'They tied me up like a beast and began kicking
As America struggles to come to terms with military abuse in Iraq, similar stories are emerging from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Tarek Dergoul, a Briton released from the camp in March, talks here for the first time about his two-year ordeal.
By David Rose
Sunday May 16, 2004: "The Observer" -- 'I was in extreme pain and so weak that I could barely stand. It was freezing cold and I was shaking like a washing machine. They questioned me at gunpoint and told me that if I confessed I could go home.
'They had already searched me and my cell twice that day, gone through my stuff, touched my Koran, felt my body around my private parts. And now they wanted to do it again, just to provoke me, but I said no, because if you submit to everything you turn into a zombie.
'I heard a guard talking into his radio, "ERF, ERF, ERF," and I knew what was coming - the Extreme Reaction Force. The five cowards, I called them - five guys running in with riot gear. They pepper-sprayed me in the face and I started vomiting; in all I must have brought up five cupfuls. They pinned me down and attacked me, poking their fingers in my eyes, and forced my head into the toilet pan and flushed. They tied me up like a beast and then they were kneeling on me, kicking and punching. Finally they dragged me out of the cell in chains, into the rec yard, and shaved my beard, my hair, my eyebrows.'
Tarek Dergoul, a British citizen born and brought up in east London and released without charge after almost two years at Guantanamo Bay, was describing one of many alleged assaults he says he suffered in American custody. With the world still reeling from the photographs of prisoner abuse and torture at the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, Dergoul's testimony suggests that Guantanamo hides another terrible secret - proof, in the shape of hundreds of videos shot by US guards, that here, too, America's war against terror has led to wanton brutality against helpless detainees.
Dergoul, 26, was released at the same time as four other Britons in March, but was too traumatised by his experiences to tell his story until now. While it is shocking, it is also credible: his description of his interrogations and the 'ERF' squad's violent reprisals closely matches that from other released prisoners, including his fellow Britons, while possibly his most important claim, that the ERF was always filmed, has been confirmed by the US military.
'Much of his story is consistent with other accounts of detention conditions in both Afghanistan and Guantanamo,' said John Sifton, a New York-based official from Human Rights Watch who has interviewed numerous former Guantanamo prisoners in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 'It is now clear that there is a systemic problem of abuse throughout the US military's detention facilities - not merely misbehaviour by a few bad apples.'
Dergoul also disclosed personal experience of the techniques pioneered by the former Guantanamo commandant, General Geoffrey Miller, to 'set the conditions' for detainees' interrogation, which Miller then took to Iraq.
He said they included humiliation, prolonged exposure to intense heat and cold, sleep deprivation, being kept chained in painful positions, and the threat of 'rendition' to an Arab country where, his interrogators said, he would be subjected to full-blown torture.
On Friday Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, from Tipton in the West Midlands, who told their stories to The Observer when they were released, wrote an open letter to President George Bush, alleging they suffered very similar abusive treatment at Guantanamo. Within hours US military spokesmen denied their allegations, saying they were 'simply false'.
Now, however, Dergoul has revealed a means of proving the claims of violence at Guantanamo, potentially as dramatic as the Abu Ghraib photographs. Every time an ERF squad was deployed, he said, the entire process was recorded on digital video: 'There was always this guy behind the squad, filming everything that happened.'
Last night Lieutenant Colonel Leon Sumpter, the Guantanamo Joint Task Force spokesman, confirmed the videos existed, saying that all ERF actions were filmed so that they could 'be reviewed by the camp commander and the commanding general'.
All of them, he said , were kept in an archive at Guantanamo. He refused to say how many times the ERF squads had been used and would not discuss their training or composition, saying: 'We do not discuss operational aspects of the Joint Task Force mission.'
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, said the government must demand 'that these videos be delivered up and the truth of these very serious allegations properly determined once and for all. The videos provide an unequalled opportunity to check the veracity of what Mr Dergoul and the other former detainees are saying.'
In Washington, Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, demanded that the videos be shown to Congress. 'If evidence exists that can establish whether there has been mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, it should be provided without delay,' he said. 'That must include any tapes or photos of the activities of the Extreme Reaction Force.'
