Moazzam Begg, Outreach Director of CAGE and a former prisoner of Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, remains incarcerated in the UK over allegations of involvement in terrorism in Syria. After his release from Guantanamo Bay, one of the books that Moazzam would often refer to and promote, was the story of Heba al-Dabbagh, a woman who was detained without charge or trial and tortured in Syria during the 1980s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. CAGE speaks with Heba about her reflections on being a detainee under the regime of Hafiz al-Assad, the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the resonance that period has with the conflict in Syria today, and the way in which Moazzam is being treated.

CAGE: Assalaamu’alaykum, could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Heba Al-Dabbagh, I was born in 1959 in the city of Hama, Syria. I was 18 years old when the first revolution sparked in the late 70s and early 80s. The uprising was a natural outcome of the conflict between the national Islamic movement and the sectarian regime that portrays itself to be a secular one. When the conflict intensified the regime started mercilessly killing and oppressing anyone who had anything to do with Islam. Whether you were part of the conflicting sides or just a religious person, as long as you appeared religious you were automatically targeted by the intelligence services. I was not an exception, I suffered terrible suffering in those times and was wrongly imprisoned for nearly 10 years from 1980 to 1989.

CAGE: You lived in Syria during the 1980s when there was a major crackdown on anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Please explain to us the history of that period and the reasons behind the brutality practiced by Hafez Al-Assad’s regime?

As I mentioned before, the conflict was between the Islamic National Movement and a sectarian junta disguised by secularism. Leading the battle from the national party were a group of respectful young Muslim men and the name ‘Brotherhood’ (Al-Ikhwan) was well rooted at that time of the conflict. As for me and many like me, we were caught up in the conflict and burnt by its flames just because we were committed Muslims. We would be seeking Islamic knowledge in mosques and other places, studying tajweed and Islamic jurisprudence. I did not belong to any parties at that time. As for the reason behind the regime’s brutality, it was a result of their sectarian hatred which they hid under a mask of secularism and modernism. Thus the actual war was a war against Islam, waged by a group of enemies of Islam.

CAGE: The title of your book is Just Five Minutes and it paints a horrific picture of the way in which Muslims were being treated in Syrian prisons. Could you please tell us a little about your experience at the hands of the Syrian authorities?

My experience in prison which I recorded in my book “Just Five Minutes” was not the worst of all. In spite of all the horror and cruelty I was subjected to, many other men were subjected to far worse. Allah blessed us despite the hardships with miracles of his ability to protect and safeguard us while we were in the belly of the dark beast. People must read the experience of the brother Saleem Hammad in Tadmur (Palmyra) prison which he recorded in his book ‘’Tadmur, Witness and Witnessed’’.

CAGE: ​As a detainee who has been incarcerated because of her belief, could you please describe how you coped with such oppressive conditions?

As any Muslim woman, I dealt with the tough test of imprisonment with all the strength Allah granted me, sometimes weak, sometimes strong, sometimes steadfast, sometimes broken, sometimes content and sometimes angry.

CAGE: Could you share with us what aspirations you had at the time of your incarceration? 

A prisoner’s dream is always his freedom. But in fact my dreams were buried in fear, that there is no way out of the prison, as my oppressors were known for their deep hatred for anything Islamic. Their policy was and still is the utter destruction of their opponents.

CAGE: Moving forward 30 years we now see a Syria which is divided with the son of your oppressor carrying out atrocities against his people. What are your impressions of the current conflict? 

The current conflict is the same as the previous one; the oppression of the ruler is the same, as is the hate of those that surround him. They plot to destroy the humanity of the Syrian people, supported by satan. The national movement in the current conflict reflects all Syrians of all backgrounds. I have no doubt that the victory is approaching. Despite the darkness, the dawn of victory and freedom is near for this patient nation. Allah will ease an honourable way out for the Syrian people, just as He saved me from the humiliation of prison.

CAGE: Have you met or come into contact with any prisoners that were detained since the uprising began in Syria? Can you tell us about their experiences and how it may compare them to your own experiences?

A prisoner feels emotionally connected to other prisoners; he feels what they suffer. Yes, I do keep contact with prisoners after their release.  I discuss their daily life and advise them on how to overcome difficulties and how to cope with post-traumatic complications. The current situation of continuous massacres does not allow us to exchange emotional letters or recordings.

CAGE: Many countries around the world are trying to equate the rebel groups fighting against Al-Assad with terrorism. Even Saudi Arabia has now specifically ordered its nationals to return from fighting there. How do you feel about the way in which the narrative has begun to change in relation to the conflict? 

A decisive conflict such as this in a region like ours, requires far-sightedness. It will have a huge impact on all the surrounding regions.  Whoever deals with such a complicated conflict in a partial manner will pay a double-negative price.

CAGE: You are aware that our colleague Moazzam Begg has been arrested under terrorism charges here in the UK for allegedly assisting those in Syria. What are your thoughts in relation to this?

As a former detainee I look at the matter from the detainee’s personal feelings, I advise the oppressed to persist in fighting the injustice against him using all possible legal routes. I have no doubt that the oppressed will get justice in the end, it is a promise.

CAGE: If you were able to give Moazzam Begg a message, what would you say to him? 

Any prisoner who has been oppressed must gather their strength and concentrate on the particulars of their case, especially in a western country where the judicial system is meant to be fairer. In some cases, politics interferes with the judiciary and destroys its integrity and transparency. The prisoner must set politics aside and deal with their case in a professional manner, far from grand theories. The main aim is to free oneself from oppression through seeking one’s God-given right to freedom and an honourable life.

CAGE: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said “injustice is a great darkness on the Day of Judgement” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2447). The shackles will break, but my advice to myself and everyone else is to work and act realistically and to not be distracted by big theories. Islam is a clear religion in beliefs and laws, but some Muslims, especially those active, work in detachment from reality, and they end up lost, neither here nor there. They do not fully integrate themselves into the real life that normal people live in order to solve their problems in the light of the guidance of Islam; nor do the people know how to make use of the knowledge and understanding Allah gave them. We have to learn how to avoid having the enemy use us for its own benefit due to the lack of understanding we have of the reality we live in. Not understanding this reality makes us prone to the political games and the hidden world of the intelligence services. It is true that Islam is the solution, as everyone says, but we have to learn how to exactly deal with every problem we face.

CAGE: Jazakillahkhair for taking the time to be interviewed.

You can read her powerful testimony by purchasing a copy of her book: Just Five Minutes Nine Years in the Prisons of Syria

We express our gratitude to the wife of Dr Abbas Khan for this translation from the original arabic. Dr Abbas Khan, a medical doctor by profession had travelled to Syria in 2012 to help save lives, but was killed in 2013 while in government custody.


(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)