In their first article in Newsweek since the magazine received a dressing-down by Scott McClellan, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas quote Defense Department spokesman Lawrence Di Rita, who alleges that Guantanamo commanders changed prison rules in response to prisoner complaints about treatment of the Qu’ran. But Di Rita’s claims couldn’t be further from the experience of Martin Mubanga, a recently freed Guantanamo Bay detainee who spoke to U.S. media for the first time this weekend.
Mubanga, a 32-year-old Londoner who was arrested in Zambia in 2002 and taken to Guantanamo, was released without charge in January 2005, after 33 months in captivity. He says that offensive treatment of the Qu’ran was ongoing, even routine, over the three years he was a prisoner. Mubanga says complaints by inmates about the desecration of the Qu’ran fell upon deaf ears, and often resulted in severe punishment, including pepper-spraying of prisoners.
Laura Flanders’ exclusive interview with Martin Mubanga was produced by Christabel Nsiah-Buadi and broadcast on The Laura Flanders Show on Air America Radio on Sunday, May 22. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Laura Flanders: Did Newsweek lie about abuse of the Qu’ran? What did you see?
Martin Mubanga: From my own personal experience and from what I know of what occurs in Guantanamo Bay, this is actually an ongoing thing for the past three years, so we don’t need Newsweek to corroborate or substantiate these accusations. We who have been in Guantanamo Bay know that these and other things occur in degradation of our religion.
Laura Flanders: You described a situation where your cell was searched by six or seven military police and a Qu’ran was thrown to the ground. Can you explain why that was so offensive to you?
Martin Mubanga: In our religion, firstly, the Qu’ran is believed to be the word of God, who we refer to as Allah in our religion. Basically the Qu’ran is supposed to be treated with respect and most people believe that the Qu’ran should be placed in a high place in a house or only taken with respect in a certain condition of purification or ablution. It’s never to be placed on a floor, on a dirty floor or to be treated or to be mishandled in any way.
Laura Flanders: What did those six or seven military police do?
At the time, there was a story going around that I was supposed to be a top-notch fighter, as they said, and they tried to provoke me in many ways to see what I could do. This was one of the methods that was used to see if I would fight and I believe that’s why they chose me on this particular occasion and threw the Qu’ran on the floor.
Laura Flanders: So, they came in, they threw the Qu’ran on the floor, then what happened?
Martin Mubanga: Well, as I was saying, there were two on either side of me, holding my wrists as I was kneeling down, and they had me in wristlocks. And one of the three that were searching took my Qu’ran. And instead of replacing it, to its place, he threw that on the floor… Rahul [Ahmed, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, who was returned to Britain on March 9, 2004] from Tipton witnessed this and he was in the cage next to me. And he remonstrated the soldier, the MP who did this, which they ignored. They wanted to see if they could provoke a strong reaction from me. And obviously, I was not able to do anything at that time.
Laura Flanders: So what happened after that?
Martin Mubanga: If you report it to the bloc MCO, like the commanding officer on the block or to the captain, it’s maybe just words. They say that they will look into the matter and discipline will be taken, but you will not be informed of any particular action that has been taken. So you know, even after that, another brother from Saudi [Arabia], who is also a British resident from South London, tried to organize various brothers to take a stance and try to get the general — at the time who was General Miller — to have placed at each and every bloc, a notice stating that no MP should touch or search the Qu’ran. This, however was refused point blank by General Miller and the hierarchy in Guantanamo Bay. Subsequently, this brother and other brothers thought that they should do some sort of actions to show their anger and to try and reverse this decision, which resulted in many people being “earthed.”
“Earthed” is basically when the minimum of five military policemen dressed in riot gear, with riot shields, would come in and manhandle you and put you to the floor. On occasion, you would be pepper-sprayed, you’d be tied and carried out. In this protest that took place, some brothers would be beaten, for refusing to go to interrogation, for refusing to go to shower and rec or for refusing to come out of their cell for the search and all they asked for in return was that our Qu’ran, the book of our religion, be treated with respect and that it not be searched or touched or desecrated in any way.
Laura Flanders: What other repercussions were there for detainees who tried to stand up for respectful treatment of the Qu’ran?
Martin Mubanga: The officials or the hierarchies would punish us by shaving our hair or shaving our beards, or even going to the point, there was a particular bloc Qubec Bloc and Romeo Bloc, which is in Camp Three of Delta Camp, where they would give shorts to brothers. In our religion, you are not permitted to pray while your knees are uncovered. There should be a minimum amount of bodily parts that should be covered while praying. And they failed to respect this particular ruling in our religion by giving our brothers shorts to wear for 24 hours. And also on other occasions, you could lose your clothing and your mattress and your bedding for failing to comply with camp rules. And all of this could have been avoided if they showed respect for our religion, its concept and its rulings.
