Omar Deghayes Comes Home

Argus title : We must welcome Omar and show him he will be safe here

My mother has a poor memory. The other day I reminded her that Christmas is coming. She looked a bit confused, so I asked her if she could remember what we do at Christmas. She pondered hard, then replied “We think about God”. I asked what else and she said “We eat a lot” and then added triumphantly “and we think about people”.

My mother has always thought about people. She was one of that generation of women whose lives revolved around their families. She did not go to university and had no career to speak of. I think my father would have liked her to work, but her own father would have greatly disapproved. He loved her dearly, but as far as he was concerned it was the duty of men to provide for their wives and that of wives to care for the home.

And so my mother spent her life caring for her husband and her children and later her own mother and grandchildren. She did not question things or rebel. My father, on the other hand, raged against the world. He was fascinated by politics and in the early days of their marriage flirted with the South African Communist Party.

In contrast, one of his brothers had allegedly been a fascist sympathizer before the war. When the family came together they loved nothing better than a full scale, red in the face, finger-pointing political argument. My mother hated it. The pulse in her neck would beat until she felt she was going to faint. I, on the other hand, loved it. It was pure spectacle.

My uncle’s wife would grin mischievously and add fuel to the flames, but my mother would do all she could to turn the argument and make peace. It never worked. It was a piece of theatre which had to run its course. You could no more stop it than slice the last act off Othello.

On the way home, my mother would remonstrate with my still-fuming father: “I wish you wouldn’t argue, Ian”, thus precipitating another outburst from him about the government and why people “had to take a stand”. Sometimes he’d shout and her eyes would fill with tears. She wanted peace.

In most things my mother bent to my father’s will, but she never learned his rage. She said she wasn’t interested in politics and for years I accepted that. Then I realized that in fact what she rejected was aggressive argument and the exercise of power on a public stage. She retained very firm ideas about how people should and should not be treated.

My mother hated violence. She opposed capital punishment and above all loathed torture. She was appalled that anyone could be caged and deliberately subjected to pain by fellow human beings. And so, one of the first things she did when she came to England from South Africa was to join Amnesty International. And one of her proudest moments – now lost from her memory – was when she tied her first grandchild’s bootee to the fence at Greenham Common.

She still sends Amnesty International money each month, though she cannot remember why. I try to avoid her reading my columns now, because I think they are often too harsh for her. But occasionally, she will see them. Her brow furrows and she says “I can’t believe this, In this day and age, how can people do things like this to each other?”

I remember she made just such a comment when she read about the imprisonment and torture of Omar Deghayes. Had she met him in earlier days when he lived and taught in Brighton she might have been rather nervous of him. She would probably have found his Muslim faith hard to understand and might have feared views forcefully expressed.

But if she met him now, afflicted as she is – and imprisoned as he is – I know she would try to help him. She would not know or remember that he has suffered more than four years of imprisonment and abuse, without charge or trial. All she’d see would be a caged man, maimed and suffering. Despite the ravages of Alzheimer’s, she would recognise the human being that he is – and tell his jailers to let him go.

Omar Deghayes amd his family found safety here in Brighton after his father was killed by the Libyan regime. He went to school and college here and helped in a local mosque. His family settled here, but he decided to travel and while abroad he married. He was kidnapped while visiting Pakistan – almost certainly by bounty hunters – rendered to the Americans and later imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. At that time Pakistanis could ‘earn’ the equivalent of $5000 by informing on others.

His continued detention seems to rest upon a case of mistaken identity. The name Omar Deghayes appeared on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and the accompanying picture was taken from a training video of a Chechen separatist group. Facial recognition experts confirm Omar’s family’s contention that the person in the video looks nothing like him.

Despite years of interrogation, during which Omar alleges repeated torture and human rights abuses, the USA failed to find any credible evidence of crime. In his harrowing prison diaries Omar alleges that while in American custody he has been: subjected to repeated beating; kept naked and in solitary confinement; deprived of food; locked in a box with very little air for prolonged periods; chained to a wall and suspended by the wrists; subjected to actual and threatened sexual assault; suffocated by water being forced up his nose; and permanently blinded by having mace and a finger forced into his eye.

Imam Abduljalil Sajid, is a leading British Muslim, based in Brighton & Hove. He knows Omar well and has made representations to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary on his behalf. Two years ago he described Omar to me:

“He was so caring about people, generous, gentle and so kind – completely non-violent. He helped in all sorts of ways, teaching the children, visiting the elderly and needy. He visited people in prison on my behalf. Whatever good work you could think of, he was ready to do it. I can’t believe that this could happen to him.”

It troubles me that despite the fine campaign launched on his behalf in this city, the backing of this newspaper and of several politicians and political parties, the public response to reports of his imminent release has been so muted.

Omar’s family, some of whom still live in Saltdean, have responded to the news quietly and with dignity. There have been years of campaigning, in which first the Bush administration prevented his release and then the Blair government refused to accept him back. The family has campaigned for his release for so long that they can probably hardly believe it will actually take place. They and the Save Omar campaigners are taking nothing for granted and are exercising caution. But such constraints should not apply to the rest of us..

Upon his release, Omar and his family will need privacy and peace and quiet. But this does not mean that his release should be met with silence. We should speak out and do it now. For what happened to our neighbour was an abomination.

It is to Gordon Brown’s credit that under his leadership the government has argued for release. Nonetheless, we as a community need to signal our outrage that Omar was jailed at all; our anger at the Blair government’s failure to protect him; our horror at the abuse he suffered; and our demand that he be released without further delay.

When he returns Omar will not look the way he did nor be the way he was. He will be damaged in body, mind and spirit, because that is the whole point and purpose of torture. He will need expert help, the solace of his faith and the love of his family and friends, and if he is to recover.

But he has been attacked on all sides by strangers. And so he will also need us, the neighbours he does not know, to show him he is safe here – and very welcome back.

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