Archive for March, 2010

Andy Worthington discusses the release of Guantánamo prisoners with Georgian media

The flag of GeorgiaOn Saturday, I spoke by phone to Georgian journalist Ketevan Khachidze about the three men released from Guantánamo to Georgia last week, congratulating the country on its humanitarian gesture, and explaining why fears that the government is accepting “terrorists” are gravely misplaced, and are based on unsubstantiated propaganda by the Bush administration. In addition, I told the story of one of these men, Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, whose identity was released by his attorney, Candace Gorman, and I was happy to talk to Ketevan about his case in the hope that it would provide just one salient example of the terrible mistakes that were made at Guantánamo. I reproduce the article below, as published in The Georgian Times, not just for my contribution, but also because it sheds light on how decisions to accept prisoners from Guantánamo are reflected in political maneuvering in the countries involved.

I also reproduce another article, published on today on EurasiaNet, written by Molly Corso, a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Molly interviewed me back in October last year, when it was first indicated that Georgia would accept prisoners from Guantánamo, and her latest article provides some updates, and also includes information I provided during a telephone interview on Monday.

Georgia Helps Close Guantánamo
By Ketevan Khachidze, Lizaveta Zhahanina, The Georgian Times, March 29, 2010

The transfer of three Guantánamo Bay prison inmates to Georgia has sparked controversy in Georgia. The Government has justified the move by saying it is part of the strategic relationship between Georgia and the US. Some opposition groups however have denounced the lack of clarity on the issue and voiced security concerns.

According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, the Guantánamo inmates arrived on Tuesday and will live in Georgia freely under the control of law enforcement bodies. They will not be allowed to leave the country.

The Obama Administration had pledged to close the Guantánamo prison by January 2010 but as the Western media noted missed the deadline due to a difficulty in finding countries which would host the prisoners.

In a statement released on Tuesday the Justice Department thanked Georgia for making its task easier: “The United States is grateful to Georgia for its willingness to support US efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”

The nationalities of the inmates have been kept secret for security reasons but the Georgian authorities said they come from the Middle East. An Interior Ministry spokesperson said that the transfer was made after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs exchanged notes with the US State Department.

Strategic allies

The August 2008 war created a big headache for the US, which had to stand by Tbilisi in its official rhetoric at least. Many analysts note that Georgia is now trying to prove it is still an asset for Washington rather than a liability. Georgia has become the highest per capita troop contributor to NATO’s operation in Afghanistan for the same reason and this is primarily why Georgia is accepting the Guantánamo inmates today.

Davit Darchiashvili, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for European Integration, said that the decision carries serious political importance as “strategic partnership between countries is always a two-way process.”

“If a big part of [the Government’s message] is that we have a special relationship with the United States, you have to be able to demonstrate that. This is one way to do it,” Lincoln Mitchell, an Assistant Professor of International Politics at New York’s Columbia University, was quoted as saying by EurasiaNet.

Security risks?

Senior Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said the presence of former terror suspects does not pose any threat to civilians. “We have carefully examined their profiles and are confident that they will not create any dangers. Many countries have received Guantánamo prisoners and there has not been a single case in which these prisoners have violated the laws of their host countries,” Utiashvili said.

Pro-Western opposition leader Irakli Alasania also brushed off concerns that the inmates pose security threats to the country but was not happy with the Government’s explanations. “I don’t think the transfer of the three former prisoners is dangerous for the country. However, the Government is obliged to give clear explanations regarding this, and take relevant security measures,” Alasania told journalists.

Other opposition figures were more critical. MP Gia Tsagareishvili says the explanations given by Government officials leave the public unable to assess the risks involved in the transfer. “If the risks were assessed by National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili, I do not believe they are reliable. She has held too many positions, and during the August war we all saw her skill at risk assessments,” Tsagareishvili said.

Andy Worthington is among those who believes that the transfer of former terror suspects would not jeopardize Georgia’s security. He is a British journalist and author of three books, including The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.

“There is absolutely no reason to worry whatsoever. The men who have been released have been cleared on two or three occasions in the United States. The Obama administration has been very careful about making sure that it does not release anybody who may constitute any kind of a threat,” he said in a phone interview with GT on Saturday.

Moreover, Andy Worthington believes that Georgia should be commended for what he calls “a humanitarian gesture” and joining the club of all those countries who help close Guantánamo.

The Prisoner’s Story: from Libya to Guantánamo

Andy Worthington said he knows the story of one of the inmates who was transferred to Georgia from the prisoner’s lawyer. His name is Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi and he comes from Libya.

“He is a Libyan who had travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980 to fight against the Soviet Union. But after that he settled in Afghanistan, he married an Afghan woman and had a child. He and his wife were running a bakery in Jalalabad at the time of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. He heard that Arabs were being targeted. So, he thought it was better to move to his wife’s family’s village where his wife’s mother and father lived. He thought he would be safer there. But he was captured by bounty hunters and he was sold to the United States and he ended up in Guantánamo.

“Now in 2004 in Guantánamo they held what were called Combatant Status Review Tribunals. They were tribunals of military officers who looked at what the government claimed was the evidence against the prisoners and decided whether they should still be held as enemy combatants, as men who could be held indefinitely. In that tribunal the three men who looked at Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s case said there is no case against this man. We know this because one of the men, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Abraham, said they did not use anything that rose to the level of evidence and should have let him go. He later submitted a document that went to the Supreme Court in which he explained essentially how the tribunals at Guantánamo were a sham process. Two other American officers [also] said there was no reason to continue holding this man [in custody].

“What happened was that the government dismissed them, set up another tribunal and told these officers to change the opinion. So, it convened another tribunal to get the right answer … So, essentially, there was never any reason to hold this man. He was somebody who was picked up and was sold to the Americans because the Americans were offering bounty payments averaging $5,000 a head for people who could be dressed up as al-Qaeda or the Taliban and Mr. Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi fitted this picture, he was an Arab living in Afghanistan. The fact is that he had not been involved in any fighting for over ten years, and when he had been, he had been fighting against the Soviet Union.”

Georgia Officials Say Guantánamo Prisoners Pose No Threat
By Molly Corso, Eurasianet, March 30, 2010

Eager to demonstrate its reliability as Washington’s strategic partner, the Georgian government is downplaying security concerns about three former prisoners dispatched from the United States’ Guantánamo Bay prison to Georgia.

US President Barack Obama’s administration has been under ongoing pressure to find new homes for prisoners housed at the US-run Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba after pledging to close the facility by January 2010. Over 180 prisoners remain in limbo.

Georgian opposition groups have raised concerns about potential risks from Tbilisi’s willingness to help house former Guantánamo detainees, but ruling party politicians and government officials have brushed aside worries that the three men pose any security threat.

“The Georgian government made the decision to accept several detainees as part of our strategic partnership with the United States,” Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Gigi Tsereteli commented to EurasiaNet.org. “Three or four people is [sic] not any threat for the Georgian state.” One senior Ministry of Internal Affairs official underlined that the trio will live “normal lives” in their host country.

A special group of ministry representatives traveled to the Guantánamo prison in December 2009 to interview possible detainees for relocation, said Shota Utiashvili, head of the ministry’s analytical department. The Georgian government was satisfied that the men are not dangerous, although wanted to confirm that they were not “psychologically damaged,” he added. The men have already contacted their families, and are free to bring them to Georgia if they wish, Utiashvili continued.

The men are currently housed in Tbilisi and have been provided with language tutors to help them learn Georgian. Utiashvili said that the Georgian government is not paying for the men’s accommodations or needs, but would not elaborate about who is covering the cost of their care. He would not identify any of the ex-prisoners.

The US attorney for one of the men, however, maintains that he is far from being a terrorist. In March 23 comments posted on her blog, Chicago-based attorney H. Candace Gorman identified one of the transferred prisoners as Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi. In published interviews, Gorman has described al-Ghizzawi as a Libyan baker in his mid-40s with an Afghan wife and small daughter. He allegedly fled Libya for Afghanistan in the 1980s, and opened a spice shop and bakery.

His story appears to be well known among anti-Guantánamo activists like British journalist and filmmaker Andy Worthington, who has made a documentary about the prison. Worthington claims that al-Ghizzawi was among scores of Arab nationals scooped up by bounty hunters looking to trade alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers for cash. Al-Ghizzawi was declared innocent by a military tribunal in 2004, but was not released [because a second tribunal was convened, which reversed that opinion — see above]. Attorney Gorman writes on her blog that he suffered health problems while in prison and was often in solitary confinement.

Utiashvili would not confirm or deny that al-Ghizzawi is one of the three former Guantánamo prisoners sent to Georgia.

Opposition figures like Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, have called for greater transparency about the transfer. Discussions about such a transfer were ongoing as of late autumn 2009, according to Georgian government statements made to EurasiaNet.org. But filmmaker Worthington noted that it is often in the men’s best interests not to be identified. Family members at home could face retribution, he said.

Another concern is the reaction in the host country. Detainees face “almost complete ignorance about any of the details of Guantánamo” in any host country, which can lead to misperceptions by the local population, Worthington claimed.

So far, however, ordinary Georgians, long used to riding the waves of larger powers’ foreign policies, appear to have responded to the trio’s arrival with equanimity. The three men have, in fact, already contributed to the country’s rich culture of self-deprecating jokes.

