Former 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
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 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.
““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.
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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