The following report –- on actions across London by the London Guantánamo Campaign and Cageprisoners to mark the sixth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo as a lawless “War on Terror” prison –- was published on the website of the National Guantánamo Coalition. I reproduce it here because it covers, in detail, the range of events on the day, and because it gives me the opportunity to post more of the fine photos taken by photographer Richard Wolff, who can be contacted at: email@example.com. Thanks to Aisha for the report.
Friday 11 January 2008 marked the sixth year since the American Guantánamo Bay detention facility opened up to accommodate “enemy combatants” in the “war on terror”. Opened to detain and interrogate those deemed to be “dangerous men” involved in the 9/11 attacks, and attacks on the US in Afghanistan, no one held there has ever been charged in connection with the attack on the twin towers, and only one person has ever been convicted of a minor charge. Of the over 800 men who have passed through in the past six years, the vast majority have been released and returned home without charge or conviction. Five men, including three in their early twenties, have returned home in coffins –- four having died in uninvestigated, suspicious circumstances –- and the fifth died recently of cancer.
Deemed “enemy combatants” and thus not held under recognised international law, the detainees have sustained years of arbitrary detention with no real sign of an end in sight, and have been subjected to a regime of torture, sensory deprivation, and abuse of their human rights. They have also been deprived of adequate medical and legal assistance and access to their families –- all without any evidence of culpability or wrongdoing.
To mark this sad anniversary, on a damp Friday across the UK, demonstrations and actions were held in many towns, including Edinburgh, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and London. A variety of actions took place in London.
Campaigners in London from the London Guantánamo Campaign and Cageprisoners focused their actions on the British government, calling on it to act to bring the two remaining British residents in Guantánamo –- Binyam Mohamed and Ahmed Belbacha –- back to the UK, to urge the American government to close down Guantánamo Bay and to urge action by safe, third countries to accept innocent detainees who have nowhere to go upon release. In 2007, the British government took positive actions, resulting in four British residents being returned to the UK. The government must continue this course of action and back up its verbal declarations that Guantánamo must close down with concrete action.
At 11.30am, former Guantánamo Bay detainees Moazzam Begg (now a spokesman for Cageprisoners), Bisher al-Rawi, and Taher Deghayes, brother of recently released Brighton resident Omar Deghayes, headed a contingent of well-known activists to present a letter signed by prominent individuals and organisations calling for the British government to work to close down Guantánamo Bay. The letter also urged the government to take action to seek the release and return to the UK of British residents Ahmed Belbacha and Binyam Mohamed, the latter for whom the government has made representations but whose return was blocked by the US authorities. Having been cleared for release in February 2007 and deemed to pose no threat at all, the former has languished in Guantánamo Bay for almost a year for want of a safe country to be released to.
Outside Downing Street on a rainy morning, Messrs. Begg, al-Rawi and Deghayes were joined by Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, actors Joanna Lumley, Corin Redgrave and Kika Markham, Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel at Reprieve, the legal charity representing several dozen Guantánamo detainees, and journalists Yvonne Ridley, Victoria Brittain and Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files. After handing in the letter, those present held interviews with the press including ITV, Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Press TV, Reuters TV and the Islam Channel.
Simultaneously, the London Guantánamo Campaign organised a “statues” event at various sites all over London throughout the day. Starting off at 8am in the cold and wet at Liverpool Street Station in East London and Paddington Station in West London, groups went around various parts of east, west, north, south and central London, with one or two people dressed in the orange jumpsuits now symbolic of Guantánamo Bay, and sometimes with their heads covered in black hoods posing as human statues, as other members of the group handed out leaflets and spoke to the public. Overall the public response from Londoners was positive, with many people expressing surprise that Guantánamo Bay had been open for so long and showing sympathy with the plight of the detainees. Some hostility was shown by City-working folk at the ever-busy Liverpool Street Station who showed little sympathy for victims of torture.
Politicians took part in the day’s events too with Martin Linton MP (Battersea) joining the South London group as they raised awareness about local man Shaker Aamer, who is still held in Guantánamo Bay, and other detainees outside the Asda supermarket in Clapham Junction.
In East London, after attending the handing in of the letter to Downing Street, Green MEP Jean Lambert joined the East London group outside the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, where the public were very receptive to the campaigners and the message they were putting across. Ms. Lambert stated, in a press release issued for this event, “The British government must aid the closure of the Guantánamo Bay facility and other illegal prisons and help repatriate detainees. It is outrageous that so many have been imprisoned for so long without charge. That America has allowed this situation to continue for six years represents a complete disregard for human rights”.