A cartoon published on March 29 by the weekly newspaper Kviris Palitra illustrated their reaction to being transferred to Georgia, a country still struggling to recover from the 2008 war with Russia and years of economic decline. Lament the men: “But we didn’t harm (America) that much!”

POSTSCRIPT/CORRECTION: Candace Gorman informs me that the US authorities never even attempted to back up its claim, mentioned many years ago in one of its “Summaries of Unclassified Evidence,” that Mr. al-Ghizzawi had been “encouraged to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahideen,” and had “moved to Pakistan to take up the Afghan case.” In the fog of allegations masquerading as evidence, I’m sorry to report that I had given weight to this allegation, whereas it appears that Mr. al-Ghizzawi was, in fact, nothing more than a refugee from Libya who had settled in Afghanistan.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Video: Q&A session at Glasgow screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” with Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Aamer Anwar

Last Thursday, the Q&A session following the screening in Glasgow of the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington) was filmed by We Are Change Glasgow, and I’m happy to report that the session, featuring former prisoner Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar (and chaired by Nicola Fisher, the chair of the Glasgow Stop the War Coalition) is now available via YouTube on six videos that are posted below:

In the first part, Andy discussed British resident Shaker Aamer, featured in the film, who is still held, despite being cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007, and encouraged the audience to send a letter to foreign secretary David Miliband, handed out to everyone before the screening, asking him to do all in his power to secure Shaker’s return. Andy also explained that the letter asks for the return of Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived in the UK and is terrified of returning to Algeria, and also asks for the British government to accept other cleared prisoners like Ahmed, who cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture in their home countries.

The rationale, as Andy explained it, is in part as a recompense for Britain’s intimate and extensive involvement in the crimes committed in the “War on Terror,” and in part because David Miliband’s protestations that Britain has already done its part in helping to close Guantánamo is a naked lie, as the UK has done no more than accept its own nationals and residents, and has not taken other prisoners who cannot be repatriated, like Algeria, Belgium, Bermuda, France, Georgia, Hungary, Ireland, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland.

Aamer Anwar followed up by explaining how ordinary people can help, and referred, as an example, to how he had attended a meeting in Glasgow many years ago, attended by Moazzam Begg’s father, when people asked what difference their own contributions could make, and were provided with clear evidence that they could indeed make a difference when Moazzam was finally released. Aamer also spoke about the recent revelations of British complicity in torture, insisting that public pressure would help to expose this story.

In the second part, Aamer concluded this theme, and then handed the mike on to Omar, who talked about how British agents had interrogated him in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and also explained how Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, had encouraged Omar’s family to use the media to press for his release, and how this message had been picked up on by local campaigners in Brighton, who mounted a concerted campaign, which, ultimately, was successful.

Sadly, the next few questions asked by the audience are largely inaudible (although they concerned religious abuse, compensation for former prisoners, and a question about why President Obama has failed to close Guantánamo), until one audience member was given a mike, and asked about whether Omar was given any counseling after his release. In response to the questions, Omar discussed how the US authorities used religious abuse in Guantánamo, and also answered the question about compensation by discussing the work of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, of which he is the legal director. Established by former prisoners, part of the GJC’s work involves attempts to provide welfare for former prisoners, who are given no support — either financial, psychological or medical — on their release, and part involves establishing cases for compensation, like the one that is currently before the UK courts.

In the third part, Aamer continued a statement about the failure to close Guantánamo that he started at the end of part 2, and Andy ran through the reasons that the deadline for the closure of Guantánamo by January 2010 was initially feasible, but was derailed when Barack Obama sidelined White House Counsel Greg Craig, who had insisted on the deadline and came close to bringing some cleared prisoners to live in the US. Andy also ran through the statistics regarding the remaining prisoners — Obama’s interagency Task Force’s conclusion that 101 of the remaining 183 men can be released, 35 should face trials, and 47, shockingly, should continue to be held without charge or trial. Andy also pointed out the significance of how, in 34 of the 45 habeas corpus petitions examined in US courts, judges have concluded that the government failed to establish a case that the men in question had any connection with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

At the end of the previous section, two audience members raised the topic of torture and accountability for those responsible for the crimes of the “War on Terror,” and this theme continued throughout the final round of questions (and, sadly, includes one long and largely inaudible question). In response, Andy reiterated how torture is not only illegal, morally corrosive and counter-productive, but also how it is unacceptable that it has become regarded as something necessary to many in the West, and that we must continue to oppose it, and to educate people about why it is wrong.

Andy’s answer continued into part 5, when Aamer took over, explaining, once more, how public pressure is immensely important, and running through Britain’s history of complicity in torture, how it has been hidden for many years, and why we need a public inquiry to reveal the full details of UK involvement in the “War on Terror.” Omar then mentioned how the story of the “War on Terror” goes beyond Guantánamo, stretching to Bagram in Afghanistan and up to 20 prisons in Pakistan, run on behalf of the CIA.

In the final part, Omar continued his concluding comments, speaking more about the legal work of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, and its mission to build cases against those who authorized and abetted the crimes committed in the “War on Terror,” at Guantánamo and elsewhere, and called for help from lawyers, law professors and law students to help accomplish this work. As he did elsewhere on the trip, Omar also spoke about the significance of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, tortured in Egypt on behalf of the CIA until he came up with a false confession about connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, explaining how he was then returned to Libya, when he was of no further use, and was killed in May last year.

My thanks, again, to Scotland Against Criminalising Communities and the Glasgow Stop the War Coalition for organizing the event in Glasgow. A report on the whole Scottish trip — which included screenings in Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh — is available here, and full details of the ongoing UK tour are here.

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a Spectacle Production (74 minutes, 2009), and copies of the DVD are now available. As featured on Democracy Now!, ABC News and Truthout. See here for videos of the Q&A session (with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash) that followed the launch of the film in London on October 21, 2009.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

An interview with Omar Deghayes, following Kent screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”

Omar DeghayesOn Sunday, the newspaper Kent on Sunday published the following interview with former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, following a very successful screening of the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington) at the University of Kent on March 18. The screening was attended by Omar and Andy, and a report is available here. I reproduce the interview below, as it provides some insight into why Omar agreed to take part in the film, and what he hopes that the ongoing tour of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” will achieve.

Guantánamo detainee keeps his promise to prisoners

KENT NEWS: Former Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes paid a visit to Kent to help fulfil a promise made to fellow inmates after six years of captivity.

The Libyan-born British citizen claims he was blinded, beaten and sexually assaulted at the notorious American detention camp between 2002 and 2007, despite having never been charged with an offence.

He is now one of six former Guantánamo detainees who are suing the British government and its intelligence agencies for alleged complicity in their abuse while behind bars.

Mr Deghayes is also featured in a new documentary entitled “Outside the Law”, which was introduced by co-director Andy Worthington at the University of Kent last week.

He said: “I already knew Andy and knew he had studied the subject deeply.

“He didn’t just take what the Americans and the British government told him and he really made an effort to find the truth.

“When I came home from Guantánamo I was silent for more than a year, but when Andy told me about this film I decided to speak to him because I knew he would use the information in a better way.

“I felt that I hadn’t done enough for the people still inside the camp, who I promised I would do my best to help once released.

“I blamed myself for not sticking to that promise earlier, but I’m hoping to make up for it now by spreading the word about what goes on inside places like Guantánamo.”

Born in 1969, Mr Deghayes and his family regularly went on holiday to Saltdean, near Brighton, until they moved to England permanently in 1980 after the execution of his father, a vocal opponent of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

After graduating with a law degree from the University of Wolverhampton, Mr Deghayes went travelling and eventually settled in Afghanistan, where he met his wife and brought up their son.

However, the family fled to Pakistan after the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, which turned out to be the worst decision they would ever make.

Mr Deghayes said: “After September 11, bounty hunters were being paid a lot of money for any Arabs living in Pakistan, especially those who had been in Afghanistan. Many people were rounded up and handed over to the Americans, but most were never convicted.

“Guantánamo was a cruel and barbaric place. The guards tried their best to humiliate inmates and break us down, stupidly thinking they could get more information that way.

“I lost the sight in one eye and they broke my nose and my ribs. I’ve had operations on my fingers, which they crushed in a door.

“I’ve been beaten more times than I can remember and was put through psychological and sexual abuse as well. They were suspicious of anything and everything, and always thought there was something to be found.

“Most of us couldn’t see how we would ever be released, but I never lost hope.”

Despite still struggling to come to terms with his experiences, Mr Deghayes says he is determined to spread the word so others do not have to suffer.

He added: “President Obama promised he would shut Guantánamo but it hasn’t happened and there are still innocent people locked up. It’s sad to see it dragging on.

“But Guantánamo is only one prison and we fear that if he shuts that, people will forget about the others. That’s one of the reasons why I’m involved with the documentary, because we don’t want the prisoners to be moved from one camp to another.”

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

A warm Scottish welcome for “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoFormer Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes and I have just returned from an excellent week-long trip to Scotland, where we were promoting the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and myself) as part of an ongoing UK tour of the film. We also encouraged audiences to write to foreign secretary David Miliband asking him to press for the return to the UK of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident held at the prison, so that he can be reunited with his British wife and children after more than eight years. A template of that letter can be found here, and please also see this Amnesty International campaign page.

