
Al-Deghayes is one of five British nationals that Britain requested the United States to release. The British government had refused to intervene for years because they did not hold British passports. Al-Deghayes recalls the moment of his release in December 2007 along with Jordanian national Jamil al-Banna, Algerian national Saymur Abdul-Nur. According to Al-Deghayes, the latter is in a bad state because he is distant from his family and is not allowed to work; he lives in London now. Al-Deghayes also remembers the difficult days that he spent moving with an electronic bracelet on his leg because after his return he lived in conditions similar to “house arrest” for several months. Now, however, he praises God because his living conditions have improved. He obtained British residency and a law degree. These days, he occupies his time in the “Guantanamo Justice Centre” to defend the rights of his other colleagues and try to help 10 Libyan nationals to travel to a third country as well as a number of other prisoners who are afraid to return to their own countries, as he says. He recalls his two colleagues Abu-Bakr al-Rimi and Faris al-Darnawi. The two voluntarily chose to return to Libya four years ago but they are still in prison. He also mentioned 40 prisoners that do not wish to return to their own countries, like the Egyptian nationals Abdul-Rahman al-Jazzar and Sharif al-Masri, and another Egyptian national that lost his mind and lived in Bosnia. Al-Deghayes has filed a lawsuit demanding compensation against General Miller, the former military commander at Guantanamo who mistreated the prisoners and used to remind his soldiers of the 11 September attacks before they entered the prison wards. He has also filed a second lawsuit against former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf who now lives in Britain for having handed over a number of Arabs living in his country to the American authorities. About improving services at Guantanamo, such as the food given to the prisoners, and a library that the camp administration at Guantanamo claimed to contain the best books, Al-Deghayes said: Attorney Clive Stafford Smith witnessed a meal that was presented to me and was shocked at the kinds of food. However, after the lawyers raised the issue of the food, the meals improved. As for the library and their claim that the most popular book for the Muslim prisoners was Harry Potter, it was kind of psychological warfare. The books contained pictures of naked women. Their intention was to arouse our frustrations”.