When Omar Deghayes stepped off the train in Bradford on a cold, wet Friday night it’s unlikely that anyone suspected this casually dressed, middle-aged man with a slight limp had spent over six years detained without charge in the world’s most notorious detention camp.
The broken bones in Deghayes’s nose testify to the suffering in the torture chambers of Guantanamo – torture the British authorities are accused of complicity in.
At the infamous prison camp he was blinded when a guard sprayed pepper spray into his eyes and then used fingers to stab his eyeballs. Water poured from both eyes. Three days later the sight returned in his right eye, though bright light still hurts – an after-effect of living under Guantanamo’s constant, glaring lights.
I met Deghayes, pictured, at the recent launch of No More Secrets, a campaign by human rights group Cageprisoners to highlight concerns that the coalition’s Justice and Security Bill will end open justice in Britain’s courts.
I should have met him two years before at a talk at Bradford’s Impressions gallery, which staged an exhibition of Edmund Clark’s award-winning photographic project When The Lights Went Out, documenting conditions in Guantanamo and Deghayes’s then recent return from the camp. Clark told a packed gallery about the thousands of letters to Deghayes which had contributed to his release by highlighting public awareness of his case. But then he still felt unable to speak about his experiences in public and cancelled at the last minute.
Cageprisoners launched No More Secrets in Bradford too with a special screening of Yvonne Ridley’s documentary Spies, Lies and Libya, which explores allegations that members of the British government were complicit in the torture of Libyans like Deghayes.
His experiences make him sceptical about the official rationale behind the Justice and Security Bill.
“This Bill will be a disaster for the British justice system,” he says. “It makes evidence and court proceedings secret. The government says it would protect the intelligence service – I think this is wrong. This law is more about protecting government involvement in torture cases.”
Deghayes is one of six former Guantanamo detainees who issued civil proceedings against the British government in 2010 claiming it and MI5 were complicit in the illegal rendition and torture of British citizens.
Interrogation documents obtained by his lawyers uncovered blatant disregard for international law and human rights.
But it wasn’t until bundles of documents were discovered last year in a Libyan government office abandoned when the rebels seized Tripoli that the extent of British complicity was revealed.
Senior figures from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group including Abdelhakim Belhaj, currently military commander in the new Libyan regime, and Sami al-Saadi have issued a writ against former home secretary Jack Straw for rendering them to the Gadaffi government for torture back in 2004.
Deghayes’s detention was also justified on suspicion that he was a member of that group. He believes that what happened to them, and him, was part of a worldwide programme that must be exposed.
But the Justice and Security Bill with its secret courts, restrictions on disclosing documents and evidence to defendants and special advocates would almost certainly ensure that it never is.
Government documents state that in 2002 public opinion had “on the whole shown little concern about the welfare of British detainees or the legal terms of their detention.”
British society had decided that Arab lives were expendable in the war on terror. We believed that innocent people could never be accused of terrorism, stripped of their rights and left to rot in a foreign prison without the dignity of a fair trial.
Deghayes’s case gives the lie to that.
His father was a prominent lawyer murdered by the Gadaffi government in Libya.
Fearing for her children’s safety, his mother sought asylum in England. In 1994, after graduating from Wolverhampton University, Deghayes travelled in the Muslim world. He would have liked to return to Libya but it was too dangerous. He visited Malaysia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he met his wife.
“Afghanistan is really beautiful,” he recalls. “I loved my wife very much and I saw the people through her eyes.” They had a child. For a while, life was good.
When the US started bombing the country in 2001 Deghayes had to take his family to safety. They left Afghanistan for Pakistan.
But the US was paying a lot of money for Arabs living in Pakistan. He was picked up and entered the Kafkaesque system of detention and rendition.
“Many Arabs were living in Pakistan,” he says. “The Americans were paying money for each person that was handed over and the Pakistanis didn’t care. We were sold.
“We were locked up in a house and the Americans would come. We would be in chains and they would decide who to buy, who not to buy.
“It wasn’t slavery in the ordinary way but we were like slaves. There was this huge system of trade. The Americans would have to look at you first.
“If they rejected you the Pakistani government would come along and see if you were wanted elsewhere. All of it was paid for. We were like slaves, sold to Libya or Jordan… some ended up in Moroccan prisons to be tortured.”
Watching Spies, Lies and Libya at the Bradford launch was an emotional experience for Deghayes.
“The documentary makes me feel sad that these people and their children were handed to the Libyan government.
“When I was inside Guantanamo this was one of my biggest fears, when they said: ‘We will hand you back to Gadaffi and you will be tortured.’ They said that a lot.
“The people in Guantanamo were threatening us. Guantanamo itself is one of the worst torture places you can get but Libya is worse. That’s why they brought in the Libyan intelligence service in 2005.
“They would shock us under the stress position and expose us to really cold air. Then the Libyans would come in to shock us.”
But Deghayes worries that the sickening system could get worse. He notes that Britain was one country when he left and another when he got back.
“Liberty has been taken away from people step by step,” he says. “When I got back Britain had turned into a police state, with people under surveillance and stop-and-search systems. Muslims are suspects.”
He likens the dawn raids on houses and abusive treatment in police custody to practices in the Middle East, where people find it hard to believe the same strategies are being used in Britain.
“There isn’t that fair and just legal system that existed beforehand,” he says. “I think the change is really shocking and it took some time to adjust.”
He can sleep at night now but has problems. Certain things remind him of Guantanamo. He flinches at the flash I use to photograph him. Guantanamo’s a deep wound.
“Six years in prison has completely, radically changed a lot inside me,” he admits. “Trusting people, impressions, lots of things have completely changed but what I try to do is find advantages from this type of experience and try to use that rather than regret or despair.”
It isn’t easy. But it’s harder still to find advantages in a Bill which will bring in secret courts and an end to open justice in Britain.