Last week, when the High Court ordered the release of documents relating to alleged British complicity in the torture and ill-treatment of British nationals in US custody, as part of a civil claim for damages filed by six former Guantánamo prisoners, 16 pages of those documents related to interrogations by British agents of one of the six, Omar Deghayes, who was released from Guantánamo in December 2007.
In the Guardian, following up on the story, Omar Deghayes has explained in detail why he is appalled by the “highly selective” redactions in the reports, which hide evidence of British complicity in torture, concealing his “specific allegations of ill-treatment, starvation and beatings to MI6 and MI5 officers,” hide embarrassing lines of questioning that show the intelligence services in a poor light, particularly concerning the supposed significance of Omar’s scuba-diving lessons in the UK, and also hide the ludicrous line of questioning about his purported involvement in militancy in Chechnya, which played a major part in his detention for five and a half years. Beyond the omissions, Omar also concludes that “What’s left in is to show me in a bad light,” and discloses, for the first time, that he “was asked, in effect, to spy on his community and friends back in Britain,” leading the authors of the article, Rajeev Syal and Owen Bowcott, to add, perhaps hopefully, “His allegations will increase pressure on the government to appoint an independent judge to decide whether the notes were redacted in a legitimate manner.”
I’m cross-posting the article below, as Omar’s concerns are very dear to me, and I believe his complaints are both valid and important. Readers who want to examine the documents in question can find them here, on the Guardian’s website: pp. 8-13, partly redacted, cover interrogations at Bagram between June 26 and July 12, 2002, pp. 29-35, largely redacted, contain a Security service report from June 10, 2002, and pp. 36-38, almost entirely redacted, cover an interrogation at Guantánamo on June 17, 2003.
Guantánamo Bay detainee says interrogation record was blanked
By Rajeev Syal and Owen Bowcott, The Guardian, July 18, 2010
A former Guantánamo Bay detainee says that key exchanges from his interrogation by British security service officers have been blacked out or deliberately omitted from the notes to hide the agents’ complicity in torture. Other exchanges, he says, have been removed simply to hide evidence of spurious and potentially embarrassing lines of questioning.
Omar Deghayes, one of six UK detainees suing the government over their clandestine removal to the US base in Cuba, was able for the first time to read notes from his interrogations after they were published by the Guardian last week. He alleges that they provide an inaccurate impression of what took place, and that a true record of his meetings with British security would have shown that he made specific allegations of ill-treatment, starvation and beatings to MI6 and MI5 officers.
One of the notes he has now been able to examine, released through the high court as part of his case against the government and the security services, blacks out, or redacts, repeated questions put to him about his involvement in the Chechen freedom movement, he says. This was a false allegation that, unbeknown to Deghayes, was the key reason for his being held by the US authorities for five years.
Deghayes says that other passages, if they had not been redacted, would have revealed that he was asked repeatedly to justify scuba-diving lessons taken at a Sussex swimming club, and that he was questioned about Britain’s immigrant community.
His allegations will increase pressure on the government to appoint an independent judge to decide whether the notes were redacted in a legitimate manner.
All these notes emerged last week from a court case brought by Deghayes and five other UK claimants over their removal to Guantánamo Bay. The files show the intricate involvement of British agents in the questioning and detention of young Muslims with connections to Britain.
Deghayes, a Libyan-born political refugee, had lived in Britain for many years before moving to Afghanistan. He fled to Pakistan after the US invasion but was arrested in 2002 and handed over to the US authorities. He was then subjected to a sequence of interrogations in Islamabad and Bagram detention centre in Afghanistan, and eventually moved to Guantánamo Bay in 2002. He was released from detention in 2007.
What has been removed from the record of interrogations, Deghayes said after reading the notes, was almost as significant as what has actually been revealed. Before each session with MI6 officers, he said, he complained about the torture he was subjected to and his conditions.
“I told them about the treatment — the shackles, being beaten, lack of sleep, how sick I was. But these [comments] don’t appear. The national interest appears to have been used as a convenient shield for them,” said Deghayes, who now lives near Brighton. “Some of [their accounts are] reasonably accurate in terms of the conversations. What’s left in is to show me in a bad light. It’s highly selective. It’s censorship.”
