Five years ago this week Omar Deghayes was released from Guantanamo Bay to return to his family in Saltdean. A broken man, suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress, it was feared that the law student would never be the same again. Five years on, in an exclusive interview with The Argus, the 43-year-old tells BEN JAMES how he has put his life back together.
Omar Deghayes was imprisoned without charge for five years in the world’s most controversial prison.
Suspected of terrorism, he was arrested in Pakistan at the start of the so-called War on Terror and taken to the United States’ military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
He says he was tortured, kept in solitary confinement and blinded in one eye by a guard at Camp Delta, a terrorist detention centre there.
Following his release in December 2007, he suffered from depression and the effects of post-traumatic stress.
Today, with a new baby, a new home and plans to set up his own human rights organisation, he is looking to the future.
Omar was born in Libya, but his family fled the country when he was a boy after his union organiser father was executed.
OMAR'S FAMILY: Mother Zohra Zewawi, 65, (second left) and Omar's brother Abubaker Deghayes, 39, (third from left) holding Taleb Deghayes, two, celebrate the news that Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes, 38, is on his way home after five years held in the camp. They are pictured at the family home in Saltdean with Abubaker Deghayes daughter Aisha Deghayes, 15, (first left) Tamara Deghayes (right) holding Taha, three months, and Ziko Deghayes, siz, (front)
His family settled in Saltdean, but on a visit to Pakistan in 2002, Omar was arrested and deported to Guantanamo Bay.
Following a widely supported Free Omar campaign, backed by The Argus, the government secured his release and he was flown back to the UK, where he cleared his name.
He says: “We were fighting for compensation but in the end we agreed to an out of court settlement on the agreement that there would be an inquiry into our treatment.
“That has been delayed, but I’m hopeful that it will start soon.
“I think it is important to get to the bottom of what happened and whether our treatment was the work of a few individuals or whether it stretched further up the chain of command.”
Omar is concentrating his efforts on helping those who are still imprisoned.
He said: “There are still six Libyans in there without charge or conviction.
“There isn’t the same amount of media attention on Guantanamo anymore, but for those six it is as horrific as ever.
“There’s no end in sight for them so I’m trying to do what I can to help.”
When asked whether helping those in his former prison brings horrendous memories flooding back, Omar pauses.
“Yes it does,” he said defiantly, “but they need help.
“In a way it is an advantage that I have been there, because when I work, I work from the heart.
An emotional journey
“The lawyers who help out always have a financial incentive, but I do it all voluntary and try to cover my costs. It is all from the heart.”
In the years after his release, Omar’s family life began to get back to normal.
But his world was turned upside down once more when his younger brother went missing in Libya in the chaos that led up to the overthrow and death of Colonel Gaddafi.
He said: “We were very worried about him. It was very chaotic at the time, with records being misplaced and mixed up.
“We eventually managed to get hold of him and he flew home to his family.
“He’s back in Saltdean and his children are now in primary school.
“He’s doing really well.”
Following the fall of Gaddafi and the Arab Spring, Omar felt inspired to seize the opportunity to transform his homeland.
He made the emotional journey back to Libya and now plans to set up a human rights organisation there.
He said: “It’s brilliant that we can go back and visit.
“For my family, we never thought that it would be safe.
“People there are free to think and believe what they like now. However, there are still plenty of problems.
“Gaddafi left a country without infrastructure, organisations or institutions.
“The new Libya is going to take a lot of work but I want to be a part of that.”
As a result, Omar is now straddling both countries as he tries to make his mark.
He adds: “That is the end goal - to set up my own human rights organisation which links both my homes, the UK and Libya.”
There is one important part of his life keeping him occupied in Brighton at the moment.
Just over a month ago, Omar’s wife gave birth to their third child, Ibrahim, at Royal Sussex County Hospital.
He said: “He’s doing really well. He doesn’t cry as much as my middle child, so he’s no trouble at all.
“I’ve recently moved down to the marina, which is really nice.
“I really enjoy living in Brighton. The scenery is beautiful and there are so many lovely walks and places to go jogging.”
It is not just Omar who has been inspired by the Arab Spring.
His brother, Abubaker, who was the driving force behind the Free Omar campaign, is now working at refugee camps near the border of Turkey and Syria.
Omar said: “He is a hard worker and is always going out his way to help people.
“I also have a lot to thank him for – if it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what might have happened.
“I would also like to thank everybody at The Argus and all the readers.
“I wouldn’t have the happy life I have now if it wasn’t for you.
“You were all there for me five years ago and I really appreciate that.”
Long road to freedom for Omar Deghayes
Omar Deghayes was brought to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and held until 2007.
The Argus’s Justice For Omar campaign backed calls by his family, supporters and MPs for the US government either to charge him or return him to Britain.
And the Save Omar campaign brought protesters onto the streets – in the unmistakeable orange uniforms of the notorious jail.
Campaigners claimed the Pakistan authorities had simply rounded up foreign nationals and handed them over as suspected terrorists in return for US financial aid.
Omar’s brother, Abubaker, travelled to Tony Blair’s constituency of Sedgefield to demonstrate at the Labour Club where the then-prime minister was announcing his resignation.
Clive Stafford-Smith, of human rights charity Reprieve, took up the case.
Omar was said to be a victim of mistaken identity, confused with a Chechen rebel who was linked to the Madrid railway bombings of 2004.
Eventually, the UK Government requested his release.
The ordeal was not quite over. Spain requested Omar’s extradition so it could conduct its own investigation.
But in March 2008 the authorities there accepted that the psychological distress caused by his time in Guantanamo meant he was not fit to stand trial.
When the first pictures of conditions at Guantanamo Bay were published in 2002, they provoked international outrage.
US soldiers stood over orange-uniformed inmates as they crouched on the ground, their hands bound and faces masked.
In the aftermath of the September 11 bombings and the Nato-led invasion of Afghanistan, the human rights of prisoners accused of terrorism would become a running sore in the West.
All British citizens held at Guantanamo had been released by January 2005.
But Omar, who is Libyan-born but has British residency, was left in a legal limbo for almost three years longer.
Evidence from FBI observers at Guantanamo Bay, including Camp Delta where Omar was held, was made public in 2004.
Their testimonies included accounts of prisoners being left manacled in the foetal position for 24 hours without food, water or the use of a toilet.
German shepherd dogs were also used to intimidate inmates.
Some prisoners with beards and long hair had duct tape wrapped around their heads.
Female guards gave lap-dances and fondled the prisoners to taunt them for their devoutly religious beliefs.
And strobe lighting and loud rap music was used for 16 hours at a time to mentally exhaust detainees, some of whom were interrogated for 24 hours straight.
See the latest news headlines from The Argus:
- Update: Armed police stand-off with 72-year-old pensioner ends
- Now for the real test as London Bridge Station opens new concourse
- Shoreham Airshow disaster pre-inquest hearing delayed
- One rail strike averted but still two remain likely to go ahead
- Man's body recovered from Brighton beach near the i360