The effects on Dergoul of his ordeal in Afghanistan and Guantanamo are very visible. A slight, slim man, he has difficulty walking: for weeks his American captors failed to treat his frostbitten feet, until a big toe turned gangrenous and had to be amputated. He has also lost most of his left arm, the result of a shrapnel wound. Two months after regaining his freedom he has nightmares and flashbacks, especially of his many beatings, and is about to begin treatment at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.
'I get migraines, I'm depressed and I suffer from memory loss. There's stuff that happened, embedded in my head, that I can't remember.'
He has nothing to live on because the Benefits Agency, wrongly believing he is not a British citizen, says he has lost his entitlement because he was out of the country, though a prisoner, for more than two years.
Born to Moroccan parents in Mile End in December 1977, Dergoul was once in trouble for stealing a computer chip, for which he was sentenced to community service. After leaving school at 15 he worked in a succession of jobs: selling double glazing, office cleaning, driving a minicab and as a carer at an old people's home in Suffolk. Living in east London, many of his friends were from Pakistan and he decided to visit the country for an extended holiday in July 2001.
'Before I went I'd never even heard of Osama bin Laden or the Taliban and I didn't know where Afghanistan was,' he said. 'I was not political and I didn't read the papers. My parents are religious but I never went to the mosque.'
After the 11 September attacks, he and two Pakistani friends had an idea for what, in hindsight, was one of the worst-judged business ventures of all time. With war looming, they thought many Afghans would want to flee their homes. Dergoul had £5,000 in cash, which he pooled with his friends' savings. 'The plan was to buy some property away from where the bombing was. We thought we could buy it very cheap, then sell it at a profit after the war.'
They travelled to Jalalabad and looked at several empty homes. On the verge of signing a deal, Dergoul and his friends spent the night in a villa. While they were asleep, he said, a bomb landed on it - killing his friends. He went outside and was hit by another bomb, sustaining shrapnel wounds.
For at least a week, unable to walk, he lay among the ruins, drinking from a tap that still worked, and living on biscuits and raisins he had in his pocket. Exposed to the freezing weather, his toes turned black from frostbite. At last he was found by troops loyal to the Northern Alliance. They treated him well, taking him to a hospital where he was given food and three operations. However, after five weeks he was driven to an airfield and handed over to Americans, who arrived by helicopter. Dergoul said the Americans paid $5,000 for him - according to Human Rights Watch, this was the standard fee for a 'terrorist' suspect. They flew him to the US detention camp at Bagram airbase, near Kabul.
As at Abu Ghraib, Dergoul said, violence and sexual humiliation appeared to be routine. 'When I arrived, with a bag over my head, I was stripped naked and taken to a big room with 15 or 20 MPs [military police]. They started taking photos and then they did a full cavity search. As they were doing that they were taking close-ups, concentrating on my private parts.'
Possibly because he was British, Dergoul said he was spared the beatings he saw being administered to others in neighbouring cages. 'Guards with guns and baseball bats would make the detainees squat for hours, and if they fell over from exhaustion, they'd beat them until they lost consciousness. They called it "beat down".'
His interrogators accused him of fighting with al-Qaeda in the Tora Bora mountains towards the end of the main Afghan war. At the time, he insisted, he had no idea of Tora Bora's significance and never went there. But in the course of 20 to 25 interrogations at Bagram - including one session with a British team from MI5 - he was told his family's assets would be seized.
'I was in extreme pain from the frostbite and other injuries and I was so weak I could barely stand. It was freezing cold and I was shaking and shivering like a washing machine. The interrogators - who questioned me at gunpoint - said if I confessed I'd be going home. Finally I agreed I'd been at Tora Bora - though I still wouldn't admit I'd ever met bin Laden.'
After about a month, in February 2002, Dergoul was taken south to another camp at Kandahar. His memories of this time are hazy: it was there that his feet, left untreated, went septic and, as the infection spread, he underwent a further amputation.
In three months there, he said, he had only two showers. Finally, on 1 May, he was dressed in goggles and an orange jump suit, injected with a sedative and flown to Guantanamo Bay.
