Martin Mubanga went on holiday to Zambia, but ended up spending
33 months in Guantanamo Bay, some of the time in the feared
Camp Echo. Free at last and still protesting his innocence, he tells the
full story to David Rose
Sunday February 6, 2005
Martin Mubanga can date the low point of his 33 months at
Guantánamo Bay: 15 June, 2004. That sweltering Cuban morning, he
was taken from the cellblock he was sharing with speakers of the Afghan
language Pashto, none of whom knew English, for what had become his almost
daily interrogation. As usual, his hands were shackled in rigid, metal cuffs
attached to a body belt; another set of chains ran to his ankles, severely
restricting his ability to move his legs. Trussed in this fashion, he was
lying on the interrogation booth floor.
The seemingly interminable questioning had already lasted
for hours. 'I needed the toilet,' Mubanga said, 'and I asked the interrogator
to let me go. But he just said, "you'll go when I say so". I told
him he had five minutes to get me to the toilet or I was going to go on
the floor. He left the room. Finally, I squirmed across the floor and did
it in the corner, trying to minimise the mess. I suppose he was watching
through a one-way mirror or the CCTV camera. He comes back with a mop and
dips it in the pool of urine. Then he starts covering me with my own waste,
like he's using a big paintbrush, working methodically, beginning with my
feet and ankles and working his way up my legs. All the while he's racially
abusing me, cussing me: "Oh, the poor little negro, the poor little
nigger." He seemed to think it was funny.'
A few days later, Mubanga said, the same interrogator began
to question him in one of the camp's 'hot rooms', where the heating was
turned up to almost 100F. 'When you went for interrogation, you never knew
whether they were going to take you to a booth where the air conditioning
was turned up to the max, so it was really cold, or a hot room,' Mubanga
said. 'This made life very difficult, because you only had two T-shirts
in your cell, and if you wore just one in a cold room you'd be freezing,
but wearing two in a hot room was almost unbearable. The thing was, once
you were in there in your chains, it was impossible to take one off.'
After several hours of questioning, Mubanga felt severely
dehydrated and begged for a bottle of water. Once again he was lying on
the floor: the interrogation booth chair had been removed. As he tried to
drink and cool himself by spraying a little water around his face and hair,
Mubanga said, the interrogator turned violent: 'The guy started kneeling
on me, and I was wriggling backwards to get away from him, trying to get
in the line of sight of the CCTV camera so someone might see what was going
on. Of course, he didn't want to let me do that, so he stood on my hair.
It was painful, but I tried to keep moving. Then he stood on the leg chain,
so my shackles dug in really deeply, cutting into my legs. But I just took
the pain. I'm looking at him, the pain's getting worse but I wouldn't scream
out. I just kept looking at him. From that day on, I refused to talk to
any interrogator. I said nothing at all for the next seven months.'
Mubanga, 32, born in Zambia but brought up in London from
the age of three, was describing his ordeal in an exclusive interview at
a secret location in southern England last Friday - the first by any of
the four men who returned to Britain from Guantánamo at the end of
A lifelong Arsenal supporter, amateur boxer and former motorbike
courier, he became Camp Delta's poet, dealing with his experiences in a
series of vivid, rap-style rhymes, reminiscent of the prison blues from
the American Deep South.
Mubanga is a tall man, with a build that remains athletic
despite the years when the longest walk he took was the 10 yards from his
cell to one of Guantánamo's tiny recreation yards. As he struggles
to deal with the shock of his sudden and unexpected release, his words fall
from his lips in a rapid, articulate torrent.
For many months after Mubanga was seized in Zambia
with the help of British intelligence and sent to Guantánamo,
the American authorities maintained that he was a dangerous 'enemy combatant',
an undercover al-Qaeda operative who had travelled from Afghanistan on a
false passport and appeared to be on a mission to reconnoitre Jewish organisations
in New York. But documents obtained by The Observer now reveal that by the
end of last October the Pentagon's own legal staff had grave doubts about
his status, and had overturned a ruling that he was a terrorist by Guantánamo's
Combatant Status Review Tribunal.
Like the other three men who were released last month, Moazzam
Begg, Feroz Abbasi and Richard Belmar, Mubanga was held for one night at
Paddington Green police station on his return to Britain and questioned.
He was released unconditionally, the police having concluded within just
a few hours that there was no evidence to sustain charges of terrorism.
