Former prisoners launch the Guantánamo Justice Centre in London

1.8.09

The US flag at GuantanamoOn Thursday, at the Frontline Club in London, former Guantánamo prisoners Sami al-Haj, Binyam Mohamed, Jamil El-Banna, Omar Deghayes and Moazzam Begg spoke at the launch of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, a non-profit organization, based in Geneva, with an office in London and others to follow in other countries. The GLC has been established by a number of former prisoners “to seek positive and peaceful resolutions to the plight of those who remain in the notorious Cuban prison, as well as other secret prisons around the world,” and it describes its goals as follows:

  • To help coordinate assistance to prisoners who remain beyond the rule of law, who are often subjected to torture and abuse;
  • To assist former prisoners to reintegrate into society in a positive and peaceable manner, many of them in countries with limited available resources, and with governments hostile to human rights;
  • To assist the family members of those being held.

The launch was trailed on Wednesday, when Sami al-Haj, the al-Jazeera cameraman released in May 2008, who now heads the Human Rights Desk at al-Jazeera in Qatar, told the Associated Press that the Centre “aims to help over 500 men who have been released from the prison get medical and psychological treatment and find jobs.” Al-Haj explained that “only one in 20 former inmates has a job, and many have received no psychological or medical assistance,” and stated, “If you lock someone up in a normal prison for six months they need help. These people have been in jail for more than six years in an institution that’s much worse than a normal jail.”

He added that released prisoners “have received no explanation or apology, despite having never been charged with a crime,” and also explained that the organization will “lobby for the release or court trial of the 229 remaining inmates,” and, in the longer term, will “explore ways” of suing Bush administration officials for ordering the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantánamo.

At the launch itself, which was extremely well-attended, Moazzam Begg began by explaining that returning British ex-prisoners had support from families, activists, community members and individuals, but that those returning to developing countries had little help. “Whether they are in Bermuda, Morocco, Mauritania or Yemen, the story is pretty much the same,” he said, as Reuters described it. “Where is the welfare for the people who have been tortured? Where is the support system for people who have endured cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment? The fact of the matter is — rarely does it exist.”

Adding that former prisoners face the stigma of having been held at Guantánamo every single day, Begg said, “How do you remove that from your head? How do you tell people that I am not a criminal, but I endured criminality? How do you explain that to anybody? When Guantánamo, by its definition, means that you must have been guilty of something because the world’s most powerful democracy could not have got it wrong. Even though we know it has got it wrong, we still carry that stigma with us, every single one of us.”

Describing the extent of the stigma, Sami al-Haj added, “My son does not deal with me as a normal father and even my wife and our close family like brothers and sisters and even our friends are keeping away from me because they do not want to put themselves in trouble.”

Binyam Mohamed, speaking for the first time in public since his release from Guantánamo in February, explained that he was not involved with the GJC “to win compensation,” and asked, “How much money can you give me that would make me forget the seven years I have gone through?” He also explained to reporters that, during an interrogation in Karachi shortly after he was seized at the airport in April 2002, his US captors explained how the US approach to the law had changed after 9/11. They told me, “You are guilty until you are proven innocent,” he said.

Describing his difficulties in readjusting to life after Guantánamo, and “at times struggling to control his emotions,” as the BBC described it, he said that he would “automatically” treat ordinary questions as an “interrogation,” and explained, “You have to live it to explain it. It’s very hard. If I enter a room and the light turns off for some reason I wonder if I’m back in the ‘Dark Prison.’” Mohamed was referring to the secret CIA prison near Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was held for several months in 2004 after being tortured in Morocco for 18 months on behalf of the US authorities.

He also said, “What the world doesn’t understand is that most people love to hear about torture stories — somebody hanged here, beaten there, blood over here, blood over there, but that’s physical torture. What remains [on release] is, each time you see a rope, you always go back to the time you were hung. That doesn’t go away.”

Adding, “I cannot fit into society,” he described the opening of the Guantánamo Justice Centre as “an important event” for the former prisoners, saying, “We are here and we are living in torture — a world of torture,” and, insisting that it was not a political organization, stated bluntly, “From my point of view, there’s a mess that has been done and someone has to fix it.”

