If 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
Throughout 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.
““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.”
“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
“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.
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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Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. 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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