His allegations about his treatment at Guantánamo echo
similar claims by other freed detainees, and information from American official
sources. In December, US civil rights groups obtained more than 4,000 pages
of documents under the Freedom of Information Act about the abusive treatment
of detainees. They included memos by FBI men who visited Guantánamo,
the US internment camp set up on American territory on the island of Cuba
in early 2002 which still houses over 500 'enemy combatants' despite attracting
international criticism, and reported their concerns to their superiors.
On Friday, another memo by the US military's Southern Command
was leaked to the Associated Press. It described videotapes of assaults
on prisoners by Guantánamo's 'Instant Reaction Force' or 'IRF', a
riot squad deployed against prisoners deemed to have broken the camp's rules.
One video showed guards punching detainees and forcing a dozen to strip
from the waist down. Another showed a guard kneeing a detainee in the head.
Mubanga said that in his final months at Guantánamo
- just as the military lawyers were having doubts whether he really was
a terrorist - the IRF was used against him three times.
Mubanga was born on 24 September, 1972, and emigrated to Britain
with his mother, brother and two elder sisters three years later, when his
father died. He was 15, a pupil at St George's school near his home in Kingsbury,
north-west London, when his mother died from malaria. Soon afterwards he
left school with just two GCSEs. After an abortive attempt at a college
course in engineering, he began to get into trouble, and at 19 was convicted
of trying to steal a car and sent to Feltham Young Offenders' Institution.
It was there that he began to take an interest in Islam. In 1995 he spent
six months in Bosnia, working with a charity with Muslim victims of the
Serbs' ethnic cleansing.
Mubanga left Britain for Pakistan in October 2000, where he
says he was planning to study Islam and Arabic. After a spell in Peshawar
he entered Afghanistan and attended two madrasahs (Islamic schools) in Kabul
Mubanga had a flight back to Britain booked for 26 September,
2001, from Karachi, and says he had planned to return to Pakistan by bus.
But after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the bus stopped running.
Hiding in Kandahar while the American bombing campaign began, he says he
discovered that his British passport and his will were missing. 'I don't
know if they were lost or stolen. I just realised one day they were gone.'
With the war still in its early stages, before the fall of
Kabul, he found a middleman willing to take him back to Pakistan. Mubanga
had dual nationality and says he then phoned his family in England to ask
them to post his Zambian passport to him in Pakistan. Before returning to
Britain, he decided to visit relatives in Zambia. In February 2002 he flew
to South Africa. After a week in Johannesburg, he took a bus to Lusaka,
where he was reunited with his older sister, who was also visiting from
the UK. (She has asked us not to publish her full name.)
It was then that Mubanga's sister was phoned from London by
her boyfriend, and informed that the Sunday Times had published a story
on 2 March claiming that a man called Martin Mubanga had been in custody
for at least two months after being captured by coalition forces fighting
the Taliban in Afghanistan. Here, Mubanga thought, was the answer to what
had happened to his passport. He travelled north from Lusaka to visit an
aunt near the town of Kitwe. There, a few days after the article was published,
he was arrested by the Zambian security service.
Mubanga's solicitor, Louise Christian, suggested that by this
time the authorities must have realised they did not have Martin Mubanga
in Afghanistan, and would easily have discovered that the real one had recently
flown from Karachi to Africa.
Yet after the first two nights, Mubanga said, he was not held
at a conventional police station or prison, but in a series of guarded motel
rooms in and around Lusaka. There he says he was interrogated for hours
at a time each day, at first by the Zambians. He recalls they asked him
whether he wished to be Zambian or British. 'I chose British. I thought
that might be safer. It seems that may have been a mistake.'
Within a few days, new interrogators arrived: an American
female defence official and a British man. He said he was from MI6 and called
himself Martin. 'Martin tried to bond with me by saying he supported Arsenal
like me. It was pretty transparent. You didn't have to talk to him long
to realise he hadn't spent very much time on the North Bank.'
On the third or fourth day, 'agent Martin' produced Mubanga's
British passport, his will and two further documents, which, he claimed,
had been found with the passport in a cave in Afghanistan. One was a list
of Jewish organisations in New York, which, he suggested, Mubanga had been
ordered to reconnoitre on behalf of al-Qaeda. The second was a handwritten
military instruction manual, which he accused Mubanga of writing. Mubanga
protested he had not seen them before, and that he had never been to any
Afghan cave, pointing out that his own untidy hand was nothing like the
manual's neat script. There was no proof that he had any connection to either
document, but this remained the most serious accusation the Americans made
At the same time, Mubanga said, both the American woman and
'Martin' tried to recruit him as an agent, asking him to settle in South
Africa or, if that was too far, in Leeds. 'They wanted me to go where no
one would know me, I suppose so I could be undercover. I refused.'