Shaker’s story is the focus of the film (along with the stories of Binyam Mohamed and Omar), and Omar and I have been pointing out how despicable it is that he is still held, despite being cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007. As his US lawyer, Brent Mickum, recently explained, “His detention is purely political. It has nothing to do with justice and what he has done. It is more to do with what has been done to him.” What Shaker did, as the film explains, was to campaign relentlessly inside Guantánamo for the rights of all the prisoners to be treated humanely, and to be charged or released, and what has been done to him includes torture and prolonged solitary confinement.

The Scottish tour of “Outside the Law” began last Monday. Omar had come to London from Brighton on Sunday evening, and had stayed at my home, so that we would have no problems getting across town to King’s Cross for the 10.30 train to Dundee. In the end, this neat plan was almost derailed when I left the house without a copy of the film, but we made it to King’s Cross with minutes to spare, and chatted away the hours to Dundee, discussing, in particular, the work of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, for whom Omar is the legal director. The GJC seeks funds to provide for the welfare of former prisoners, none of whom receive any compensation or financial support on their release, and also to bring legal cases against those involved in the prisoners’ capture, detention, interrogation and torture, along the lines of cases already initiated in the UK and Spain.

On arrival in Dundee, we were met by Craig Kelly, the organizer of Monday’s screening (and the Vice President of Campaigns for the Student Association), who took us to a restaurant on campus, where we grabbed a bite to eat before the screening. We were also introduced to Andrew Smith, the President of the Student Association, and we also met up with Ann Alexander, our host for the night. Ann is a friend of many of the men held on control orders or deportation bail in the UK (men held without charge or trial, and on the basis of secret evidence), and is a tireless campaigner for their rights. Although it is my pleasure to have known Ann for several years, both through email correspondence and phone calls, we had never actually met in person, and it was a true delight to finally do so.

The screening, in a lecture theatre in a smart new building, was very successful, with over 70 people turning up, and a lively Q&A session afterwards with Omar and myself, followed by discussions with the most engaged members of the audience. We were then picked up by Ann’s husband and driven to their lovely home outside Dundee, where we were given a wonderful meal — fresh Arbroath smokies, potatoes and salad — and then stayed up talking for half the night.

The particular focus of our discussions were the men held under control orders or deportation bail in the UK, but although I have written extensively about the plight of these men, Ann knows more about their stories than almost anyone, and it was inspiring to hear how she had become involved in befriending them — when an Italian she was writing to, who was being held pending deportation, asked her to write to a Muslim prisoner, Rachid Ramda, and she stumbled on a largely unreported world of Muslim prisoners held without charge or trial in the UK.

Ann also told some harrowing tales of how the men on control orders are treated — obliged to relocate to other parts of the country, often housed in horribly squalid flats, and subjected to such intolerable stresses (if they are married with children) or isolation (if they are not), as a result, for example, of the regular raids by Home Office security personnel at all times of the day or night, that some have descended into what the lawyer Gareth Peirce described as “florid psychosis,” and have spent time in secure psychiatric hospitals.

Omar, Ann and I also discussed how worrying it is that this demonstrably cruel system, designed, cynically, to encourage foreign terror suspects to return voluntarily to their home countries, even when they face the risk of torture, is now being applied to British citizens, who, of course, have no other country to return to. Omar and I began discussing plans to establish an event, or a series of events to publicize the plight of these men, with the help of a number of other men who were formerly held on control orders, but who had those orders revoked or quashed in the last nine months, since a significant Law Lords ruling last June.

From Dundee, Omar and I caught the train to Aberdeen, which was only a 90-minute journey, although it surprised us both that Aberdeen was noticeably colder than Dundee – and surprised us rather less that it was drizzling as we emerged from the station. Nevertheless, while admiring the solid grey granite architecture, we located the guest house provided by the Student Association for the night, and then set off on foot for the university, a half-hour walk that enabled us to get a feel for the city, which looked beautiful at dusk, as the lights flickered on in some of the more picturesque streets.

Arriving at the university, on an ancient site on a hill to the north of modern Aberdeen, we were met with enthusiasm by Annika Wipprecht of the Amnesty International student group, and two of her colleagues, who were charming company, and who had done a great job of publicizing the event. As with Dundee, over 70 people crowded into a lecture theatre, and Omar and I were honoured that the Q&A session was chaired by Robin Parker, the President of the Student Association, and that afterwards a number of audience members stayed behind to discuss some of the topics raised during the evening in greater detail – and, as elsewhere on the tour, to buy copies of my book The Guantánamo Files.

Finally, two very engaged Stop the War activists drove Omar and I back to the centre of Aberdeen, where we stopped at an Indian restaurant for a biryani, and then made our way back to the guest house, where, instead of getting an early night, we stayed up chatting for hours, discussing plans for regular meetings between us to work out how to publicize the stories of the men still held in Guantánamo, and how to further the campaign against control orders, and the work of the GJC.

In the morning, I hauled myself out of bed for breakfast, after too little sleep, while Omar took some much-needed extra rest, and then we trudged the streets in the rain, looking for a coffee shop that we eventually located in the shopping centre next to the station. At 12, we bid farewell to Aberdeen, heading south to Edinburgh, very well known to me, and also known to Omar after a visit on the Cageprisoners’ tour, “Two Sides One Story,” last year. At the station, we were met by Richard Haley, indefatigable human rights and anti-war campaigner, who was hosting our visit to Edinburgh and Glasgow through the organization for whom he is the secretary, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC).

Richard drove us back to the flat he shares with his fellow campaigner, Julia Davidson, where a BBC reporter was waiting to interview Omar for a religious affairs programme that was broadcast on Sunday, and we then made our way back to central Edinburgh, grabbing a quick — and delicious — curry at the mosque, which has an understandably busy kitchen, serving students and workers in the daytime, and providing a useful bridge between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, before relocating to the venue for the screening, Augustine’s, a church on George IV Bridge. The venue is opposite the Elephant House, which is where I took Omar for a coffee during the screening, giving us an opportunity to discuss politics and literature, while gazing out of the window at Edinburgh Castle, as J.K. Rowling had done when she was writing the first Harry Potter book. It was, from this angle, easy to see the castle as the inspiration for Hogwarts.

After the screening, again attended by over 70 people, Omar and I were joined by Aamer Anwar, Scotland’s most tenacious human rights lawyer, for another rewarding Q&A session, and after some late night chat at Richard and Julia’s, a good night’s sleep and a slow morning in which, while Omar was taken sightseeing, I caught up with the news and was interviewed over the phone by a Georgian journalist regarding the release of three Guantánamo prisoners, we set off in the rain for the final Scottish screening (for now) in Glasgow.

After some Moroccan/Indian food in a lovely little place on Sauchiehall Street, we made our way to the venue, Adelaides, a former church on Bath Street, where over a hundred people turned up to watch the film, while Omar, Anwar and I stepped out for a coffee and a discussion about some of the many outrageous events in Scotland’s own “War on Terror.” We then returned for a very lively Q&A session, recorded by We Are Change Glasgow, which showed that Glasgow activism is alive and well. Afterwards, we were all engaged in further discussions with many members of the audience, and we then relaxed over tea, coffee and desserts in a local restaurant before heading back to Edinburgh.

It was a wonderful trip, fascinating for both Omar and I in terms of travelling around and meeting such engaging and passionate people, and it also confirmed that the film has a powerful message to tell, that it provides new information even to those who have been following the story of Guantánamo over the years, and that presenting it in person, and being available for Q&A sessions afterwards, adds another dimension to the story, spurring people to greater engagement with the issues, and, hopefully, leading to a few of the students we met finding good reasons to put their energies into the field of human rights.

About the film

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a new documentary film, directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, telling the story of Guantánamo (and including sections on extraordinary rendition and secret prisons) with a particular focus on how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).

The film is based around interviews with former prisoners (Moazzam Begg and, in his first major interview, Omar Deghayes, who was released in December 2007), lawyers for the prisoners (Clive Stafford Smith in the UK and Tom Wilner in the US), and journalist and author Andy Worthington, and also includes appearances from Guantánamo’s former Muslim chaplain James Yee, Shakeel Begg, a London-based Imam, and the British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

Focusing on the stories of Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed and Omar Deghayes, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” provides a powerful rebuke to those who believe that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” and that the Bush administration was justified in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by holding men neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects with habeas corpus rights, but as “illegal enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.

Take action for Shaker Aamer

Shaker Aamer and two of his childrenThroughout the tour, Omar, Andy and Polly (and other speakers) will be focusing on the plight of Shaker Aamer, the only one of the film’s main subjects who is still held in Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release in 2007, and despite the British government asking for him to be returned to the UK in August 2007.

Born in Saudi Arabia, Shaker Aamer moved to the UK in 1994, and was a legal British resident at the time of his capture, after he had traveled to Afghanistan with Moazzam Begg (and their families) to establish a girls’ school and some well-digging projects. He has a British wife and four British children (although he has never seen his youngest child).

As the foremost advocate of the prisoners’ rights in Guantánamo, Shaker’s influence upset the US authorities to such an extent that those pressing for his return fear that the US government wants to return him to Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth, where he will not be at liberty to tell his story, and recent revelations indicate that, despite claims that it has been doing all in its power to secure his release, the British government may also share this view.

In December 2009, it emerged in a court case in the UK that British agents witnessed his abuse while he was held in US custody in Afghanistan, and in January 2010, for Harper’s Magazine, law professor Scott Horton reported that he was tortured in Guantánamo on the same night, in June 2006, that three other men appear to have been killed by representatives of an unknown US agency, and that a cover-up then took place, which successfully passed the deaths off as suicides.