Like all the other ex-prisoners, Mohamed was concerned not primarily with relating his own difficulties adjusting to freedom, and the ghosts of torture that still haunt him, but with the plight of others. He explained that he had recently spoken on the phone to Mohammed El-Gharani, the Chadian national — just 14 years old when he was seized in Pakistan — who was released from Guantánamo in June, and that El-Gharani was now “sleeping on the streets, rejected by his family, branded as a terrorist although he was released by the US and cleared of any wrong-doing.” “I realized that he can not talk to others, like his lawyers, as he can to me,” Mohamed said. “So I have to speak out for him here.”

Returning briefly to his own ordeal, he explained, “No one knows that what stays after torture is the memories. Lawyers speak about my rights in court, but I can only think about Military Commissions and about having no rights. After four years I can only think of things in terms of Guantánamo. No institution or medical foundation in the world can change how I feel.” He then added, poignantly, “And how about in Chad, where there is nothing to help El-Gharani?”

This was a theme reiterated by Jamil El-Banna, released in December 2007, who also spoke for the first time in public since his release. El-Banna explained, “The only people who can help are those who went through this,” and, as Victoria Brittain described it in the Guardian, “told the story of Ahmed Hassan, a Jordanian who lost most of both sight and hearing from torture in Guantánamo. He spoke of the moment when Hassan trusted him as they spoke on the phone and he was able to tell him he had found a doctor here who will help him. Hassan had previously found no material or medical support in Jordan, but only promises, which disappeared into thin air. El-Banna emphasized that Hassan’s was just one of many, many stories of deep disappointment on release.”

Moazzam Begg also spoke on this theme, explaining that the Yemenis, who make up the largest single group of remaining prisoners in Guantánamo (about a hundred of the remaining 229), were of particular concern to the new organization because Yemen lacked the facilities necessary to care for people traumatized by their long and brutal imprisonment.

He explained that former prisoners from Western countries were suffering too, and described how two men now living in London “were unable even to communicate with other people due to psychological and physical damage.” “One of them lives in a room that is so tiny it is close to the size of his cell where he spent five years. That is the difficulty in the UK,” he said, but he added, “Our own situation is much better than the vast majority of people who were held there.”

The former prisoners also read out messages of support from other ex-prisoners. Ahmed Errachidi, a Moroccan who had lived for nearly 20 years in the UK, and was repatriated from Guantánamo in March 2007, wrote that “the life of ex-detainees is simply a life on pause,” and from Qatar Jarallah al-Marri (released in July 2008) explained, “Freedom is more than walking away from a world of cells, shackles and beatings. It is a state of mind, a state of being that takes time to develop.”

As the meeting wound up, Moazzam Begg added further details about the Centre’s aims, explaining that it would partner with NGOs in the Middle East and in African countries who were well placed to deliver care on the ground, and that it was looking for funds from sources in the Gulf, Europe and elsewhere, and Ramzi Kassem, a US lawyer who represents prisoners in Guantánamo and in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, described the prisoners of George Bush’s “War on Terror” as the “victims of an ill-conceived policy” and criticized the Obama administration for retaining the system of Military Commissions introduced by its predecessor. “They only exist for one reason and that’s to whitewash torture,” he said, adding — in a sign that the GJC’s work will not be solely concerned with Guantánamo — that the estimated 600 prisoners in Bagram, unlike those in Guantánamo, are still being denied the right to challenge their detention in court.

For a short interview with Binyam Mohamed, see this BBC video, and see below for two reports on the GJC’s launch, from Al-Jazeera and Press TV (via YouTube):

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

12 Responses

  1. Darrin Waller says...

    The Center for Victims of Torture has been established in Amman – Jordan since Oct’08 with another healing center due to open in Irbid in Oct’09. We provide mental health and physiotherapy services to torture surviors as well as referring clients to other care agencies for additional support. I would be grateful if you pass this message on to GJC. Thank you.

    Darrin Waller
    Country Director
    the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT)
    Amman – Jordan

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Will do, Darrin.
    Thanks for getting in touch.

  3. DhafirTrial » Former prisoners launch the Guantánamo Justice Centre in London says...

    [...] organization, based in Geneva, with an office in London and others to follow in other countries.  (more…) [...]

  4. saleyha ahsan says...

