I Was In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

by Rosa Prince And Gary JonesMirror.co.uk
Mar 12 2004

Jamal al-Harith's incredible journey to Guantanamo Bay began in the tough streets of Manchester's Moss Side.

He was born Ronald Fiddler in a family of Jamaican origin and grew up with his father and two sisters after their mother walked out.

At 23, Ronnie began learning about Islam and converted soon afterwards, taking the name Jamal al-Harith "just because I liked it".

He took a computer course alongside his religious studies and became a web designer.

He visited several European countries before deciding to go further afield to learn more about Muslims and how they lived.

He began studying the Koran and learned Arabic on a trip to Sudan.

The ill-fated trip to Pakistan in October 2001, just a few weeks after September 11, was his second and he planned to stay for three weeks, learning about Muslim culture and studying the holy book.

Divorced Jamal, who has three children aged three, five and eight, said: "Yes, I travelled to Pakistan in October 2001 but if that's my crime then you would have to arrest whole planeloads of people.

"When I was interrogated, the Americans used to say 'How come you're so clean? We've put your name and face through Interpol and we can't even find a speeding ticket'.

"I told them: 'That's because I've never done anything wrong in my life. You don't have anything on me and you still won't have anything on me when I walk out of here' - and that's exactly what happened.

"I think that's why they were so hard on me. They couldn't bear to admit they had made a mistake."

Jamal was in Quetta, on the border with Afghanistan and just four days into his trip to Pakistan, when the Americans began bombing Taliban strongholds.

He decided to leave for Turkey and paid a local truck driver 4,000 rupees - around £47 - to drive him.

He was told their route would take them through Iran, but he had no idea he would be passing through Afghanistan.

A few days into the trip, the truck was stopped by an armed gang.

They grew excited when they saw Jamal's British passport and after looking at his other possessions, which included a clockwork radio, accused him of being a spy.

He was taken to a filthy jail, held in solitary confinement then transferred to another prison.

He was again held in isolation and was beaten and interrogated, during which he denied he had been spying against the Taliban for the British.

Jamal later told the Americans how a man he presumed was a US agent had died after suffering a particularly brutal beating.

He said: "They tried to say the man wasn't an American, but I know he was. I am sure I would have got the same treatment but I made sure that every time my guards saw me I was praying.

"The Taliban liked me because I always had the Koran in my hands. I was beaten very badly, but not as badly as most of the other inmates.

"Afghanistan finally fell and I was visited in jail by the Red Cross.

"There were a couple of Pakistanis in the prison and they were allowed to go across the border.

"The Red Cross asked me if I wanted to go with them, but I had no money and no way of getting back to Britain so I asked them to put me in contact with the British Embassy in Kabul.

"That is incredible to me now - I could have gone home on my own."

Jamal stayed with the Red Cross in Kandahar for a week and, in phone calls to the British Embassy was assured he would soon be put on a flight to Kabul and then back to Britain.

But two days later, the Americans arrived. They drove him to a place described by Jamal as "a concentration camp", complete with watchtowers and barbed wire.

He said: "I begged the Red Cross to get me out or at least contact the embassy for me. On January 24, I was taken to a US air base and held there for another three weeks.

"Then my interrogator told me I was being sent to Cuba, but it was just standard procedure.

"I was assured it would take about two months to process me and then I could go free. I believed him."

For the next two years, Jamal continued to protest his innocence.

He said his interrogators would often taunt him by promising he was about to go home, only to pretend they had never said it.

But two weeks ago, Jamal and the four other Britons were met by the Red Cross and told they were finally to be freed.

Before they were released, the Americans asked the five men to sign a piece of paper confessing to links with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Jamal said: "This was given to me first by the Americans and then by a British diplomat who asked if I agreed to sign it. I just said 'No'.

"I would rather have stayed in Guantanamo than sign that paper.

"That night, all the inmates sang Islamic songs for me, wishing me well.

"The next morning, as I walked past them in chains for the last time, they shouted out: 'Don't forget us, Jamal. Tell the world, tell the Press, about what is happening here'."

Jamal was the only one of the five men not to be arrested when they landed at RAF Northolt in West London.

While Tarek Dergoul, 26, Ruhal Ahmed, 22, Asif Iqbal, 22, and Shafiq Rasul, 26, were taken to Paddington Green police station, Jamal was questioned with his solicitor.

"Then suddenly it was all over and they told me I could go," he said.

Jamal has vowed to sue America for compensation for his two lost years.

He said: "They deprived me of my liberty, interrogated and tortured me and let me go without even a word of apology."

He also plans to campaign for other detainees to be freed and given human rights.

He said: "I can speak freely at long last and let the world know what's happening there.

To be honest I'd rather go on a camping holiday with my family, but I know I have a grave responsibility to those still there.

"That's why I want my story told in the Daily Mirror."

Jamal, who has yet to be reunited with his two girls and a boy, said: "I want so much to hug my children and tell them I love them.

"They think I have been on holiday. They don't know the truth.

"I woke up last night when I heard the keys of someone returning to their hotel room. I woke up in a fright and thought one of the guards was coming to put on my chains.

"I then realised that the light in the room was on. When locked up in our cages, the lights were on as well, and I thought to myself: 'You can sleep in the dark now' - and I switched it off."

Jamal added: "One thing good about being in Guantanamo, was that it made you think. Time actually went very quickly.

"There was always something or other on your mind. It didn't pay to dwell on things.

"I tried not to think about my family for two years, because it hurt so much.

"I tried to contain everything.

"It was very difficult, but I survived - and I survived well."

Extracted 03/15/04 from Mirror.co.uk


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