At future screenings, the speakers will continue to discuss what steps we can all take to put pressure on the British government to demand the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, to be reunited with his family, as Omar and Andy did during the Scottish tour. For further information, please also visit this page for a video of Shaker’s daughter Johina handing in a letter to Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street on January 11, 2010.

Recent feedback

““Outside the Law” is essential viewing for anyone interested in Guantánamo and other prisons. The film explores what happens when a nation with a reputation for morality and justice acts out of impulse and fear. To my mind, Andy Worthington is a quintessential force for all things related to the journalism of GTMO and its inhabitants. As a military lawyer for Fayiz al-Kandari, I am constantly reminded that GTMO is ongoing and that people still have an opportunity to make history today by becoming involved. “Outside the Law” is a fantastic entry point into the arena that is GTMO.”
Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, attorney for Guantánamo prisoner Fayiz al-Kandari

“I thought the film was absolutely brilliant and the most powerful, moving and hard-hitting piece I have seen at the cinema. I admire and congratulate you for your vital work, pioneering the truth and demanding that people sit up and take notice of the outrageous human rights injustices perpetrated against detainees at Guantánamo and other prisons.”
Harriet Wong, Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture

“[T]hought-provoking, harrowing, emotional to watch, touching and politically powerful.”
Harpymarx, blogger

“Last Saturday I went to see Polly Nash and Andy Worthington’s harrowing documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at London’s BFI. The film knits together narratives so heart-wrenching I half wish I had not heard them. Yet the camaraderie between the detainees and occasional humorous anecdotes … provide a glimpse into the wit, courage and normalcy of the men we are encouraged to perceive as monsters.”
Sarah Gillespie, singer/songwriter

“The film was great — not because I was in it, but because it told the legal and human story of Guantánamo more clearly than anything I have seen.”
Tom Wilner, US attorney who represented the Guantánamo prisoners before the US Supreme Court

“The film was fantastic! It has the unique ability of humanizing those who were detained at Guantánamo like no other I have seen.”
Sari Gelzer, Truthout

“Engaging and moving, and personal. The first [film] to really take you through the lives of the men from their own eyes.”
Debra Sweet, The World Can’t Wait

“I am part of a community of folks from the US who attempted to visit the Guantánamo prison in December 2005, and ended up fasting for a number of days outside the gates. We went then, and we continue our work now, because we heard the cries for justice from within the prison walls. As we gathered tonight as a community, we watched “Outside the Law,” and by the end, we all sat silent, many with tears in our eyes and on our faces. I have so much I’d like to say, but for now I wanted to write a quick note to say how grateful we are that you are out, and that you are speaking out with such profound humanity. I am only sorry what we can do is so little, and that so many remain in the prison.”
Matt Daloisio, Witness Against Torture

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a Spectacle Production (74 minutes, 2009), and copies of the DVD are now available. As featured on Democracy Now!, ABC News and Truthout. See here for videos of the Q&A session (with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash) that followed the launch of the film in London on October 21, 2009.

(‘DiggThis’)

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Protests worldwide on Aafia Siddiqui Day, Sunday March 28, 2010

Poster for Aafia Siddiqui Day, March 28, 2010Today is the seventh anniversary of the day that Pakistani neuroscientist Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and her three young children were reportedly abducted in Karachi, leading to Aafia’s disappearance for over five years — when she was apparently held in secret prisons and subjected to appalling abuse — before she resurfaced in Afghanistan and supposedly attempted to shoot a number of US soldiers.

For this alleged crime, she was flown to the United States, put on trial, and found guilty, in a federal court in New York, on February 3, 2010, on “charges related to the attempted murder and assault of US nationals and US officers and employees in Afghanistan.”

Numerous commentators have denounced the trial as a sham, and today, protestors around the world will be calling for justice for Aafia Siddiqui. Further details can be found on the website of the Justice for Aafia Coalition, including a campaign pack (PDF), which contains a detailed report on the background to the story, and contact details for letters/emails to Aafia, the US and Pakistani governments and the UN.

Amongst the many outstanding questions regarding the case of Aafia Siddiqui are the following:

  • Was she indeed kidnapped with her three children in Karachi on March 28, 2003, and subsequently rendered to a secret prison, where she was raped and tortured for five years? Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was released from Guantánamo in February 2009, has stated that he saw Aafia Siddiqui in Bagram, and other former prisoners have spoken about “The Grey Lady of Bagram,” Prisoner 650, who they believed was Aafia.
  • Where are her children?
  • If Aafia Siddiqui was indeed held in secret US custody for over five years, was the story of the attempted shooting of the US soldiers in July 2008 a cynical set-up, designed to ensure that she could be transferred to the US and tried, convicted and imprisoned without the true story coming to light?

I urge anyone concerned with the stories of “ghost prisoners” detained in secret prisons in the “War on Terror” to study Aafia Siddiqui’s story closely. Yvonne Ridley has focused on her case for many years, and other sources include a detailed report in Harper’s Magazine by Petra Bartosiewicz last November, another in the Guardian by Declan Walsh, and a recent report by Robert Fisk in the Independent, which I reproduce below.

I confess that, although I have been aware of her case for many years, I have never found the time to investigate it fully, as it seemed to me that it was a research project that could take months, if not years. However, it has always troubled me that her case could be the most distressing of all the many disturbing stories of brutality, injustice and false confessions in the “War on Terror,” and the failure of anyone to account for the whereabouts of two of her children has always struck me as particularly despicable.

The mysterious case of the Grey Lady of Bagram
By Robert Fisk, The Independent, March 19, 2010

Dr Shams Hassan Faruqi sits amid his rocks and geological records, shakes his bearded head and stares at me. “I strongly doubt if the children are alive,” he says. “Probably, they have expired.” He says this in a strange way, mournful but resigned, yet somehow he seems oddly unmoved. As a witness, supposedly, to the mysterious 2008 re-appearance of Aafia Siddiqui — the “most wanted woman in the world,” according to former US attorney general John Ashcroft — I guess this 73-year-old Pakistani geologist is used to the limelight. But the children, I ask him again. What happened to the children?

Dr Faruqi is Aafia Siddiqui’s uncle and he produces a photograph of his niece at the age of 13, picnicking in the Margalla hills above Islamabad, a smiling girl in a yellow shalwar khameez, half-leaning against a tree. She does not look like the stuff of which al-Qa’ida operatives are made. Yet she is now a semi-icon in Pakistan, a country which may well have been involved in her original kidnapping and which now oh-so-desperately wants her back from an American prison. Her children, weirdly, disconcertingly, have been forgotten.

Aafia Siddiqui’s story is now as famous in Pakistan as it is notorious in a New York City courtroom where her trial for trying to kill an American soldier in the Afghan city of Ghazni in 2008 — she was convicted this month and faces a minimum of 20 years in prison on just one of the charges against her — is regarded as a symbol of American injustice. “Shame on America,” posters scream in all of Pakistan’s major cities. She is known as the “grey lady of Bagram,” supposedly tortured for five years in America’s cruel Afghan prison. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has asked American envoy Richard Holbrooke to repatriate Siddiqui under the Pakistan-US prisoner exchange scheme, while the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has dubbed her a “daughter of the nation.” Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif promises to demand her release. But none of them mention the children. Ahmed, Sulieman and Maryam are their names.

Ahmed was returned to Pakistan from Afghanistan in 2008, but Dr Faruqi tells me he doesn’t believe for a moment that it is Aafia Siddiqui’s son. “He came here to stay with me, but he said he didn’t know Aafia until he was taken to Ghazni. He said to me: ‘I was in the big earthquake in Afghanistan and my brothers and sisters were killed in their home while I was out fetching water — that’s what saved my life.’ He told me that after the earthquake, he was put in an orphanage in Kabul. He was shown a photograph of my niece Aafia and said he did not know this lady, that he had never seen her before. Then he was taken to Ghazni and told to sit next to this woman — my niece. The boy is intelligent. He is simple. He is honest.”

All such mysteries require a “story-so-far.” It goes like this. Aafia Siddiqui, a 38-year-old neuroscientist, an MIT alumna and Brandeis university PhD, disappeared after leaving her sister’s home for Karachi airport in 2003, taking Ahmed, Sulieman and Maryam with her. The Americans say she was a leading al-Qa’ida operative. So does her ex-husband. She had re-married Ammar al-Baluchi, currently in Guantánamo Bay, a cousin of Ramzi Yousef who was convicted for the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. Not, you might, say, a healthy curriculum vitae in the West’s obsessive “war on terror.” In 2004, the UN identified her as an al-Qa’ida operative.

But released inmates from the notorious American prison at Bagram near Kabul — where torture is commonplace and at least three prisoners have been murdered — have stated that there was a woman held there, a woman whose nightly screams prompted them to go on hunger strike. She was dubbed the “grey lady of Bagram.” At her New York trial, Siddiqui demanded that Jewish members of the jury be dismissed, she fired her own defence lawyers who said she had become unbalanced after torture; Siddiqui blurted out that she had been tortured in secret prisons before her arrest. “If you were in a secret prison … where children were murdered…” she said.