For more than a year of the 22 months Dergoul spent at Camp Delta, he said, he was held in the isolation block, on the worst 'level four' regime - deprived of all stimulation or 'comfort items,' and sometimes allowed only a blanket between 11.30pm and 5.30am.
For the first time, he was becoming religious 'and my faith in Allah was giving me the strength to resist them'. One way in which he infuriated the guards was by translating their conversations into Arabic for the benefit of other detainees, and he also helped organise a series of hunger and non-co-operation strikes when the prisoners would refuse to go to interrogation or their twice-weekly shower and 15-minute exercise period.
No doubt, he agreed, this made him more of a target for the ERF. But he was never violent, he said, and unlike other prisoners he never tried to use his own excrement as a missile.
The report by General Antonio Taguba into Abu Ghraib states that abuse there began when Miller arrived there with 30 colleagues for a visit last September and instituted the system he had already created at Camp Delta - turning the guards into an interrogation tool by using them to 'set the conditions' or soften up prisoners before they were questioned.
Last week, General Lance Smith, deputy chief of the US Central Command, told a Senate hearing that some of the 20 techniques Miller authorised were banned in Iraq, because there, unlike Guantanamo, prisoners were supposedly protected by the Geneva Conventions.
So what are these 20 techniques? A US military spokeswoman said: 'They come from a classified document and we don't discuss its contents.' But the Senate has heard they include sleep deprivation, binding in uncomfortable positions and the use of excessive cold or heat. Dergoul said he experienced and witnessed all of them.
For one period of about a month last year, he said, guards would take him every day to an interrogation room in chains, seat him, chain him to a ring in the floor and then leave him alone for eight hours at a time.
'The air conditioning would really be blowing - it was freezing, which was incredibly painful on my amputation stumps. Eventually I'd need to urinate and in the end I would try to tilt my chair and go on the floor. They were watching through a one-way mirror. As soon as I wet myself, a woman MP would come in yelling, "Look what you've done! You're disgusting." '
Afterwards he would be taken back to his cell for about three hours. Then the guards would reappear and in Guantanamo slang tell him he was returning to the interrogation room: 'You have a reservation.' The process would begin again.
Dergoul also described the use of what was known as the 'short shackle' - steel bonds pulled tight to keep the subject bunched up, while chained to the floor. 'After a while, it was agony. You could hear the guards behind the mirror, making jokes, eating and drinking, knocking on the walls. It was not about trying to get information. It was just about trying to break you.' In their letter to Bush, Rasul and Iqbal also said they endured this procedure.
Another technique, applied in periods when Dergoul was being heavily interrogated, was to deny him clean clothes or bedding for up to three weeks, or to provide clothes which were several sizes too small.
Sometimes, Dergoul said, as with the 'attacks' by the ERF squads, interrogation sessions were videoed. Sumpter, the Guantanamo spokesman, said he could not confirm this claim.
Every four or five months, Dergoul said, he was visited by British diplomats and officials from MI5. Each time he complained bitterly about his treatment: 'I told them everything: about the stress positions, the interrogations, the ERF.'
Less than a month after he arrived, the Foreign Office sent a letter to his brother, Halid, which suggested they knew a lot about conditions at Guantanamo: although written in careful language, it described how he had been denied 'comfort items' and reported he felt as if he was 'living in the twilight zone'.
It also said he had lost a toe because he had not been treated with antibiotics. In public, however, the British government continued to defend the Americans' right to hold Dergoul and others at Guantanamo - as it still continues to do.
Dergoul's experiences have changed him forever, turning him into a devout and intensely political Muslim. 'I now look on America as a terrorist state because that's what they have done - terrorised us - and I condemn Britain as well for contributing to it. Half the people I met in Cuba had been purchased. If they really had been captured on the battlefield, as the Americans are always saying, maybe I could understand it.
'But maybe now they'll get their comeuppance. After what's happened at Abu Ghraib, if I'd been the Americans I would have destroyed those videos. Let them be shown. Then the world will know I'm telling the truth.'
Copyright: The Observer. UK.