Much of the material still withheld, he says, relates to lines of questioning pursued by the security services that would now show them in an embarrassing light. “They claimed I went to Iran to negotiate on behalf of Osama bin Laden but it was all part of their deception. I was never in Iran. In one of the first sessions, they asked me about Chechnya, and I told them I had never been there. But this question does not appear,” he said. Years after the interrogations took place, Deghayes discovered from his lawyer that this allegation had been central to his incarceration, because he had been wrongly identified.
Sometimes, lines of questioning that were repeatedly fired at Deghayes over many months turned out to be completely spurious. These have been omitted or redacted from the British agents’ notes, he says. “There was a fat man from MI5 who kept asking me about scuba diving. I had been learning in Saltdean Lido [before leaving Britain]. I hadn’t even passed my test. [Nonetheless] they kept asking me questions about it and showing me pictures from military manuals about scuba divers carrying mines. But there is no reference in the records here of my scuba diving — it is just too embarrassing [for them].”
There is a brief mention in one document, which has not been redacted, of his complaints about the “head-braces and lockdown positions” used by the Americans in Bagram. “I had complained at that point about being chained to wire mesh on the wall and having a hood drawn tightly round my neck when I was in Bagram. I don’t know what else they mean by ‘head-braces,’” he said.
“I was very sick in Bagram. I had serious malaria. They took my temperature and said it was dangerously high. They didn’t know what the problem was. [In the record of the interview] they are trying to say that everything was clear and I was fit. I wasn’t alert. I had had no food for 45 days. They interpreted [my condition] as me lying about how unwell I was. Whenever I was not co-operating, they decided I must be lying. I didn’t even have my wits about me then. They even imply that my ‘mumbling’ [referred to on one Bagram interview session] was proof that I was not being honest. What the documents don’t say is that it was such a relief to talk to anyone.”
His responses to questioning, as recorded in the notes, he says, have often been wilfully misinterpreted. In his first session in Islamabad in 2002, he was desperate to persuade the MI5 officer that he was a British national and therefore entitled to support from the embassy.
For that purpose, he initially pretended to be his elder brother, who held British nationality. “In the interview in Islamabad, I said I was my older brother, because he’s a British national. I said Omar had gone to Libya. I told ‘Andrew,’ the MI5 interrogator, that I was a British national and he should help get me out of there. Eventually I admitted to being Omar.” That plea for help appears in the documents, he said, to be used as evidence of a more sinister type, to show that it was another terrorist deception.
On several occasions Deghayes was asked, in effect, to spy on his community and friends back in Britain. “They had books of hundreds of photographs of people. They wanted me to go through them and identify the people. I didn’t recognise anyone in the book, so they said: ‘You are not helping us. You will be sent back to Libya, where they will get tortured.’ I [tried not] to show my fear.”
Notes that record his last interrogation in Bagram before being transferred to Guantánamo in July 2002 do not show the dismissive way he was treated by Andrew, he said. This moment, Deghayes said, was devastating, because he felt abandoned by his adopted country.
According to the notes made by Andrew, he knew that Deghayes had previously lied and gave him one last chance to tell the truth. Deghayes said that the note failed to record the following exchange: “I told him that I had only ever told him the truth. He just turned to someone outside the door and said: ‘This bandit doesn’t want to talk.’ I thought he was saying what he really felt. He thought that we were bandits and deserved whatever we got,” he said.
The notes remain incomplete, he said, because they show only one record of an interview with UK agents in Guantánamo. Deghayes recalls three or four. “Where are the notes for the other meetings?” he said.
Deghayes was to spend almost six years in Guantánamo before being released. He told the Guardian in January this year how he was so brutally attacked by a guard during his time there that he was left blind in one eye.
Note: For out-takes from the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington), featuring Omar discussing his interrogations by British agents, see “Video: Omar Deghayes Discusses British Complicity in Torture in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Guantánamo.”