And so to the town of Ghazni, south of Kabul. It was here that Afghan police stopped her in 2008, carrying a handbag which supposedly contained details of chemical weapons and radiological agents, notes on mass casualty attacks on US targets and maps of Ghazni. American soldiers and FBI agents were summoned to question her and arrived in Ghazni without realising that Siddiqui was in the same room, sitting behind a curtain.

According to their evidence, she managed to take one of their M-4 assault rifles and opened fire with the words, “Get the fuck of here. May the blood of [unintelligible] be on your [head or hands].” She missed but was cut down by two bullets from a 9mm pistol fired by one of the soldiers. Hence the charges. Hence the conviction.

She wasn’t helped by an alleged statement by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the man who supposedly planned 9/11 and who is the uncle of her second husband, Ammar al-Baluchi — who claimed that Aafia Siddiqui was a senior al-Qa’ida agent. But then, he’d just been waterboarded 183 times in a month — which hardly makes his evidence, to use a phrase, water-tight.

The questions are obvious. What on earth was a Pakistani American with a Brandeis degree doing in Ghazni with a handbag containing American targets? And why, if her family was so fearful for her, didn’t they report her missing in 2003, go to the press and tell the story of the children? Ahmed — son of Siddiqui or Afghan orphan, depending on your point of view — is now staying with Siddiqui’s sister, Fauzia, in Karachi; but she refuses to let him talk to journalists. The Americans have shown no interest in him — even less in the other two, younger children. Why not?

It’s odd, to say the least, that Dr Faruqi also maintains that in 2008 — before the Ghazni incident — Aafia Siddiqui turned up at his home in the suburbs of Islamabad. “She was wearing a burqa and got out of the car, just outside here,” he says, pointing to the tree-lined street outside his office window. “I only caught sight of her once, and I said ‘You have changed your nose.’ But it was her. We talked about the past, her memories, it was her voice. She said the ISI (the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence) had let her come here. She wanted to get away, to go back to Afghanistan where she said the Taliban would protect her. She said that since her arrest, she knew nothing of her children. Someone told her they had been sent to Australia.”

More questions. If Siddiqui was a “ghost prisoner” in Afghanistan, how come she turned up at Dr Faruqi’s home in Islamabad? Why would she wear an Afghan “burqa” in the cosmopolitan capital of her own country? Why did she not talk more about her children? Why could she not show her face to her own uncle? Did she really come to Islamabad?

Fauzia Siddiqui is now touring Pakistan to publicise her sister’s “unfair” trial, her torture at the hands of Americans. Most of the Pakistan press have taken up her story with little critical attention to the allegations against her. She has become a proto-martyr, a martyr-in-being; if her story is comprehensible, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief. But America’s constant protestations of ignorance about her whereabouts before 2008 have an unhappy ring about them.

And the children? Rarely written about in Pakistan, they, too, in a sense, were “disappeared” from the story — until the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, paid an uneasy visit to Pakistan this week and, according to Fauzia, told the Interior minister, Rehman Malik, that “the children of Aafia Siddiqui will be sent home soon.” Was Karzai referring to the other two children? Or to all three, including the “real” Ahmed? And if Aafia’s two/three children are in Afghanistan, where have they been kept? In an orphanage? In a prison? And who kept them? The Afghans? The Americans?

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Video: Omar Deghayes Discusses British Complicity in Torture in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Guantánamo

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoI’ve just returned from a week-long tour of Scotland, showing the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by filmmaker Polly Nash and myself), with former prisoner Omar Deghayes. I’ll be writing up a report soon, describing how Omar and I had a wonderful time traveling together, how the film was extremely well received at the Universities of Dundee and Aberdeen, and in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and how we were looked after everywhere we went.

In the meantime, however, I wanted to pay a small tribute to Omar’s humanity, and his understanding of the crimes committed in the “War on Terror,” by posting below two videos, put together by Spectacle Productions from the interview with Omar that is at the heart of “Outside the Law,” explaining how British agents visited him and interrogated him while he was held incommunicado, and in disgraceful conditions, in Pakistani custody, and in US custody at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo.

Further information about “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” can be found here, and details of the ongoing UK tour featuring Omar and myself, and, occasionally, other speakers, can be found here.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

When Rhetoric Trumps Good Sense: The GOP’s Counter-Productive Call for Military Commissions

A prisoner at GuantanamoIn the dark farce that is the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policy, decisions are now, it seems, being made by whoever makes the most noise, regardless of whether what they are shouting for actually makes sense.

Since last November, when Attorney General Eric Holder first announced that five men — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — would face federal court trials for their alleged involvement in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, critics have pushed to keep the men at Guantánamo, and to try them instead using the latest version of the Military Commission trial system that was dragged from the grave in November 2001 by Dick Cheney, who, at the time, was looking for a bent system in which to try and execute “enemy combatants” with the minimum of due process.

Cheney’s attempts to thoroughly subvert the Constitution failed, however, and in June 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commissions were illegal, because their “structures and procedures” violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions. Congress then revived the Commissions, in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, but although Mark 2 was a slight improvement on the original version, the Commissions never succeeded in persuading anyone with a genuine respect for the law and with an interest in the effective prosecution of terrorist suspects that they were much more than a joke; a half-baked process, full of holes, in which the military judges struggled to cope with the unfamiliar and often bewilderingly imprecise legal terrain, and only three verdicts were delivered.

When President Obama suspended the Commissions, on his first day in office, sensible people were overjoyed, as it seemed that the President had understood that federal courts were more than capable of handling cases related to terrorism, and had secured convictions in 195 terrorism cases (out of a total of 214) between the 9/11 attacks and June 2009.

In fact, as Human Rights First explained in a major report examining the federal courts’ record on cases related to terrorism, the statutes prohibiting “material support” of terrorist organizations “were drafted very broadly, causing concerns that they could be used to penalize individuals for exercising legitimate First and Fifth Amendment rights.” Human Rights First suggested that, “over the years the courts have construed and Congress has amended the statutes so that they are less susceptible to abuse,” but even so, “[b]ecause material support prosecutions do not require that any act of terrorism actually occurred,” and have successfully involved prosecuting “persons who enrolled at terrorist training camps, who acted as messengers for terrorist leaders, who intended to act as doctors to terrorist groups, or who raised money to support terrorist organizations,” they “can potentially result in overreaching.”

In other words, cautious lawyers worry that it is, perhaps, too easy to secure convictions in federal court cases involving “material support” to terrorism, whereas in the venue favored by Eric Holder’s critics — the Military Commissions — knowledgeable lawyers have pointed out that there is no precedent for pursuing “material support” cases, and, last summer, lawyers for the government unsuccessfully urged Congress to drop “material support” as a charge in the revived Commissions, fearing that it would be overturned on appeal.

Despite the federal courts’ impressive track record, and for reasons that have never been adequately explained, President Obama decided, by May last year at the latest, to work with Congress to revive the Commissions. This was a major mistake, as numerous well-qualified critics — including Lt. Col. David Frakt, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, and retired Rear Admiral John Hutson — explained to various Senate and House Committees last summer, when the criticisms mentioned above were raised.

It appears that the President may, with some cynicism, have reintroduced the Commissions both to assuage Republican critics (and, perhaps, critics within his own party), and may also have been persuaded by his interagency Task Force, which reviewed the Guantánamo cases throughout last year, that restoring the Commissions would provide a second tier of justice for those cases in which the evidence was less than watertight.

Nevertheless, the decision to revive the Commissions provided invaluable leverage to those who opposed civilian trials outright: deluded individuals whose belief in the Commissions’ importance was not based not on any evidence that they actually worked (when they were palpably useless compared to federal court trials), but out of a dogged belief that only a military arena was suitable for trying terrorists.

These critics — alarmingly large in number, it seems — persistently ignored, and continue to ignore the inconvenient truth that, despite his bluster, George W. Bush prosecuted terrorists in federal court, and, in fact, had far more success in federal court than in the Military Commissions at Guantánamo.

The reason for this counter-productive denial of reality boils down to just one thing: the critics’ insistence that America is at war with terrorists, who, as a result, cannot and must not be regarded as criminals, even if all the evidence, including the successful prosecutions of terrorists in federal court under George W. Bush, demonstrates that their approach will, in all likelihood, result in more legal challenges and less lengthy sentences. In order to hold firm to their bellicose rhetoric, the critics are, it seems, prepared to undermine their own case where it counts the most: in a court before a judge and jury.

In case anyone has forgotten, two of the three men convicted in the Military Commissions, David Hicks and Salim Hamdan, are now free men, having served very short sentences, and in the case of the third man, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who was sentenced to life in November 2008 for making an al-Qaeda propaganda film, lawyers are currently appealing against his sentence.

Inside the Obama administration, only one man, Attorney General Eric Holder, seems to understand the importance of holding firm on the decision to try Khalid Shiekh Mohammed and the four other men in civilian court. Last month, Holder told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, “I don’t apologize for what I’ve done. History will show that the decisions we’ve made are the right ones.”

Last week, in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science last week, Holder defended his position. When Texas Rep. John Culberson raised the topic of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a “high-value detainee” accused of being involved in the African Embassy bombings in 1998, who was transferred to New York last May, to face a federal court trial that will begin next year, Holder had a swift response when Culberson asked why he was being put forward for a civilian trial when he was a foreign national, alerting Culberson to the readily accessible fact that other conspirators in the bombings had already been tried and successfully convicted in federal court, and that those successful prosecutions had taken place during the Bush administration.

