Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Talk about inspiring

Just got back in from the snow. I attended a public meeting in Cardiff tonight featuring Moazzam Begg, Omar (didn't get his surname) and Chris Arendt. Two of them are former Guantanamo Bay detainees and one of them is a former Guantanamo Bay guard, with the US Army's National Guard Reserve. Firstly, the eBlogger: Progressive Comment - Create Postvent was a huge success and the three men addressed a massive crowd about their experiences. The Great Hall was full with maybe a thousand in the seats and hundreds on the floor. The first time i've seen Assembly Members sat on the floor amongst the people! All free admission and non-profit.

Torture exists all around the world, in vile and stubborn defiance of international law and countless international agreements. Civilised and democratic people should oppose torture in whatever context it is being practiced, whether in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom or the United States. It is only through the vagaries of British military planning that we can claim that torture does not take place in Wales. That does not absolve us of our collective responsibility as humans to oppose the torture of other human beings.

This particular event talked about experiences from Guantanamo Bay. Chris Arendt, the ex-solider, spoke of his upbringing in a typical small rural town, with few employment prospects. The army was a stable job, a source of income, and for those stuck in small towns a chance to 'see the world' (the card they still play in our own communities in Wales). So join up he did, to one of the US army's reserve formations, who were eventually assigned to Guantanamo Bay. There he became disillusioned with his government's inhumane and illegal policies- and began to defy his training and see the detainees as human beings. After trying to be a positive and humane influence in the camp he later left the army and formed a Veterans Against the War group.

Omar spoke of the torture itself and the brutal and graphic nature of this concentration camp. He talked of Detainee 725 (all Guantanamo detainees are dehumanised and given numbers as names), who was so brutally beaten that interrogators removed one of his eyes. After his harrowing account it was revealed that Omar himself was Detainee 725. A completely innocent man who has never been charged for any crime.

The charismatic Moazzam Begg is no stranger to Wales, of course. He co-ordinated the speaking and gave his own account. He is an intelligent, humorous and astute man, showing no signs of anger or bitterness at his former captors, but instead exhibiting a desire simply to tell the world the truth of what went on at Guantanamo in our names. Moazzam spoke of the hopelessness and despair that he felt after being taken from his house in Pakistan at gunpoint, and flown via secret CIA flights to the torture camp. Moazzam said that one day, a former Vietnam veteran beckoned him over and said, knowing Moazzam was originally from Britain, that a million people had marched on the streets of the UK against the war. It was only from that moment that Moazzam knew there was hope and that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

I personally was one of those marchers, in London and then in Cardiff. They remain the biggest demonstrations I have ever been involved in. Knowing that we lifted the spirits of one innocent man behind bars is enough for me to think that it was all worth it. Let's use the same spirit to move towards a world without torture.

(Credit must go to Cardiff Stop the War for accomodating this speaking tour)

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