The Central London group visited various sites of historic and touristic interest, taking in Downing Street, Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the City of London, the Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern, mingling among both Londoners and visitors to the capital.
Campaigners on the West London route met Karen Buck MP outside her constituency office in North Kensington where she called Guantánamo Bay “an abomination and [it] should be closed down”. Karen Buck, MP for Binyam Mohamed, who lived and worked in the West London area for over seven years, has agreed to meet campaigners from the London Guantánamo Campaign to work towards his release. In West London, campaigners also met individuals at the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in Westbourne Park, who knew Mr. Mohamed.
In North London, campaigners were joined outside Brent Town Hall by several Liberal Democrat councillors. Brent, home to three former detainees –- Martin Mubanga, Jamil El-Banna and Abdelnour Sameur –- has been particularly supportive of the Guantánamo detainees, with local MPs taking positive action, including a sustained campaign by MP Sarah Teather to have her constituent Jamil El-Banna released, and the local council passing several motions in support of the detainees and the closure of Guantánamo Bay.
Outside Paddington Green police station.
The North London and West London groups joined forces outside Paddington Green Police Station, where many of the British nationals and residents have been detained upon their return to the UK, although none have been charged in Britain, before joining a demonstration outside the American Embassy organised by London Catholic Worker at 4-6pm.
Around 20 people attended this vigil, which included a candlelit vigil for the five men who have died at Guantánamo Bay. At 5pm, the names of all the men at Guantánamo Bay were read out, including their ages and their nationalities. This was a particularly poignant and effective moment and many passers-by stopped to watch for a while at least; reading the names of those the US has effectively sought to gag and make vanish was all the more relevant outside its own embassy, showing that the injustice and repression suffered at Guantánamo Bay has not gone unnoticed elsewhere.
Vigil outside the US embassy.
Over 150 people braved the weather and joined the London Guantánamo Campaign at 6-8pm in Parliament Square for a demonstration opposite the Houses of Parliament calling on the British government to act to close down Guantánamo Bay. Demonstrators were addressed by Victoria Brittain, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Andy Worthington, Gareth Peirce, Moazzam Begg, Jean Lambert MEP, Bruce Kent, Yvonne Ridley, Hugo Charlton from CAMPACC, Stewart Halforty from the Stop The War Coalition, Jackie Chase from the Save Omar Campaign in Brighton and Chris Chang, an investigator from Reprieve.
All the speakers raised important points about the continuing regime of arbitrary detention at Guantánamo Bay. Baroness Sarah Ludford stated that the detainees must be released or tried and that there could be no third way out for the US. Speakers also emphasised the point that over the last six years, it is not just the lives of the detainees that have been destroyed, but also those of their families and all those who knew them. Several speakers drew parallels with the current situation in the UK and Britain’s own Guantánamo-style regime of arbitrary detention in Belmarsh and Long Lartin as well as through control orders. Gareth Peirce and several others addressed the hypocrisy of this country in its acquiescence to what is happening in Guantánamo Bay. Prisoners at other secret prisons in the “war on terror” were also remembered as well as those Guantánamo detainees who are now effectively refugees –- innocent men who cannot be released because their safety cannot be guaranteed in their countries of origin and need to find a safe third country to be sent to.
The demonstration was sung out by Chris Chang performing his rap version of Guantanamera and chanting led by Daniel Viesnik from the London Guantánamo Campaign.
The message from this day of action in the UK and other protests in other parts of the world clearly got through to the American government as, on 13 January, during a visit to Guantánamo Bay, the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that he favoured the closure of Guantánamo due to the damage it had done to the US’s reputation.
While continuing to call for the closure of Guantánamo Bay and the return of Binyam Mohamed and Ahmed Belbacha to the UK, campaigners hope that there will be no anniversary to mark on 11 January 2009 and that, by then, Guantánamo and other American secret prisons will be confined to the waste bin of history.
Jackie Chase (left) of Brighton’s Save Omar campaign, with a picture of Binyam Mohamed, and Andy Worthington (right).
Special thanks to the Green Party, Wandsworth Stop the War, We Are Change, Barnet, Enfield and Palmers Green Amnesty, Peace and Justice in East London and all the volunteers on the day. For more photos of the petition at 10 Downing Street and the rally in Parliament Square, see this Cageprisoners page.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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