Holder also objected to claims that terrorist defendants would be “coddled” in federal courts, stating that this suggestion got his “blood boiling,” and adding that terror suspects “have the same rights that a Charles Manson would have, any other mass murderer … those are the comparisons people should be making, not to average citizens who have done no harm and committed no crimes.”

He also seemed to undermine the Commissions, perhaps indicating that he had been opposed to their reintroduction, noting, when questions were raised about terror suspects disrupting trials with persistent outbursts (as happened with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during Military Commission hearings at Guantánamo in 2008), that Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman who was recently tried and convicted in New York on terror-related charges, was removed from the courtroom after the first day because of her outbursts and interruptions. No doubt recalling KSM’s behavior at Guantánamo, Holder told the Committee, “Article III Judges are used to dealing with people like this and know how to deal with them,” whereas judges in Military Commissions “don’t feel as comfortable clamping down on a defendant who’s trying to do that.”

Whether Holder succeeds in persuading President Obama not to perform a worrying U-turn on the 9/11 trials remains to be seen. To my mind, capitulating to pressure — whether from an easily led public, or from Republican critics — would be tantamount to political suicide, but it apparently remains a possibility. Even more worryingly, the decision not only to revive the Military Commissions but also to publicly endorse holding some of the prisoners at Guantánamo indefinitely without charge or trial has added another appalling subtext to a story that, in and of itself, is deeply shocking.

President Obama first announced his decision to continue the Bush administration’s policies of holding men without charge or trial in a major national security speech last May, when he referred to prisoners who “cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States,” and the policy was confirmed in January, when the Task Force on the prisoners’ future delivered its findings, and recommended that 47 of the remaining 188 prisoners should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

As well as endorsing the notion that preventive detention is somehow acceptable (which it is not), and endorsing the notion that the preventive detention of prisoners at Guantánamo is acceptable because they were tortured (which is even worse), Obama and his Task Force also, effectively, announced with these statements that there was a three-tier system of justice at Guantánamo, consisting of federal court trials, Military Commissions, and indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Last week, picking up on this, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institute, who has long argued for the creation of a new national security court, used the warped logic of this three-tier system to argue, in a Washington Post op-ed with former Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith, that the most sensible way forward was not to bother trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at all, and simply to carry on holding him in military detention. As they explained:

Both the Obama administration and the Republicans who object to trying him in federal court accept the legitimacy of such detention as a traditional incident of war for those in the command structure of al-Qaeda, and perhaps for associated forces as well. In general outline, so do the courts. Given these facts, the politically draining fight about civilian vs. military trials is not worth the costs.

Wittes and Goldsmith have a point, of course, but only because of the mistakes made by Obama, who put all the cards back on the table last May when he should, instead, have insisted that prisoners would either be released or put forward for federal court trials. The refusal to stick to unassailable principles has been nothing short of poisonous, and the result, sadly, is that justice itself has become nothing more than a commodity, to be bartered and traded by those who shout the loudest.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, as, “Will Obama Sell Out on Terrorist Trials?”

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Predictable Chaos As Guantánamo Trials Resume (July 2009), David Frakt: Military Commissions “A Catastrophic Failure” (August 2009), 9/11 Trial At Guantánamo Delayed Again: Can We Have Federal Court Trials Now, Please? (September 2009), Torture And Futility: Is This The End Of The Military Commissions At Guantánamo? (September 2009), Resisting Injustice In Guantánamo: The Story Of Fayiz Al-Kandari (October 2009), Military Commissions Revived: Don’t Do It, Mr. President! (November 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), Rep. Jerrold Nadler and David Frakt on Obama’s Three-Tier Justice System For Guantánamo (November 2009), Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship (November 2009), Chaos and Confusion: The Return of the Military Commissions (December 2009), Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission (January 2010).

Seven Years of War in Iraq: Still Based on Cheney’s Torture and Lies

Anti-war protest in Washington D.C., March 20, 2010Friday marked the seventh anniversary of the illegal invasion of Iraq, but by now, it seems, the American people have become used to living in a state of perpetual war, even though that war was based on torture and lies. Protestors rallied across the country on Saturday, but the anti-war impetus of the Bush years has not been regained, as I discovered to my sorrow during a brief US tour in November, when I showed the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and myself) in New York, Washington D.C., and the Bay Area.

Some activists were still burnt out from campaigning for Barack Obama, others thought the new President had waved a magic wand and miraculously cured all America’s ills, while others, to the right of common sense and decency, were beginning to mobilize in opposition to a President who, to be frank, should have been more of a disappointment to those who thought that “hope” and “change” might mean something than to those who supported the Bush administration’s view of the world. Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, endorsed indefinite detention without charge or trial for prisoners at Guantánamo, and shielded Bush administration officials and lawyers from calls for their prosecution for turning America into a nation with secret prisons, an extraordinary rendition program, and a detention policy for terror suspects based on the use of torture.

Nevertheless, the Republicans’ assault on decency, common sense and the law, in relation to terrorism, escalated in the wake of the failed Christmas Day plane bombing, with a high-level revolt against trying those accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks in federal courts, and a renewed onslaught on President Obama’s already tattered plans to close Guantánamo. On the anniversary of the war, headlines were dominated not by anti-war protests, but by the disgusting behavior of the Tea Party activists, whose bitter, negative campaigning against Obama, which has always demonstrated a thinly-veiled racism, plumbed new depths when protestors hurled racist and homophobic abuse at members of Congress.

African-American Congressman Emanaul Cleaver (D-MO) was spat on by a Tea Party protester, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), a protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was called a “nigger,” and gay Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) was called a “faggot.” Congressman James E. Clyburn (D-SC), who helped lead sit-ins in South Carolina in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, told NBC News:

It was absolutely shocking to me. Last Monday, I stayed home to meet on the campus of Pomford University, where 50 years ago, as of last Monday, March 15th, I led the first demonstrations in South Carolina, the sit-ins. Quite frankly I heard some things today that I haven’t heard since that day. I heard people saying things today I’ve not heard since March 15th, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus. This is incredible, shocking to me.

It is enough of a sign of madness that the Tea Party brigade, who oppose healthcare reform, have been sold a lie by the very corporations who mercilessly exploit them, essentially by stirring up fears of “communism” and “socialism” that Europeans and sensible Americans find bewildering and illogical, but it is no less dispiriting that their pointless hatred overshadowed countrywide calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan may originally have had some sort of acceptable rationale, but it was a lost cause almost as soon as it began, when America failed to win the crucial struggle for hearts and minds, killing thousands of Afghan civilians in bombing raids, imprisoning others in vile conditions in prisons at Kandahar and Bagram (where some died), and sending others to Guantánamo.

Another major reason for the failure in Afghanistan was the administration’s intention — instigated as early as November 2001 — to move on to Iraq, and while the Chilcot Inquiry in Britain revisited the roots of the Iraq war in recent months, demonstrating, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was an illegal war decided as early as April 2002, when Prime Minister Tony Blair committed the UK to full participation, an often overlooked side-effect of this decision involved, in the most cynical manner, the exploitation of prisoners seized in the “War on Terror” to provide cover for the planned invasion.

As I explained in an article last April, entitled, “Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low”:

In case anyone has forgotten, when Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the head of the Khaldan military training camp in Afghanistan, was captured at the end of 2001 and sent to Egypt to be tortured, he made a false confession that Saddam Hussein had offered to train two al-Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Al-Libi later recanted his confession, but not until Secretary of State Colin Powell — to his eternal shame — had used the story in February 2003 in an attempt to persuade the UN to support the invasion of Iraq.

That attempt, of course, was successful, but it is no less shocking now than it was then that those who manipulated Powell — Vice President Dick Cheney and his close circle of advisors — used the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program not to protect American from terrorists, but to launch an illegal war. As I also explained last April, with reference to an interview conducted by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker with Dan Coleman of the FBI, an old-school interrogator opposed to the use of torture, who was pulled off al-Libi’s case when senior officials decided to send him to Egypt:

As Mayer explained, Coleman was “disgusted” when he heard about the false confession, telling her, “It was ridiculous for interrogators to think Libi would have known anything about Iraq. I could have told them that. He ran a training camp. He wouldn’t have had anything to do with Iraq. Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links, but there weren’t any. The reason they got bad information is that they beat it out of him. You never get good information from someone that way.”

As I also explained:

This, I believe, provides an absolutely critical explanation of why the Bush administration’s torture regime was not only morally repugnant, but also counter-productive, and it’s particularly worth noting Coleman’s comment that “Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links, but there weren’t any.” However, I realize that the failure of torture to produce genuine evidence — as opposed to intelligence that, though false, was at least “actionable” — was exactly what was required by those, like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, “Scooter” Libby and other Iraq obsessives, who wished to betray America doubly, firstly by endorsing the use of torture in defiance of almost universal disapproval from government agencies and military lawyers, and secondly by using it not to prevent terrorist attacks, but to justify an illegal war.

This was a point that Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, confirmed to me in an interview last year. Speaking about the Bush administration’s focus on interrogating prisoners seized in the “War on Terror,” Col. Wilkerson told me:

[T]hey wanted to put together a pattern, a map, a body of evidence, if you will, from all these people, that they thought was going to tell them more and more about al-Qaeda, and increasingly more and more about the connection between al-Qaeda and Baghdad.