After three weeks of these sessions, the American told him
one morning: 'I'm sorry to have to tell you this, as I think you're a decent
guy, but in 10 or 15 minutes we're going to the airport and they're taking
you to Guantánamo Bay.' Mubanga knew what this meant. 'Like everyone
else I'd seen the pictures of the prisoners in their goggles and jumpsuits,
kneeling in chains in the dust. They took me to a military airstrip, stripped
me, did an anal search and then put me in a big nappy which they seemed
to think was funny. They put on the blindfold, the hood and the earmuffs
and chained me to a bed in the plane. We stopped somewhere, but in all the
flight took about 24 hours.'
Mubanga arrived in Guantánamo at the beginning of May.
For the first two months he was held with other English-speaking prisoners,
including one of the three men from Tipton in the west Midlands released
last March. 'He was planning to write a letter to Tony Blair complaining
about our plight, and I suggested he put in a bit saying that Blair had
said he would never talk to terrorists yet had negotiated with the IRA.
Of course they [the Americans] read it. It seemed to make them mad, because
for the next 18 months I was kept in cell blocks where the only people around
me apart from the guards spoke only Arabic. I always thought one of the
main things they were trying to do was break you mentally, make you go crazy.
So I thought, either I sink or I swim. I decided to swim and that meant
In the months that followed, he became proficient in this
language. Early last year, his spirits lifted dramatically when rumours
swept the camp that six or seven British detainees - including Mubanga -
were about to go home. He was transferred to a new block with the other
British detainees, but when it came to getting on the plane Mubanga was
left behind. Then the Americans moved him again - to a block where all the
other prisoners spoke neither English nor Arabic, but only the Afghan lan
guage Pashtu. 'I ended up feeling really abandoned, left behind. They were
playing games with me.' As he recalled this dark time, for a moment Mubanga's
eyes brimmed with tears. 'In my interrogations for a while after that they
used to taunt me saying: "Those other boys have gone home. Do you think
you know why you're staying here?" They wanted to make me think I would
be there forever.'
It seems that one reason Mubanga was not sent home last year
but interrogated with new vigour was that the Australian detainee, David
Hicks, had made false allegations - since withdrawn - about him under the
stress of his own interrogation.
Mubanga began to suffer still harsher conditions. In the terse,
military abbreviations of Guantánamo, he was put repeatedly on 'Cl'
(comfort item) loss, so that books, his cup, board games and anything else
which might help pass the time were removed. Later, he endured 'BI (basic
item) loss', when his thin mattress, trousers, shirts, towel, blankets,
and flipflops were also taken away, leaving him naked except for boxer shorts
in an empty metal box. 'You had to be calm, bottle up any anger you might
feel, show you were prepared to be docile. If you did that, slowly you'd
get your items back: first your flipflops, the next day your mattress, the
next day your trousers, after that your blanket and shirts.'
Last autumn he was held in isolation in the punishment 'Quebec
block', where blankets would be removed between 6am and 11pm. There, communication
with other prisoners was almost impossible. It was in this period that he
fell victim to the IRF for small acts of defiance, such as refusing to come
in from his 15 minutes of recreation. Each time the squad forced him to
the floor, knelt on him, and trussed him tightly so he could not resist.
Yet even as they intensified the harshness of his conditions,
the Americans were beginning to recognise officially that Martin Mubanga
might not be a member of al-Qaeda at all. In October his Combatant Status
Review Tribunal, a panel of military officers which examines the evidence
against detainees without any legal training or advice, decided he was an
unlawful combatant, and should therefore continue to be detained at Guantánamo
But at the end of October, James Crisfield Jnr, an American
military lawyer, found this decision deeply flawed. His report, which has
been obtained by The Observer, shows that Mubanga had asked for his sister,
aunt and brother to testify in his defence. They could prove, he said, that
he had not travelled to Zambia on false documents for a terrorist mission.
