Moazzam Begg spoke first, and described how he had been shackled and hooded and put on a plane while American soldiers took trophy pictures of him. He made the comment about iguanas to emphasise the position Guantanamo prisoners were in: iguanas are a protected species in Cuba, human prisoners had no protection whatsoever from torture and abuse.
He emphasised the racism inherent in the "war on terror" by drawing a comparison between the British government's reaction to the IRA at the height of its bombing campaign with its reaction to 9/11. Even at the height of the bombing, IRA suspects could not be detained for longer than three days before they were charged and tried, and no politician at the time suggested increasiong the detention period. Now that the current "terrorists" are perceived as dark-skinned foreigners, the period they can be detained before trial has been increased nearly ten times. (28 days)
By coincidence, this conference was held on the same day as the US president signed an order to close Guantanamo. Moazzam Begg was not impressed, and commented that Barack Obama spoke about 'outlawing torture' as though he himself had just decided to make it illegal: "It has ALWAYS been illegal, at least in any civilised country". I took this to mean that he does not consider the United States to be fully civilised.
Omar Deghayes spoke about how doctors had allowed themselves to be used by the military in Guantanamo to help torture prisoners. They did this by noting their weaknesses and health problems when they treated them, so that the military could use the threat of witholding medication to extract information from them. He also said that doctors induced drug addiction in some prisoners to make it easier for interrogators to manipulate them.
Chris Arendt spoke last. He appears an unlikely person to be involved in a political campaign, and despite his experiences, he retains a youthful ebullience. He broke the sombre mood of the evening somewhat by illustrating the absurdity of the rules for both prisoners and guards in Guantanamo, with a story about the use of toilet paper. Prisoners were not allowed to have rolls of toilet paper because they were "extremely dangerous people" who had been taught to improvise weapons out of anything, including making knives out of paper. If a prisoner demanded toilet paper, the rule was, they were allowed exactly eight sheets. On one occasion, he handed exactly eight sheets to a prisoner who asked for some, but the man seemed to think he knew the rules better, and insisted it wasn't eight sheets, but three turns round the hand. They spent about half an hour shouting at each other over the correct interpretation of this rule. When your life is reduced to the inside of a cage, small concessions become hugely important.
Chris Arendt joined the military (the National Guard, roughly equivalent to the T.A.) for reasons which will be familiar to many working-class lads in Britain. He was brought up in a trailer park in poor circumstances, and joining the military offered an escape, and a chance of betterment because he could get college fees paid after he had finished his term of service. But his disagreements with his fellow soldiers over the treatment of Guantanamo prisoners made his life very difficult. There were a number of occasions when they beat him up while he was sleeping, or tied him to his bed. He was moved to a desk job to reduce his contact with prisoners because he treated them "too humanely". When he left the military, he joined a group of ex-soldiers who were opposed to the Iraq War, and later started to speak out about the treatment of Guantanamo prisoners. He admitted he made a bad soldier because he is capable of thinking - something which military personnel are not supposed to do! He blames senior officials, all the way up to the White House, as much as low-ranking soldiers, for creating the conditions in which it became "normal" to abuse prisoners.
The evening was both inspiring and thought-provoking. People like this show true courage: unheroic and unobtrusive, but exactly the kind of courage that is needed to oppose the evil in the world. The audience gave them a standing ovation.