Blog | Moazzam Begg: how Canada closed its doors to me

Author and campaigner Moazzam Begg became the first Guantanamo prisoner to step onto North American soil as a free man. However, as he explains in a new article, the Canadian authorities had other ideas.

Ceasefire Bites, New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, October 13, 2011 20:02 - 0 Comments

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Yesterday I became the first ever former Guantanamo prisoner to have stepped on North American soil as a free man.

Since my return from Guantanamo in 2005, I have travelled the world extensively and been welcomed by ordinary people as well as world leaders to talk about the effects of detention without trial and the uncontrolled abuse of power exercised during the US-led war on terror.

I’ve had meetings with some of the most powerful men in Europe, including Britain, and have delivered speeches in front of Presidents and Prime Ministers.

These countries include France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa, Kenya, Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan, UAE, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and Libya where I met with some of the country’s new leading figures who had themselves been victims of US and British instigated rendition. I’ve not been troubled entering any of these countries.

What I hadn’t done, however, is to take my message across the pond into North America, where undoubtedly I believe it matters the most. Despite having had a book published there I’ve never been to America – although America has been to me. Notwithstanding numerous video-link lectures I’ve given to American colleges and institutions I was not prepared to risk a visit to the US and I’m certain the feeling is mutual, at least on a governmental level. Canada on the other hand, so I’d thought, was a different matter.

Two days ago, I took an Air France flight from Paris to Montreal.

My plan had been to go there to meet with former rendition victims Maher Arar and Abdullah Almalki – both of whom have been subjects of official inquiries of the Canadian government’s role of their rendition and torture in Syria.  Also, I had intended to meet with the family and legal teams of Omar Khadr, the only Canadian citizen in Guantanamo – who I first saw in US custody in Bagram as a 15-year old in 2002 when he was brought in suffering horrific wounds to his body and face and whose tortured testimony was used to falsely identify Arar as a member of Al-Qaeda.

Khadr is also the subject of award-winning film You Don’t Like the Truth made by Montreal filmmakers which I have been helping to promote and whose screening I was due to attend a couple of months ago in Canada in addition to attending a conference on, ironically, Islamaphobia. However, back then I was told by Air Canada staff that I could not board the London to Toronto flight because I was on a US no-fly list. I told them I was not going to the US, but the response I got was that in the unlikely event of the flight being re-routed into US territory or airspace they were not prepared to take the risk.

I had some inhibitions about attempting to return to Canada which I communicated to some friends over there but I couldn’t know what would happen until I tried. Thus, I rescheduled my trip with another carrier to arrive slightly further north of US territory and sure enough I was allowed to board unhindered all the way to Montreal. Clearly I wasn’t on a Canadian no-fly list.

Then, upon arrival in Montreal, just when I’d allowed myself to relax, an announcement was made for everyone to remain seated. Three uniformed police officers boarded the aircraft and headed straight for me.  At that point I knew, in some corners of the world I will always be the Guantanamo prisoner, the terrorism suspect, who is unwelcome no matter what he does.

I was taken off the aircraft in full view of all the passengers and escorted by these armed men to immigration in order to be told that I was being refused entry to Canada because I’m a terrorist.

The reasons stated were that based on ‘open source’ information that I ‘was detained by the United States from 2002 until 2005 in Guantanamo’ and, that I signed a confession during that time that I was  member of Al-Qaeda and Taliban, even if it had been under duress.

I argued that even the Canadian Government recognised officially that the US practiced torture and that the implications of this decision mean that Canada, a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is acting on information obtained by torture, abusive treatment and crucially, which is devoid of the rule of law. Whilst they recognised that I said the statement may have been given under duress and the fact that after being interrogated by the world’s leading law enforcement and intelligence agencies I have not only never been charged or tried for  any crime but have rather been the recipient of compensation from the British Government for what happened and praise from US Government officials for my work since my release, their decision had already been made.

I could either stay in detention centre and challenge the decision or return home. I opted for the latter as I’ve had my fair share of being detained without charge or trial.

During my short sojourn in Canada I was also visited by a member of the Canadian intelligence services, CSIS. I tried explaining to both him and the border police that denying me entry would look bad for Canada. In the great scheme of things I suppose it doesn’t matter too much. Omar Khadr is a Canadian national and he hasn’t even made it to the airport.

I intend taking this issue up through the legal process as that is where I believe this case has to be fought but I may have a battle on my hands.  Nelson Mandela, who was convicted for terrorism by the apartheid regime in South Africa, remained on the US no-fly list until 2008 and Maher Arar, who received compensation and official apology from his government for complicity in his torture, is still on the list. Abdullah Almalki was prevented from boarding an internal Canadian flight despite being a citizen.

Yes, I was the first former Guantanamo prisoner to step onto North American as a free man – free to remain in a detention centre or to go back to where I came from.

An edited version of this article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website

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Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg is an author and campaigner. He is the Outreach Director director of CAGE, a human rights organisation aimed at raising awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror.

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