The tribunal officers claimed that these defence witnesses were 'not reasonably
available' and that their testimony would be irrelevant. Crisfield disagreed,
stating: 'Under the circumstances, the detainee's reasons for travelling
to various countries was relevant. If the detainee's motive for travelling
was to do something other than join or support al-Qaeda, that evidence could
have sometendency... to make it less likely that the detainee joined or
supported al-Qaeda.' In Crisfield's opinion, the tribunal hearing was 'not
sufficient', and he ordered that attempts be made to contact Mubanga's family.
There is no way to independently verify Mubanga's account
of why he travelled to Afghanistan. But after almost three years
of rigorous and sometimes brutal interrogation, no evidence has
been adduced that he was guilty of any involvement in terrorism.
For the last month before his release, Mubanga was taken to
the supermaximum-security part of Guantánamo known as Camp Echo.
'There, you were in an individual bungalow without even a gap in the door,
so even if you shouted out you couldn't talk to anyone. There was a camera
in the room and they'd write down what you did every 15 minutes. If you
went to the toilet, they'd write it down.
'I think it was one last attempt to get me to go crazy. One
guy went back to Camp Delta after six months in Camp Echo. He'd lost his
mind completely.' Mubanga remains deeply concerned about some of the prisoners
he met in Guantánamo. One is a former al-Jazeera reporter arrested
in Afghanistan whom he saw being assaulted brutally by the IRF, leaving
him with black eyes which took weeks to go down. 'There's also a lot of
people there who think they'll be killed if they ever went back to their
own coun tries. They're in limbo. As far as they're concerned, it's open
season for the American government.'
Yet Mubanga, though traumatised by his ordeal, believes he
stayed sane partly because of his growing religious faith, and partly because
of his rapping. He has a provisional title for the album he'd like to record:
Detainee . He also has a stage name - 10,007, his Guantánamo prisoner
number. The content of his work is strongly political. There were times,
Mubanga said, 'that I wanted to explode. And when I did, I tried to remember
Allah, not to use aggression in that way. I never fought any of the guards,
I never spat at them, or like some prisoners did, threw a packet of faeces.
A lot of the time you go on to autopilot and you just have to tell yourself
you're still here, it is happening, it is real. The golden rule a lot of
us had is, if you don't feel tired, don't force yourself to sleep, stay
active. That's why I made myself learn Arabic.
'For three years, I was locked in a room where I couldn't
walk as far as this chair that I'm sitting in to that window, and
now suddenly I'm back in London. It's hard to adjust: all my friends have
got engaged, their lives have moved on. Yet though it's so different, I
still know London from my time as a courier. Last week a friend gave me
a lift and I was giving him directions and I pinched myself: one week earlier
I had been in Guantánamo.'
As he tries to rebuild his life, Mubanga has three wishes.The
first is to record his Guantánamo raps, the second to acquire an
Arsenal season ticket for the 2005-06 season. The third may be more difficult.
When he was 18 to 19, he had a girlfriend in Acton called Angela. They had
planned to move in together, he said, but that summer his older sister took
him to Zambia because he was getting into trouble, saying he would be away
two weeks. When they arrived, she told Mubanga they were going to stay seven
months. 'I wrote to Angie, I really loved her. And when I got back the first
thing I did was go round to her house. Her dad opened the door and he says:
"Are you Martin?" I thought maybe he was going to hit me because
he'd read my letters or because I'd broken her heart, but instead he started
weeping, saying she'd gone to Kent and he didn't know where she was.'
Mubanga said he tried to track her unsuccessfully via friends,
and although he realises she may now be married, he hopes that if she's
not, she might read this article and get in contact.
He insisted he doesn't feel bitter: 'I've lost three years
of my life, because I was a Muslim. If I hadn't become a Muslim and carried
on doing bad things, maybe I'd have spent that three years in a regular
prison. The authorities wanted to break me but they strengthened me. They've
made me what I am - even if I'm not quite sure yet who that person is.'
Mubanga the poet
Martin Mubanga became Camp Delta's poet and wrote a series
of vivid rap-style rhymes. Here are the choruses of two of them.
Dem labelled me a
Calling me a thug.
Dem labelled me a terrorist
Calling me a slug... But I never did join bin Laden's crew
anyway And now me know to be a Muslim is a hard core ting...
And I got no love for the American government
Dey can go suck and I don't mean peppermint.
Now hear da bombs drop
As de Muslim babies, dem a die,
Now hear de bombs drop
As de Muslim mothers dem a cry
Now hear de bombs drop
As de Muslim soldiers dem a fly
Why? Because dey no want fe die.
Special reports Guantánamo
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