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Beatings, sex abuse and torture: how MI5 left me to rot in US jail
In the first eyewitness account to come out of the infamous Bagram prison, Londoner Richard Belmar talks exclusively to David Rose
Sunday February 27, 2005
The security service MI5 turned down a recommendation by American intelligence that it try to recruit a British prisoner as an agent in the war against terror and instead consigned him to three years' detention in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, an Observer investigation has revealed.
The Briton, Richard Belmar, 25, who returned from the American camp at Guantánamo, Cuba last month, said in an exclusive interview that his skull was later broken with a rifle butt and that he was tortured by the strappado method of being hung by his wrists from handcuffs. He said he was a witness to the death of another prisoner which the US has officially classed as murder.
The disclosure that MI5 made no attempt to recruit Belmar and was central to the decision to detain him will add to the political storm over the government's Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which grants the Home Secretary powers to order house arrest without trial on the basis of secret intelligence. Earlier this month, The Observer revealed that another British former prisoner, Martin Mubanga, was questioned by MI6 before being sent to Guantánamo, as was a third, Moazzam Begg.
'In the House of Commons tomorrow, we will be asked to put considerable faith in the expertise of our intelligence services,' Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said last night. 'Accounts such as this do not inspire confidence.'
Campbell called for an official inquiry into the role of MI6 and MI5 in Guantánamo detentions: 'British intelligence may have turned down a valuable asset in the campaign against terrorism, while Belmar's treatment amounted to wholly unjustified abuse. A review of the actions of the British in this matter, and the extent to which our operations were part of the detention and interrogation process, is now obviously required.'
A Foreign Office spokesman said that at the very time MI5 was questioning Belmar, in Pakistan in February 2002, diplomats from the British consulate who had been alerted by Belmar's family were refused access to check on his welfare. Pakistan would not confirm he was in its custody, the spokesman said, and it was not until July that the consulate was told he had left the country - five months after his departure.
A spokesman from the Home Office, which is responsible for MI5, said it was 'no secret' that officers had questioned UK citizens in places such as Pakistan, but he could not comment on an individual case.
Belmar was born and brought up in central London's Marylebone area and attended the troubled St George's Roman Catholic school, whose head, Philip Lawrence, was later murdered. He trained as a mechanic and worked for the Post Office, converting to Islam in 1999. After a spell in Pakistan, he said travelled to Afghanistan to study at a religious school in July 2001.
Then came the 11 September attacks. Trapped in Kandahar during the subsequent US bombing, with roads and frontiers blocked, he said he made at least five unsuccessful attempts to leave the country before managing to reach Pakistan in early December: 'I didn't want to be part of any war. I wanted to get out. I was seeing people who'd been bombed, pieces of them everywhere.' Once, he said, he even dressed as a woman, wearing a burka - only for the driver of the car he was travelling in to turn back before the border because it was too dangerous. Eventually he walked across the mountains.
Returning to Karachi, Belmar said he stayed in a hotel for a short time. But he had little money and had lost his passport. 'My plan was to get home. But I was very scared, because I knew anyone who had been in Afghanistan was at risk of arrest. So I didn't try to contact the British consulate.' Belmar said he met an Arab who 'promised to sort me out,' and arranged for him to stay in a large house. In February 2002, Pakistani intelligence arrested him with the house's 17 other occupants, and detained him at the intelligence headquarters in downtown Karachi.
A joint FBI-CIA team was already in the city, some of whose members were investigating the murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl. Invited by the Pakistanis, they spent several days interviewing Belmar.
More than a year before Belmar's release from Guantánamo, a senior US official told The Observer that he had recommended Belmar's repa triation to Britain. He and his colleagues believed Belmar might be of help in the war against terror, and asked MI5 in London to send officers to Karachi. But when they arrived, they rejected the idea of trying to recruit him, and he was sent to the American jail at Bagram in Afghanistan, and then to Guantánamo.
Yesterday the official, who has many years' experience of counter-terrorist work, said: 'He was insistent he had not been involved in any fighting, and when we asked if he would be willing to assist us in the war against terror, I thought he might be willing to try. So we contacted the Brits and they sent two guys from MI5, but after a couple of days they decided they didn't want him. We had dinner with them one night at the American club. They were just young guys. One of them was an ex-cop who used to work where Belmar lived, and he said he'd vetted him and felt he was telling the truth. But they didn't want to try to use him, although they wouldn't say why.'
Soon afterwards, he said, he watched as Belmar was loaded on to a C-130 military aircraft without seats, chained to the floor and flown to Afghanistan. With a sack on his head, Belmar was chained with his arms behind him, his body bent double, his head by his feet. The plane made several stops. After five hours in this agonising position, 'I was wriggling, trying to move my hands to reduce the pain. Then I felt this huge blow to the back of my head. I think it was a rifle butt.' The result was an unmistakable dent in his skull. 'I suffered from headaches for a long, long time. My memory seems permanently impaired. It's like I'm going senile - but I'm only 25.'
Belmar spent more than six months in Bagram, held in one of several cages in a gloomy basement. He was forced to undergo anal searches in front of US guards, some of them female. During one interrogation, he said he was sexually taunted by a woman interrogator, who fondled his private parts: 'I told her she was ugly, cheap and I spat in her face. There were two guys in the room and I was shackled. They got me on the floor and started kicking me up, in the back, in the stomach, they gave me a real beating.' In another interrogation, he said, a handgun was forced into his mouth. 'It tasted cold, bitter. I thought, "Yeah, this is getting serious, there's a good chance they will pull the trigger."'
Belmar said he watched as another prisoner, a young Arab, was taken into a side room away from the main cages area after trying to escape from his cage. 'He was fine when they brought him in. They had immobilised him, and the next thing they were carrying him out on a stretcher.' The US military coroner has certified two homicides of prisoners at Bagram from 'blunt force trauma'.
He was hung from the bars of his cage in the strappado position several times for breaking the rule against talking, Belmar said. For the first two months at Bagram, he was not allowed to brush his teeth or shower: 'It was horrible. There were lice all over me.' Relentlessly interrogated, he admissions he has since retracted - such as listening to Osama bin Laden making a speech. 'How could I have done that? I didn't know a word of Arabic. Later they tried to make me confess to being at a training camp in 1998 - when I never left Britain, and wasn't even a Muslim.'
Both at Bagram and at Guantánamo, Belmar said he kept his sanity through prayer. The worst moment came after the first five Britons were freed last March: 'That was a very low point. The Americans sent me round a psychiatrist. He offered me anti-depressants. At that point, I thought I was there for life. But I refused.'
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