Guantanamo. A story that has dropped out of media spotlight for some time now. But despite Obama’s promise, it is STILL OPEN. And there are still over 200 prisoners languishing in it. Many of whom have been ‘cleared for release’ but have nevertheless continued to be detained while the U S of A figures out what to do with them.
Andy Worthington, an independent journalist, painstakingly worked through 8000 pages of documents released by Pentagon in 2006 after a freedom of information lawsuit. These included the names and nationalities of all prisoners held, and 7000 pages of transcripts of tribunals convened to assess the status of these ‘enemy combatants’. Piercing together a chronology and a narrative about these 774 people. The result is his book, THE GUANTANAMO FILES, published in 2007. With Polly Nash, Worthington then made a documentary – OUTSIDE THE LAW: STORIES FROM GUANTANAMO (2009) – including extensive interviews with former prisoners Moazzem Begg and Omar Deghayes, and with lawyers who have represented prisoners and have advocated tirelessly for their release.
The documentary succeeds in doing the one thing that no other media coverage has been able to do: it humanises the prisoners. Men accused of committing acts of terrorism turn out to be soft spoken, articulate, eloquent and gentle people. Often the victims of bounty hunters who were motivated by the vast sums offered by the Americans in the early days of the war, these men were made the exemplary homo sacer: exiles from law. No protection, no representation, no rule of law.
Yet despite their years of confinement and torture, Deghayes and Begg speak without rancour or bitterness: they recount their stories and the litany of outrageous abuse with an almost detached matter-of-factness. After so long in detention and so intimate an acquaintance with ‘enhanced techniques of interrogation’, a perverse yet nuanced appreciation of pain develops: talking to anyone, even an unsympathetic guard, is better than complete isolation; a tiny cage cell with a partial roof is better than a fully enclosed cell that offer no light or air.
Although Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian detainee who was finally released back to UK in 2009, did not appear in the film, his story is told by Worthington, Clive Stafford Smith (director of Reprieve and Mohamed’s lawyer) and others. Mohamed’s case has challenged the British government’s position that it had nothing to do with the torture inflicted by US agents and proxies. He (and other prisoners) maintain that British intelligence agents were aware that they were tortured, and even assisted the Americans in inflicting torture by providing information that could have only come from Britain. Only on Friday, the Court of Appeal recently reinstated a paragraph in a judgement (the government attempted to have the paragraph suppressed) by Lord Judge Neuberger which stated that some agents in MI5 had a ‘dubious record’ with torture and were also less than frank about what they knew. Unsurprisingly, Gordon Brown defended the intelligence community saying that ‘It is the nature of the work that they cannot defend themselves against many of the allegations made’. But of course, it is also ‘the nature of the work’ that the intelligence community is rarely called to account for their actions.
One of the most disturbing and oft-repeated arguments defending or justifying torture has been the argument of ‘balance of interests’. Some in the media have disseminated the view that there must be – as this Telegraph editorial puts it – a ‘balance [struck between] the human rights of terrorist suspects who claim they have been ill-treated with the rights of the whole community to be protected from those who would do us harm’. This is a view energetically propounded by the British government, including by Jack Straw – the current (ironically) Secretary of State for Justice and former Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. In 2007, Straw delivered the Annual Stuart-Mackenzie lecture at the Centre for European Legal Studies in University of Cambridge. In his lecture, entitled HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, he argued that human rights must be balanced by security interests. Straw delivered his lecture with a politician’s polish. Shamefully, the usually vigorous crowd at Cambridge entirely failed to challenge Straw in any way. Only 4 questions were allowed, none of which addressed the one glaring problem in this calculus of efficacy that Straw was proposing: there are some rights that are non-derogable, including the right to be protected from torture. (There are only a few non-derogable rights under The International Protocol for Civil and Political Rights.) No calculus of interests should ever prevail over the protection of those basic fundamental rights. NOTHING can justify the use of torture. There is no balance to be done. No calculation is needed.
As outrageous as much of the Dubya-led response to Nine-Eleven, it is perhaps important to focus on the future. How to hold those responsible to account? How to help those still in Guantanamo?
Shaker Aamer, a British resident (Saudi national), is STILL in Guantanamo. He has been cleared to be released, but has remained in detention. Moreover, although his wife and children are living in London (he has never met his youngest son, aged 7), the British government has not helped him to return. Instead, the American proposes to send Aamer back to Saudi Arabia, where his wife (a non-Saudi national) cannot go. As Gareth Peirce, a prominent lawyer points out, Aamer is another ‘inconvenient witness’ to the complicity of European and British governments in the horror of Guantanamo. If Aamer cannot return to the UK to tell his story, to testify at public inquiries or court hearings, then the government can evade taking responsibility for its own guilt.
The stories from Guantanamo rarely fill one with hope. But it is not all lost. Although I am often sceptical about ‘do-gooders’, there needs to be people who are willing to do good. So, here are a few ideas on how to do something:
- JOIN the campaign to secure the return of Aamer to UK. He cannot be allowed to be disappeared to Saudi Arabia. Learn more here, or here. And sign the petition here.
- WATCH the film OUTSIDE THE LAW: STORIES FROM GUANTANAMO (at UCL in March) and read the book THE GUANTANMO FILES.
- KEEP informed about the issue and monitor what happens in other US detention centres such as Bagram in Afghanistan through these sites: