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The Whitewashing of Britain's Guantanamo Bay Detainees

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I had never heard of anyone having their limbs blown off while trying to buy property until I learned of Tarek Dergoul, the former British Guantánamo Bay detainee.

He says he was innocently trying to buy a villa in Afghanistan after 9/11 when it was hit by an American missile. Coincidentally, Dergoul entered Afghanistan at the same time as jihadists from all across the globe were pouring in to defend the Taliban.

Asking Dergoul why he felt it prudent to property hunt during US bombing raids seems a pretty obvious follow up question. However, asking awkward questions was clearly not a high priority for the Observer recently when it published an article so craven and distorted that it acted not as a newspaper but as a propagandist.

The article in question was Britain's Guantánamo survivors are suffering a toxic legacy.

The lengthy article was a puff-piece for the Brits who were detained at Guantánamo in the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The men - now free and rich, following a huge compensation payment from the UK government in November 2010 - were given the most sympathetic write-up imaginable. The detainees were innocents who just happened to be in Afghanistan and were thrown into the "gulag of our times" by the evil Americans. Yet some detainees have made admissions - under no duress - which show this to be a work of fiction. These admissions were ignored in the article, so I shall highlight just some.

Three men from Tipton near Birmingham (Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul, now known as the 'Tipton Three') are described as "accused of visiting training camps for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and handling weapons." Yet this was not just an American accusation - it is what they themselves admitted once back in the UK. The US accusations were that they were members of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, who travelled to Afghanistan specifically to fight America. Furthermore, it is often forgotten that the Tipton Three - who claim that they were only in the region to attend a wedding - actually started off as the 'Tipton Four'. Munir Ali, who also attended the Taliban camp, never returned. I have never been part of a wedding delegation where 25% of the people go missing. The how's and why's of Ali's disappearance are left unaddressed by the Observer.

Another detainee, Moazzam Begg is described as "director of prisoners" rights charity Cageprisoners Ltd and an "outspoken critic of anti-terror legislation". I suppose Begg's stance on the morality of 90 days detention is quite interesting, but it seems far more interesting to me that he also openly admits fighting in Bosnia; visiting training camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where he was 'responsible for training Kashmiri refugees in small arms and mountain tactics'; and sending 'small amounts' of money to what are widely regarded as al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan - including the notorious Khalden (Begg denies these camps are aligned with al-Qaeda).

At Guantánamo, Begg signed a confession in which he says he "attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and England so that he could assist in waging global jihad against enemies of Islam...associated with and assisted several prominent terrorists and supporters of terrorists and discussed potential terrorist acts with them; recruited young operatives for the global jihad; and provided financial support for terrorist training camps". He now claims that the confession was coerced, something which four separate US government inquiries have rejected.

Another detainee who has his past whitewashed is Richard Belmar - charitably described in the piece as having travelled to Afghanistan to "enrol in a religious school". What is omitted is Belmar's Combatant Status Review Board admission at Guantánamo that he trained at al-Farouq (widely acknowledged as an al-Qaeda training camp) in Afghanistan. Belmar says it was not until near the end of his training that he realised he was at a terrorist camp, saying he "thought it was just a military training camp for Muslims." However, he decided to stay anyway, in case his fellow pals poked fun at him for being unable to "handle the training."

Finally, Binyam Mohamed is described as "an Ethiopian national who moved to the UK in 1994...He is taking the government to court over British alleged complicity in his torture."

True enough. However, surely the fact that he admitted during his Combatant Status Review Board meeting at Guantánamo to training in light arms handling, explosives, and principles of topography at al-Farouq, including receiving instruction from a senior al-Qaeda operative on encoding telephone numbers, is also relevant? Apparently such information does not even deserve a passing mention.

There are two possibilities. Either the Observer is naïve enough to take the detainees stories at face value or the paper ignores inconvenient facts because Guantánamo is regarded as so uniquely immoral that the past actions of the detainees are irrelevant.

If it is the former, then I suppose we should feel sympathy. If it is the latter, the paper deserves only scorn. It is distorting history while simultaneously sullying the reputation of our closest ally. This does not make the Observer 'progressive' or contrarian. It simply makes it wrong.

Robin Simcox is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

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