    So gutted i missed this. I was supposed to try and come along and did not realise when it was taking place. I was on nights this week as it turned out. I want to see if I can facilitate anything medically and also a few other things I want to talk through. Who is the best person to contact? WOuld it be reprieve? Or the guys themselves?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Saleyha,
    Binyam, Moazzam and Omar are all spokesmen for the GJC, so I’d contact them directly.
    I’m told that a full recording of the speeches will be made available on the GJC website, which should be up and running soon.
    Best,
    Andy

  6. Brandy Bauer says...

    Bravo to these courageous men who are trying to improve the support to those held in/relased from secret prisons. We at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims have been petitioning various governments (but especially the US) to do more to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of these men, especially those who have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment. But we have so much more to do – not least setting up rehabilitation services in areas (e.g. Yemen) where many may return to. I’ll be sure to highlight this initiative and post it on the IRCT website.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Brandy.
    Great to hear from you.
    And for readers who have not heard of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, may I recommend their website:
    http://www.irct.org/

  8. mui says...

    Yes, I’ve heard of this in torture victims. I’ve heard it sometimes goes beyond post trauma, and involves brain damage.
    From the SPSSI (http://www.spssi.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.viewPage&pageId=1061&parentID=47 ):
    Comprehensive reviews of the psychological effects of torture (Basoglu, M., Jaranson, J.M., Mollica, R., & Kastrup, M., 2001; Gerrity, Keane, & Tuma, 2001; Quiroga & Jaranson, 2005; Turner, 2004) have systematically evaluated research with torture survivors, examining the unique consequences associated with torture and the complex interaction of social, environmental, and justice-related issues. As noted in these reviews, the psychological problems most commonly reported by torture survivors in research studies include: (a) psychological symptoms (anxiety, depression, irritability or aggressiveness, emotional instability, self-isolation or social withdrawal); (b) cognitive symptoms (confusion or disorientation, impaired memory and concentration); and (c) neurovegetative symptoms (insomnia, nightmares, sexual dysfunction). Other findings reported in studies of torture survivors include abnormal sleep patterns (Astrom, Lunde, Ortmann, & Boysen, 1989), brain damage (Bradley & Tawfiq, 2006), and personality changes (Ortmann & Lunde, 1988). The effects of torture can extend throughout the life of the survivor affecting his or her psychological, familial, and economic functioning (Basoglu et al., 2005; Mollica, McInnes, Poole, & Tor, 1998; Quiroga & Jaranson, 2005). Such consequences have also been shown to be transmitted across generations in studies of various victim/survivor populations and across trauma types (Danieli, Y., 1997; Daud, Skoglund, & Rydelius, 2005; Yehuda, et al., 2005).

    Studies conducted over the past 15 years strongly suggest that people who develop PTSD may also experience serious neurobiological changes (Friedman, Charney, & Deutch, 1995; Southwick & Friedman, 2001), including changes in the body’s ability to respond to stress (through alterations in stress hormones) (Charney, Deutch, & Krystal, 1993), and changes in the hippocampus, an area in the brain related to contextual memory (Bremner et al., 1995; Gurvits et al., 1996). Thus, the development of PTSD has direct and long-term implications for the functioning of numerous biological systems essential to human functioning.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Mui,
    Great comments, as ever. I was thinking about trauma when Moazzam was talking about the deeply troubled British ex-prisoners, and also, by contrast, when Binyam was demonstrating how he is coming to terms with his long ordeal, as Moazzam, Omar, Sami and others have done before, by, I believe, “owning” their experiences and devoting themselves to bringing the suffering of others to an end.
    Of course, while I remain full of admiration at how these men have coped, it’s painfully true that behind them are many others with no support network, no counseling, and, very possibly, no way of coping with their demons, and addressing this may well be the most important function of the GJC.

  10. Film Launch: Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Where: Cochrane Theatre, Southampton Row, London WC1 When: Wednesday October 21, 2009. Doors open 6 pm, film starts 7 pm. Q&A with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash starts 8.30 pm. Tickets are free but must be booked via the Cochrane Theatre website. This event is in association with Cageprisoners and the Guantánamo Justice Centre (also see here). [...]

  11. “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” « Earwicga says...

    [...] Where: Cochrane Theatre, Southampton Row, London WC1 When: Wednesday October 21, 2009. Doors open 6 pm, film starts 7 pm. Q&A with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash starts 8.30 pm. Tickets are free but must be booked via the Cochrane Theatre website. This event is in association with Cageprisoners and the Guantánamo Justice Centre (also see here). [...]

  12. Q&A with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] will be tortured on their return. Omar also spoke about the aims of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, launched in August, which hopes to provide support and legal assistance for released prisoners around the [...]

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