Former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes and I have just returned from a successful two-day trip showing the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and myself) in Bradford and Norwich, as part of an ongoing UK tour.
As with recent screenings — at Amnesty International’s London HQ, at the NFT and the LSE in London, and at Oxford Brookes University — Omar and I were gratified to discover that, although Guantánamo and the abuses of the “War on Terror” are rarely front-page news, there is a thirst for knowledge about the prison, the 188 men still held, the torture regime implemented by the Bush administration, British complicity in torture, the reasons for President Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo, and what people can do to help, which we are able to address personally.
As with all the dates on the UK tour of the film, Omar and I are focusing in particular on the campaign to urge the British government to do all in its power to demand the return from Guantánamo of the British resident Shaker Aamer, whose story is featured in the film. Shaker has a British wife and four children, and was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007, but he continues to be held, as the Wandsworth Guardian (in Shaker’s home constituency) explained just yesterday, because of politics rather than any notion of justice. After an inconclusive meeting between the government and Shaker’s wife and lawyers, his US lawyer, Brent Mickum 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.”
Omar and I are also asking audiences to tell the government to do more to help close Guantánamo by asking for the return to the UK of Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived here for several years. Ahmed was also cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007, but is terrified of returning to Algeria, and the UK — as a country in which he sought refuge, and found gainful employment from 1999 to 2001 — is best placed to rescue him from Guantánamo.
Moreover, we are also asking audiences to request that the government take other cleared prisoners, who have no connection to the UK, but who, like Ahmed, cannot be repatriated because they face torture or other ill-treatment if returned to their home countries. We are urging this on a humanitarian basis, and are asking our government to join countries including Belgium, France, Hungary, Ireland, Slovakia and Switzerland, who have all done this, and have not, instead, stood back and hectored others to do what we ourselves are unwilling to do.
We have been pointing out that Britain has done no more than the minimum to date — accepting its own nationals, and securing the release of all but one of its residents — and adding that, as America’s closest ally in the “War on Terror,” we should do this, at least in part, to make amends for our complicity in the crimes of the Bush administration, which has recently been revealed in court cases involving both Shaker Aamer and Binyam Mohamed (who is also featured in the film).
While Omar and I were visiting Bradford and Norwich, this slowly unfolding story emerged once more, as the government sought to defend its intention to use secret evidence in a civil claim for damages brought by six former prisoners (including Omar and Binyam). This unprecedented move on the government’s part — extending the already unacceptable use of secret evidence into civil cases — is being fought by the ex-prisoners’ lawyers, who, in the Court of Appeal this week, accused the government of crossing an unacceptable line. As Dinah Rose QC argued, the secrecy the government seeks “has never been allowed in the history of the common law,” and “The process is fundamentally incompatible with the very notion of what a civil trial is.” Speaking to the Guardian, solicitor Louise Christian added, “As the Binyam Mohamed case illustrated, this is really about the government avoiding embarrassment for the reality of their collaboration with the US and all that happened, rather than any real national security issues.”
Furthermore, on Wednesday, when Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, stepped forward to claim that Britain had been kept in the dark by the US regarding the use of torture, she was widely criticized for presenting an implausible case. In the Guardian, for example, Vikram Dodd asked if she had found herself unable to read a newspaper from 2003 onwards, when the first serious allegations of torture emerged, and the Guardian also presented a compelling timeline of what was known when, and the changing advice that was given to MI5 operatives.
For those who want to be involved in putting pressure on the government to secure the return of Shaker Aamer, and to ask for other prisoners — including Ahmed Belbacha — to be given new homes in the UK, Amnesty International has an action page here, and you can also cut and paste a letter to David Miliband on my website here.
As Omar and I undertake more dates on our ongoing tour, I’m also encouraged by the fact that, on each screening, the film not only galvanizes people to action, but also results in us receiving confirmation — even from people who have been following the news about Guantánamo and campaigning for its closure — that it contains a wealth of information that viewers were unaware of, and that it also explains the history of Guantánamo, and the legal challenges to the lawlessness of the Bush administration’s detention policies, in a manner that is both clear and concise. From my own point of view, I also find it profoundly encouraging that, on each screening, viewers are bowled over by Omar’s humanity, his vulnerability, his fortitude, his faith and his inability to bear malice towards those who tortured and abused him for over five and a half years.
This does not mean that he forgives those who authorized these policies, as he explains when asked about the work of the Guantánamo Justice Centre. The GJC is a coalition of former prisoners, and, as legal director, Omar is overseeing the organization’s involvement in legal cases against the senior Bush administration officials and lawyers responsible for initiating and endorsing the crimes against humanity undertaken at Guantánamo and elsewhere in the “War on Terror.” The GJC’s mission also involves seeking funding to provide welfare for released prisoners, in many countries, who bear the taint of Guantánamo, have received no compensation from the US government, and are unable to find work.
In both Bradford and Norwich, Omar and I received the warmest of welcomes — from Noa Kleinman of Amnesty International, Eleanor Barrett, the director of the Bradford Playhouse, and a host of other activists in Bradford, and from Frank Stone of Norwich Stop the War Coalition, David Ford of Norwich Amnesty, and a host of other activists in Norwich, who truly went the extra mile in looking after us.
