Argus title : Detention that can’t be justified
Omar Deghayes, a refugee who lived in Brighton, is still alive – but only just. Since his arrest in April 2002 in Pakistan, he has been held without charge, first in the custody of the Pakistani Government and then by American forces at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan and at the USA’s prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Omar now languishes, on hunger strike, near death and, according to his lawyer, “bereft of hope”. He alleges repeated torture.
The Argus’ campaign to bring him back to Britain already has widespread local support and is backed by the 3 Labour M.P.s from Brighton & Hove.
Omar Deghayes wasn’t born in Brighton, but as a child he often visited here and settled when he was 16. He lived in Saltdean, studied and undertook voluntary work and became part of the community. He loved poetry and politics, horse-riding and football and followed Tottenham Hotspurs.
Friends describe him as a charismatic man of great faith. As one of very few Arabic speakers in this area, he taught the language to local Muslim children. He loved children, treated them with respect and listened carefully to their ideas.
It is well known that highly talented and ambitious children often use play to explore the calling they wish to pursue in later life. For example, in childhood, the Bronte sisters wrote small novels and plays to entertain themselves.
When Omar Deghayes was a child he and his siblings held mock trials. His sister Amani recalls that they were organized by Omar, who she says was “always fascinated by the law”.
I asked her if Omar was just. She said he was “always fair”, but insisted on due process. She laughed “The trials took a long time”.
It is hardly surprising that the Deghayes children should have been interested in the law. In the 1980s, their trade unionist father was arrested and then executed by the Libyan regime. The bereaved family fled to the UK because they already knew it well. They respected its traditions of fairness and democracy.
It is a tragic irony that Omar, who was so enthralled by legal process, should find himself illegally imprisoned for 3 years by the closest ally of the country to which his family fled for protection – and that his adopted country should seem to wash its hands of him.
It is another irony that Omar, who was given safety clearance by Sussex Police to serve as a prison visitor at Lewes Prison, providing support and comfort to both Muslim and Non-Muslim prisoners, should now be imprisoned himself without charge.
There seems good reason to believe that Omar’s arrest arose as a result of bounty hunting in Pakistan, where people in grinding poverty could at the time ‘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.
Imam Abduljalil Sajid, is a leading British Muslim, Imam of the Brighton Islamic Mission and Chair of the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony U.K. He knows Omar well and has made representations to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary on his behalf. He recalls:
“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.”
Despite years of interrogation, during which Omar alleges repeated torture and human rights abuses, the USA has failed to find any credible evidence of crime. He believes he has been targeted for particular ill-treatment because he has legal training and has spoken out against abuses through his lawyer.
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.
During these years, Omar reports he has been interrogated 7 times by British security services, but that they have made no attempt to help him.
Shamefully, the British Government has refused to act on his behalf because, despite the fact that he traveled using British documents and was domiciled in the UK for two decades, he is – unlike other family members – not yet a British citizen.
The British Government’s inaction in this case is symptomatic of a deeply worrying trend to look the other way when torture takes place or to relocate it elsewhere.
It has recently emerged that the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has used UK airports and RAF bases to move suspects illegally abducted or kidnapped by them to countries where they can be tortured without difficulty. This illegal activity is what the USA calls “extraordinary rendition”.
The Guardian Newspaper has reported that more than 150 men have been kidnapped over the past four years and transferred in this way from the UK to countries where torture is commonplace, such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Syria.
Andrew Tyrie, Conservative MP for Chichester, is establishing an all-party group to challenge this practice and has requested information from the Foreign Office about Britain’s involvement. He said: “I am appalled by what appears to be growing evidence of complicity by the British government in torture of terrorist suspects…”
The Guardian quoted one official as saying: “It is not a matter for the Ministry of Defense. The aircraft use our airfields. We don’t ask any questions.”
Some people may fear that Omar Deghayes is guilty of violent crime. There seems to be no evidence of this, but it is of course possible that he is guilty. Others allege that Tony Blair is a war criminal. He too may be guilty.
In both cases, it is the responsibility of the prosecuting authority to make a case under the law, placing sound evidence, gathered without duress or intimidation, before a properly constituted court.
Some may fear that Omar’s ideas are undemocratic and could endanger British freedoms. Even if this were the case, it could not justify imprisonment without trial or torture. For the human rights of one group of people can never be protected by destroying those of others.
Though the key issues here are those of human rights and due process of law, the bottom line is a moral one. And this is simply that detention without trial is a form of torture – and torture in all its forms is always wrong. It corrupts a society and destroys its soul.
Even if Omar Deghayes could be shown to be a murderer, there could be no justification for treating him in such a way – any more than it would be acceptable to beat or abuse his torturers, in the unlikely event that they should ever stand trial for their crimes.
It’s hard to hold to civilised standards when terrible crimes take place, such as the bombing of civilians in London or Iraq or the torture of Omar Deghayes. But governments and societies are rightly judged by the way they treat those who are powerless – especially prisoners.
This is why the campaign to bring Omar home is so important, though tragically it may be too late to save him.
The boy who, on regular childhood visits to England, rode horses on the Sussex Downs near Rottingdean, now lies filthy, emaciated, blinded in one eye and in pain. He believes that death will be his liberator. Despite the best efforts of campaigners, I suspect he is probably right.
He is at the mercy of the merciless. It will take a miracle to save him.