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How I see America, from a former Gitmo prisoner

Alastair Grant / AP File

Moazzam Begg gestures during an interview about his book "Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim's Journey to Guantanamo and Back," in a file photo from 2006.

LONDON – Moazzam Begg makes an unlikely former terrorism suspect. Soft-spoken, gentle-mannered and with a slight build, the British-born 43-year-old is open to tough questions and does not flinch when pushed on his alleged links to international terrorism.

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The father of four is of Pakistani descent and is the U.K.’s best-known former Guantanamo Bay prisoner. (The U.S. Department of Defense held a total of nine detainees of British descent at Guantanamo Bay at one time; all have been released from detention).  

After he was freed from the U.S. base in Cuba in 2005, Begg wrote a book about his experiences, “Enemy Combatant: The Terrifying True Story of a Briton in Guantanamo.” The book details how he says he was treated by the Americans in one of the most notorious prisons in the world and how his love for his family kept him sane.

“I didn’t think I was going to get through it, I didn’t think there was any light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, “but one becomes accustomed to the fear… and you resign yourself to your fate.”


Three years in custody
His fate turned out to be three years in high-security detention, first in Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo. The claims made against him were many: being an al-Qaida member, recruiting others to terrorism, providing support and financing, training in terrorist camps in Afghanistan and training others.

Despite this, he was never charged. After his release, Begg accused the British government of complicity while he was in American custody, and received an out-of-court settlement in 2010.

Now living in Birmingham, in central England, he emphatically denies allegations of links to terrorism.   

“I never fought with al-Qaida or the Taliban or have been a member of either,” he says, “and I think the Americans clearly know this after being held by them and being interrogated over a hundred times.”

Yet he still cuts a controversial figure. Around the U.K., opinion is divided on whether he was a man jailed for crimes he did not commit or if he does have the ties to terror groups the U.S. alleged before being released without charge in 2005.

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Alleged torture
Some consensus, though, has emerged – that he was a victim of human rights violations in the form of being illegally detained and tortured, allegations denied by the U.S. government.

When I ask about the alleged torture, it’s the only time during our interview that he loses his cool.

 “I was punched and kicked,” he said. “Soldiers cut my clothes off, they shaved my hair and beard forcibly, they took pictures of me naked, dogs frightened me, they interrogated me naked; that was torture.”

He also says he saw two men beaten to death and heard the sounds of a woman screaming next door that he was led to believe was his wife.

He says some of his worst moments, though, came from much less dramatic circumstances. He spent most of his time in solitary confinement, he says, in a small cell with no natural light with no meaningful contact from his family and nothing to read. He says that with no end in sight he got very depressed and looked forward only to sleep.

‘A lot of decent Americans’
During this time, I ask him, did he start to hate the people who were responsible for his incarceration?

No, he says immediately, because help came from an unexpected quarter: His guards became his saving grace. They would talk to him, give him food and snacks when he was hungry, and provided valued snippets of information about his family, his legal case and news from around the world.

“There are a lot of decent Americans who did things for me which I will remember for the rest of my life,” he says. “And we are still friends to this day.”

In fact, he says, some of the guards have since visited him at his home in England, adding that they’ve apologized for his treatment and that he has forgiven any role they played in his detention.

He says the resentment he does harbor is focused on the U.S. administration and its actions in the world.

‘No friend of American foreign policy’
 “I am no friend of American foreign policy and I think it needs to be resisted in every way legal,” he said, citing drone attacks in Pakistan, the Abu Ghraib atrocities and U.S. policy in Somalia as examples. “The U.S. has developed a position in the world that is very difficult to draw back from.”

Today, Begg is not allowed to enter the USA and displays some rare but measured anger when he speaks about it.   

“I have never been to America but it has been to me,” he said. “It has shown me a face of itself that I didn’t know existed, and that face included extraordinary rendition, false imprisonment, kidnap, torture and the abuses of basic human rights.”

He also argued that President Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo has been a big mistake, calling it “a recruiting sergeant for radicalism.”

Begg told me he still suffers flashbacks and nightmares from his time in detention. But he said he focuses his energies as director of CagePrisoners, an organization fighting for the rights of prisoners held around the world in the name of the “war on terror.”  

This story is part of a series by msnbc.com and NBC News "What the World Thinks of US". The series aims to check the pulse on current perceptions of America's global stature during the election year and ahead of our annual Independence Day.

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