I even think that probably, in the summer of 2002, well before Powell gave his presentation at the UN in February 2003, their priority had shifted, as their expectation of another attack went down, and that happened, I think, rather rapidly. I’ve just stumbled on this. I thought before that it had persisted all the way through 2002, but I’m convinced now, from talking to hundreds of people, literally, that that’s not the case, that their fear of another attack subsided rather rapidly after their attention turned to Iraq, and after Tommy Franks, in late November [2001] as I recall, was directed to begin planning for Iraq and to take his focus off Afghanistan.

I commend the actions of the anti-war protestors in Washington D.C. on Saturday who, as the Associated Press explained, “stopped at the offices of military contractor Halliburton — where they tore apart an effigy of former Vice President and Halliburton Chief Executive Dick Cheney,” but as this anniversary passes and Dick Cheney remains free to continue espousing his vile, self-serving rhetoric, the sad truth is that, seven years on, Cheney’s crimes cannot be viewed in isolation, but must stand as an indictment of everyone, from the President down, via lawmakers, the media and the American people, who are prepared to accept this darkest of truths: that in 2002, the Vice President of the United States used an illegal torture program not to protect Americans from future terrorist attacks, but to launch an illegal war that, to date, has led to the loss of 4,386 American lives and the lives of at least 100,000 Iraqis, and possibly as many as a million.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch and ZNet. Cross-posted on Common Dreams, The Public Record, World Can’t Wait, New Left Project, Revista Amauta, Good Pork Bad Pork and the Tehran Times.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”: 500 turn up for Kent screening, plus report on SOAS and UCL events

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoIf you’re looking for confirmation that discussions of torture and imprisonment without charge or trial can galvanize the public, then a crowd of 500 students in Kent watching a film about Guantánamo on Thursday evening ought to provide conclusive proof. The film in question is the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” directed by filmmaker Polly Nash and myself, which tells the story of Guantánamo through interviews with released prisoners and with lawyers.

It was, I must admit, a revelation to myself and to Omar Deghayes, the former Guantánamo prisoner who is at the heart of the film — and is my main companion on an ongoing UK tour of the film — that so many people could be enticed to take time off from less arduous activities, to learn about the cruelty and incompetence of the “War on terror,” and to hear Omar speak in person. It was, moreover, a vindication for our belief (shared by Polly and the production team at Spectacle) that the story still needs to be told, and that, up and down the country, enough people are interested to make screenings worthwhile.

The tour, which sees Omar and I in Scotland all next week, and in London and Nottingham the week after, is essentially an experiment in DIY distribution and grass-roots participation — put together partly through contacts made at the film’s launch in October, partly through Polly’s contacts, partly through connections I have made throughout the last four years of relentless reportage and analysis regarding Guantánamo, and partly through contacts established by Maryam Hassan, the former Executive Director of Cageprisoners. Maryam has achieved this through long years of activism and networking, and, in particular, through organizing the “Two Sides, One Story” tour last year, in which a former Guantánamo guard, Chris Arendt, and former prisoners including Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes and Jarallah al-Marri (from Qatar) filled venues across the country, to discuss Guantánamo from “two sides”: that of the prisoners, and that of a National Guard recruit who grew to despise his job, and the lies and deception on which it was based.

When the tour of “Outside the Law” began, at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in London on February 16, neither myself, Polly or Omar had any idea how easy or difficult it would be to attract audiences for the film. With no mainstream media coverage, and a focus on an ongoing scandal that, to many, is no longer particularly relevant (despite President Obama’s failure to close the prison by his self-imposed one-year deadline of January 22), we were, therefore, delighted when a capacity crowd filled the Human Rights Action Centre, and a subsequent screening at the National Film Theatre on February 27 sold out. Since then, audiences of between 50 and 120 have seen the film at the LSE, at Oxford Brookes University (see here), at Bradford Playhouse and The Forum in Norwich (see here), and, this week, at SOAS and UCL.

The events at SOAS and UCL were rewarding. Laleh Khalili, Senior Lecturer in Politics of the Middle East, chaired the Q&A that followed the SOAS screening, when we had a glimpse of the power of Omar’s testimony. Having picked Omar up from Russell Square tube, Polly arrived with him just as the film ended, and as he entered he received a loud round of spontaneous applause.

In the Q&A session that followed, Omar’s call for law students to help his organization, the Guantánamo Justice Centre, to put together lawsuits against those who authorized and facilitated the abuses of the “War on Terror” created a buzz, and we were treated to a spirited call to action by Noel Hamel of the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, an offshoot of the Stop the War coalition in Shaker’s home borough of Wandsworth, which was accompanied by the distribution of letters calling on foreign secretary David Miliband to do more to help secure the return to the UK of Shaker Aamer (also featured in the film).

Shaker Aamer is Britain’s last resident in Guantánamo, and is still held, despite being cleared for release in 2007. If you would like to add your voices to those calling for his release — and I urge you to do so — Amnesty International has a campaign page here, and you can also cut and paste a letter to David Miliband here, which also calls on the government to take other cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, who cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

If those at SOAS were mostly students, at UCL on Wednesday a diverse crowd of students, lawyers, journalists and activists — some drawn by guest speaker Philippe Sands — provided Omar and I with a set of lively questions, after Philippe, who had to leave early, had delivered a short statement about torture and accountability. Afterwards, a group of human rights students, including the organizer, Ben Rutledge, took Polly and I to a nearby pub, where it was heartening to discover the extent to which they were engaged in the issues.

However, nothing prepared us for Thursday’s screening at the University of Kent, on a hill overlooking Canterbury, where the 480-seat Keynes College Lecture Theatre 1 was packed out, and late arrivals perched on the stairs. Omar and I had skipped the screening, to discuss the work of the Guantánamo Justice Centre and the stories of some of the prisoners still held, and when we walked back in, as the credits rolled, and were introduced to the audience, the welcome Omar received at SOAS was amplified many times over, and he was cheered loudly.

This served only to confirm what has been apparent throughout the tour — that Omar’s testimony, and the combination of inner strength and vulnerability that infuses his account, brings home the human cost of Guantánamo and the “War on Terror” in the most extraordinarily effective manner.

I’d like to thank William Rowlandson, Lecturer in Hispanic Studies, and Ruth Blakeley, Lecturer in International Relations, for organizing the screening and doing such a great job publicizing it and mobilizing the students, with the help of the university’s press department, the Centre for American Studies, the Amnesty International student group, Kent Debating Society, People & Planet and the Current Affairs Society. I’d also like to thank BBC Radio Kent for taking an interest, and for turning up to interview Omar and myself.

Afterwards, William and Ruth took Omar and I out for a wonderful Moroccan meal, and when we finally realized what time it was, and Omar drove me to Ashford station, where I was fortunate that the last train to London had not yet departed, the thought of a protracted journey home was not enough to dampen my excitement at how well the film had been received — not just in Canterbury, but everywhere else that it has been shown, and to look forward to next week’s screenings in Scotland.

About the film

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a new documentary film, directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, telling the story of Guantánamo (and including sections on extraordinary rendition and secret prisons) with a particular focus on how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).

The film is based around interviews with former prisoners (Moazzam Begg and, in his first major interview, Omar Deghayes, who was released in December 2007), lawyers for the prisoners (Clive Stafford Smith in the UK and Tom Wilner in the US), and journalist and author Andy Worthington, and also includes appearances from Guantánamo’s former Muslim chaplain James Yee, Shakeel Begg, a London-based Imam, and the British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

Focusing on the stories of Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed and Omar Deghayes, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” provides a powerful rebuke to those who believe that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” and that the Bush administration was justified in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by holding men neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects with habeas corpus rights, but as “illegal enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.

Take action for Shaker Aamer

Shaker Aamer and two of his childrenThroughout the tour, Omar, Andy and Polly (and other speakers) will be focusing on the plight of Shaker Aamer, the only one of the film’s main subjects who is still held in Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release in 2007, and despite the British government asking for him to be returned to the UK in August 2007.

Born in Saudi Arabia, Shaker Aamer moved to the UK in 1994, and was a legal British resident at the time of his capture, after he had traveled to Afghanistan with Moazzam Begg (and their families) to establish a girls’ school and some well-digging projects. He has a British wife and four British children (although he has never seen his youngest child).

As the foremost advocate of the prisoners’ rights in Guantánamo, Shaker’s influence upset the US authorities to such an extent that those pressing for his return fear that the US government wants to return him to Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth, where he will not be at liberty to tell his story, and recent revelations indicate that, despite claims that it has been doing all in its power to secure his release, the British government may also share this view.

In December 2009, it emerged in a court case in the UK that British agents witnessed his abuse while he was held in US custody in Afghanistan, and in January 2010, for Harper’s Magazine, law professor Scott Horton reported that he was tortured in Guantánamo on the same night, in June 2006, that three other men appear to have been killed by representatives of an unknown US agency, and that a cover-up then took place, which successfully passed the deaths off as suicides.

At the screenings, the speakers will continue to discuss what steps we can all take to put pressure on the British government to demand the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, to be reunited with his family. Please visit this page for a video of Shaker’s daughter Johina handing in a letter to Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street on January 11, 2010.