Travelling together was also an important part of the whole experience. After a certain amount of panic at my end, regarding a planned rendezvous in East Croydon, Omar and I managed to meet up without any problems, and I then allowed myself to be won over by Omar’s patience — something that few of us who have not endured years of wrongful imprisonment can comprehend — as his TomTom (or Lady TomTom as I dubbed her) took us the wrong way, leading to an unplanned journey through central London, and up the M1, as the rain fell and the motorway appeared to stretch on forever, which resulted in us rolling up at Bradford Playhouse just ten minutes before the screening was supposed to begin.
Along the way, Omar and I hatched plans to tell his story, and to publicize the almost completely unknown stories of many of the 188 men who are still held, and we also began discussing aspects of the prison’s history — who was held where and when, and the history of certain isolation blocks and punishment blocks — to enable us to work together to continue publicizing the eight-year scandal of Guantánamo Bay.
Despite the lateness of our arrival, our hosts were unflappable, and after a much-appreciated platter of samosas and sandwiches, we made our way to the cinema, an original 1930s classic, saved from the developer’s axe on numerous occasions, and now run as a community hub by a team led by Eleanor Barrett, for the screening, which drew an audience of about 70 people. Afterwards — and after Omar and I had ducked out to check out the neighbourhood, admiring the architectural legacy of Bradford’s 19th century wealth — Noa led an interesting Q&A session, in which we were able to encourage people to take part in the campaign to put pressure on the British government to demand the return of Shaker Aamer, and to act for Ahmed Belbacha and others, and were also able to elucidate other aspects of the prison’s long and brutal history.
We then retired to the basement bar, decorated with love and care by Eleanor and her team, and, after Omar took off for a hotel where rooms had very generously been provided for us, I stayed and chatted for a while with Noa, Eleanor and other local activists. Noa and friends then dropped me off at the hotel, where I slept like a baby, but only after some surreal shenanigans in the hotel foyer, where I poured cash into a slot to access the hotel computer to update my site and Facebook. I also snuck outside for the odd cigarette, where I marveled at the fact that, although I could see Bradford’s football ground and the outlines of numerous stolid remnants of the city’s Victorian past, I was on the edge of a retail park that made me feel as though I was in America, in a motel-like construction with French staff, populated, improbably, by hordes of young locals.
In the morning, Omar and I took a short stroll around Bradford, stopping near the Victorian Town Hall with its almost implausibly tall and ornate tower, for coffee and discussions about the work of the Guantánamo Justice Centre (primarily focused on how to secure funding, and to attract pro bono support from lawyers and law students), before heading off to Norwich. This was less of a long haul — and a considerably more pleasant drive across the flatlands of Norfolk on ‘A’ roads than chasing a deadline up a rain-soaked M1 — and we rolled up at 5.30 at the house of a local activist, Shan, who provided us with a lovely meal before driving us to The Forum, in the heart of Norwich, for the screening.
A giant glass hangar, opened by the Queen in 2002, The Forum houses Norwich’s library, the BBC and a handful of restaurants, and it also seems to provide shelter to half the city’s youth, knocking about in the library or enraging security by skateboarding on the space in front of the venue, which, in true modern British style, is no longer a public space, but privately owned. I was distressed to discover later that the library now rents its space from the trust that owns the Forum, but was impressed by the cinema space downstairs, where the film was screened, even though, as I also learned, the trust has failed to understand the trying economic climate we are currently enduring, and has recently raised its room hire rates.
Despite all this, the welcome we received from Norwich’s dedicated human rights activists (who campaigned relentlessly for Binyam Mohamed’s release) more than offset the bitter wind scything in from the North Sea. In addition, the film once more delivered its powerful message, and Omar and I were involved in another engrossing Q&A session with a very attentive audience. Afterwards, as Omar made his way back to Shan’s house and a room for the night, I walked across town with my host, Peter, a Green councillor and passionate anti-war activist, who enlightened me about local politics and also told me about his recent trip to Gaza, to liaise with and provide art materials to a trauma centre providing art therapy to the young people of Gaza, which he has recently made into a film, “Gaza Freedom March.” This will be shown for the first time in Norwich in the near future, and will then, hopefully, be made available to other interested parties around the country.
My thanks again to all who welcomed Omar and I, to the organizers and the audiences — and to Maryam Hassan for her invaluable help in organizing the tour. I’ll be announcing some new dates soon, but in the meantime a list of tour dates can be found here, and, next week, Omar and I (with Polly) will be at SOAS on Tuesday March 16, at UCL on Wednesday March 17, and at the University of Kent on Thursday March 18.
About the film
“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” tells the story of Guantánamo (and includes 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.
Throughout the tour, Omar, Andy and Polly (and other speakers) will continue to focus on the plight of Shaker Aamer. To provide more background information, readers may want to know that 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.
“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.”
“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. Nash and Worthington’s film also explores the legal and pragmatic implications of our transatlantic freefall into ethical bankruptcy. It asks how we might navigate our way out of a situation that doesn’t legally exist. The answer is: with great difficulty. With lawyers like Clive Stafford Smith working tirelessly to defend people who have not been accused of a crime and have no evidence against them to refute, the courtroom has become the domain in which we watch the dream of European multiculturalism imploding. Here we see UK Muslims struggle to exert Enlightenment-based Common Law against a so-called civilized, liberal government who would apparently prefer the Magna Carta had never been written.”
Sarah Gillespie, singer/songwriter
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. For inquiries about screenings, please also feel free to contact Maryam Hassan.
“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.
I’m pleased it went well in Bradford even though I missed it. Next time I will give you a nice tour of the city!
Thank you, Abdel Halim. I hope to visit again to take you up on your offer!
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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