Laura Flanders: You had plenty of time to figure it out… can you say now, why you think the soldiers were behaving as they were? Were they just bigots? Were they receiving orders? Did they believe that they would get information from you if they pressured you around your religion? How do you make sense of it?
Martin Mubanga: From my personal opinion it’s about politics. Bush and those with him in the American government and around the world were just looking for scapegoats and someone to blame. And they had to put someone in the picture. Having gone to the methods, or rather the extremes that they had gone to, they had to be seen to be getting a result.
Laura Flanders: Would you say that the soldiers themselves were motivated by a hatred of religion, or what?
Martin Mubanga: In my personal opinion, I would say that some of the soldiers were naÃ¯ve, some of the soldiers were receiving orders and some had hatred for the religion. There were a few who were quite simply following orders and rightly or wrongly they would follow those orders because they saw no alternative other than themselves being remonstrated or reprimanded. You know, there were a few who had a hatred for the Islamic religion and the Islamic way of life and people from the East, and had a general ignorance toward the religion and anything that was not American. I mean, there were quite a few MPs who had the attitude that simply because they were born in America, they were better than everybody else.
Laura Flanders: Is it possible they genuinely thought that you were in some way responsible for killing Americans? Was that what they said to you, that they thought you were a killer, that they felt you were a high-placed terrorist? Would this explain their behavior?
Martin Mubanga: There were a few MPs who had that opinion of me. I think far more, for my personal experience, that they failed to understand why I was in Cuba. Many MPs would come to me and ask about my story and ask why I was there. Quite a few saw me as being similar to themselves, being from the UK. But they had a very negative attitude toward brothers from the East — from Saudi, from Yemen, even from Russia and China, brothers who were classified as “Eastern Muslims” or “Muslims from the East.”
Laura Flanders: How has this affected you physically, psychologically?
Martin Mubanga: Well, coming back to the UK, there are things that I still have to get used to and that will take some time. But I am trying to put aside those things which are causing me some pain and are causing me some distress and some discomfort. Basically, I feel it’s my duty to speak out about the things that happened to me and happened to other people at this moment in time, in Cuba and around the world.
Laura Flanders: Do you have physical injuries from your time?
Martin Mubanga: I have slight injury from my time, but I wish to not discuss it, but there are some things that aren’t quite right. And I am currently seeking medical assistance for those things
Laura Flanders: And what about politically? The effect on your political feelings and opinions or attitudes toward the United States, toward your religion, toward this whole so-called war on terrorism?
Martin Mubanga: As far as I am concerned, I have never been against the United States. However, I am not in agreement with Bush and those who are with him. I think it’s fair to say that we stand at opposite sides of the fence! I don’t feel that they are the right people to be in power. I don’t feel that they will bring about any true justice, or that their motives are pure. And I feel that the power should be in someone else’s hands; someone more worthy.
Laura Flanders: Were you a very religious person before you were picked up?
Martin Mubanga: I suppose it would depend on what you would define as being religious, but definitely, my experience in Guantanamo Bay has made me understand my religion more and appreciate my religion more, and made me turn to my faith that much more.
Laura Flanders: Martin, is there anything else you would like to say to Americans in particular who might be listening to this, trying to make sense of what is being done in their name in Guantanamo, in this week of discussion about Newsweek?
Martin Mubanga: What I would say basically is that, we have to ask ourselves, as individuals, why things are being done and why certain stories are arriving at this moment in time. I think basically that there is more to this story than meets the eye.
Laura Flanders: You spoke outside the U.S. embassy on Friday; can you describe the scene there? How many people were protesting?
Martin Mubanga: There were a few hundred there protesting. Basically, I feel that the message was clear and the feelings of those who participated were clear. And I feel that there would have been many more except that people are afraid. And people don’t want to be in detention without trial, as could be the case here. And even here we have one Muslim brother, Ahmed [Babar Ahmed, a computer programmer who has been accused by the U.S. of using websites to raise funds for the Taliban and other terrorists], who is facing extradition to the United States without any evidence being presented. So I think quite clearly that people are intimidated and are afraid to speak out. But there are some who are willing to put that on the line, as it were.
Laura Flanders is author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species. For more upbeat, progressive talk about the issues that matter, tune into the Laura Flanders Show every weekend evening between 7-10pm EST on Air America Radio.