Recent feedback

““Outside the Law” is essential viewing for anyone interested in Guantánamo and other prisons. The film explores what happens when a nation with a reputation for morality and justice acts out of impulse and fear. To my mind, Andy Worthington is a quintessential force for all things related to the journalism of GTMO and its inhabitants. As a military lawyer for Fayiz al-Kandari, I am constantly reminded that GTMO is ongoing and that people still have an opportunity to make history today by becoming involved. “Outside the Law” is a fantastic entry point into the arena that is GTMO.”
Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, attorney for Guantánamo prisoner Fayiz al-Kandari

“I thought the film was absolutely brilliant and the most powerful, moving and hard-hitting piece I have seen at the cinema. I admire and congratulate you for your vital work, pioneering the truth and demanding that people sit up and take notice of the outrageous human rights injustices perpetrated against detainees at Guantánamo and other prisons.”
Harriet Wong, Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture

“[T]hought-provoking, harrowing, emotional to watch, touching and politically powerful.”
Harpymarx, blogger

“Last Saturday I went to see Polly Nash and Andy Worthington’s harrowing documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at London’s BFI. The film knits together narratives so heart-wrenching I half wish I had not heard them. Yet the camaraderie between the detainees and occasional humorous anecdotes … provide a glimpse into the wit, courage and normalcy of the men we are encouraged to perceive as monsters.”
Sarah Gillespie, singer/songwriter

“The film was great — not because I was in it, but because it told the legal and human story of Guantánamo more clearly than anything I have seen.”
Tom Wilner, US attorney who represented the Guantánamo prisoners before the US Supreme Court

“The film was fantastic! It has the unique ability of humanizing those who were detained at Guantánamo like no other I have seen.”
Sari Gelzer, Truthout

“Engaging and moving, and personal. The first [film] to really take you through the lives of the men from their own eyes.”
Debra Sweet, The World Can’t Wait

“I am part of a community of folks from the US who attempted to visit the Guantánamo prison in December 2005, and ended up fasting for a number of days outside the gates. We went then, and we continue our work now, because we heard the cries for justice from within the prison walls. As we gathered tonight as a community, we watched “Outside the Law,” and by the end, we all sat silent, many with tears in our eyes and on our faces. I have so much I’d like to say, but for now I wanted to write a quick note to say how grateful we are that you are out, and that you are speaking out with such profound humanity. I am only sorry what we can do is so little, and that so many remain in the prison.”
Matt Daloisio, Witness Against Torture

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a Spectacle Production (74 minutes, 2009), and copies of the DVD are now available. As featured on Democracy Now!, ABC News and Truthout. See here for videos of the Q&A session (with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash) that followed the launch of the film in London on October 21, 2009, and see here for a short trailer.

(‘DiggThis’)

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Trailer for “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”

I’m pleased to announce that, via YouTube, a short trailer (1:16) is available for the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” co-directed by filmmaker Polly Nash and journalist Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files:

The film was launched in October 2009, and has already been screened as part of the Human Rights, Human Wrongs Film Festival in Oslo in February. It is a featured film in the forthcoming London International Documentary Festival in London at the end of April (date tbc), and is currently on a UK tour, with Andy and former prisoner Omar Deghayes (who are both featured in the film) travelling to the venues for post-screening Q&A sessions.

Forthcoming screenings are as follows (and a more detailed list can be found here):

Thursday March 18, 5 pm: University of Kent, Keynes College Lecture Theatre 1, Canterbury Campus, Canterbury, Kent.

Monday March 22, 5.30 pm: University of Dundee, Dalhousie Building, Old Hawkhill/Balfour Street, Dundee.

Tuesday March 23, 6 pm: University of Aberdeen, Lecture Theatre Fraser Nobel 1 (FN1), King’s College, Aberdeen.

Wednesday March 24, 7.30 pm: Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.

Thursday March 25, 7 pm: Adelaides, 209 Bath Street, Glasgow.

Monday March 29, 5.45 pm: London South Bank University, London.

Wednesday March 31, 6.30 pm: The University of Nottingham, Room B63, Law and Social Sciences Building, University Park, Nottingham.

Tuesday April 20: Cardiff University. Postponed.

Tuesday April 27, 6 pm: The University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester.

Tuesday May 4: Aston University, Aston Triangle, Birmingham.

Wednesday May 5, 6 pm: Birmingham Library Theatre, Paradise Place, Birmingham.

Tuesday May 11, 5.30 pm: Newcastle University, Lecture Theatre 3, Herschel Building, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Further dates will be added. Please bookmark the main tour page to keep up to date.

About the film

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a new documentary film, directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, telling the story of Guantánamo (and including sections on extraordinary rendition and secret prisons) with a particular focus on how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).

The film is based around interviews with former prisoners (Moazzam Begg and, in his first major interview, Omar Deghayes, who was released in December 2007), lawyers for the prisoners (Clive Stafford Smith in the UK and Tom Wilner in the US), and journalist and author Andy Worthington, and also includes appearances from Guantánamo’s former Muslim chaplain James Yee, Shakeel Begg, a London-based Imam, and the British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

Focusing on the stories of Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed and Omar Deghayes, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” provides a powerful rebuke to those who believe that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” and that the Bush administration was justified in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by holding men neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects with habeas corpus rights, but as “illegal enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.

Take action for Shaker Aamer

Shaker Aamer and two of his childrenThroughout the tour, Omar, Andy and Polly (and other speakers) will be focusing on the plight of Shaker Aamer, the only one of the film’s main subjects who is still held in Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release in 2007, and despite the British government asking for him to be returned to the UK in August 2007.

Born in Saudi Arabia, Shaker Aamer moved to the UK in 1994, and was a legal British resident at the time of his capture, after he had traveled to Afghanistan with Moazzam Begg (and their families) to establish a girls’ school and some well-digging projects. He has a British wife and four British children (although he has never seen his youngest child).

As the foremost advocate of the prisoners’ rights in Guantánamo, Shaker’s influence upset the US authorities to such an extent that those pressing for his return fear that the US government wants to return him to Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth, where he will not be at liberty to tell his story, and recent revelations indicate that, despite claims that it has been doing all in its power to secure his release, the British government may also share this view.

In December 2009, it emerged in a court case in the UK that British agents witnessed his abuse while he was held in US custody in Afghanistan, and in January 2010, for Harper’s Magazine, law professor Scott Horton reported that he was tortured in Guantánamo on the same night, in June 2006, that three other men appear to have been killed by representatives of an unknown US agency, and that a cover-up then took place, which successfully passed the deaths off as suicides.

At the screenings, the speakers will discuss what steps we can all take to put pressure on the British government to demand the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, to be reunited with his family. To get involved now, please visit this Amnesty International action page, to find details of how you can write to David Miliband and Gordon Brown, asking them to demand Shaker’s return. You can also cut and paste a letter to David Miliband here. Please also visit this page for a video of Shaker’s daughter Johina handing in a letter to Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street on January 11, 2010.

Recent feedback

““Outside the Law” is essential viewing for anyone interested in Guantánamo and other prisons. The film explores what happens when a nation with a reputation for morality and justice acts out of impulse and fear. To my mind, Andy Worthington is a quintessential force for all things related to the journalism of GTMO and its inhabitants. As a military lawyer for Fayiz al-Kandari, I am constantly reminded that GTMO is ongoing and that people still have an opportunity to make history today by becoming involved. “Outside the Law” is a fantastic entry point into the arena that is GTMO.”
Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, attorney for Guantánamo prisoner Fayiz al-Kandari

“I thought the film was absolutely brilliant and the most powerful, moving and hard-hitting piece I have seen at the cinema. I admire and congratulate you for your vital work, pioneering the truth and demanding that people sit up and take notice of the outrageous human rights injustices perpetrated against detainees at Guantánamo and other prisons.”
Harriet Wong, Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture

“[T]hought-provoking, harrowing, emotional to watch, touching and politically powerful.”
Harpymarx, blogger

“Last Saturday I went to see Polly Nash and Andy Worthington’s harrowing documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at London’s BFI. The film knits together narratives so heart-wrenching I half wish I had not heard them. Yet the camaraderie between the detainees and occasional humorous anecdotes … provide a glimpse into the wit, courage and normalcy of the men we are encouraged to perceive as monsters.”
Sarah Gillespie, singer/songwriter

“The film was great — not because I was in it, but because it told the legal and human story of Guantánamo more clearly than anything I have seen.”
Tom Wilner, US attorney who represented the Guantánamo prisoners before the US Supreme Court

“The film was fantastic! It has the unique ability of humanizing those who were detained at Guantánamo like no other I have seen.”
Sari Gelzer, Truthout

“Engaging and moving, and personal. The first [film] to really take you through the lives of the men from their own eyes.”
Debra Sweet, The World Can’t Wait

“I am part of a community of folks from the US who attempted to visit the Guantánamo prison in December 2005, and ended up fasting for a number of days outside the gates. We went then, and we continue our work now, because we heard the cries for justice from within the prison walls. As we gathered tonight as a community, we watched “Outside the Law,” and by the end, we all sat silent, many with tears in our eyes and on our faces. I have so much I’d like to say, but for now I wanted to write a quick note to say how grateful we are that you are out, and that you are speaking out with such profound humanity. I am only sorry what we can do is so little, and that so many remain in the prison.”
Matt Daloisio, Witness Against Torture

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a Spectacle Production (74 minutes, 2009), and copies of the DVD are now available. As featured on Democracy Now!, ABC News and Truthout. See here for videos of the Q&A session (with Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington and Polly Nash) that followed the launch of the film in London on October 21, 2009.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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Andy Worthington

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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