Archive for March, 2010

Vindictive judge gives Muslims prison sentences for Gaza protest

A protest outside the Israeli Embassy on January 3, 2009. Photo © Marc Vallée (marcvallee.co.uk)Getting even vaguely carried away at a political protest has always had a tendency to attract the wrath of judges in the UK, but recent activities by the British police, and by a judge in a courtroom in Isleworth, are nothing short of despicable.

In response to a protest about the Israeli attack on Gaza in January 2009, in which “bottles and stones were thrown, [and] a ­Starbucks was trashed,” the police acted with what Seamus Milne of the Guardian described as “unusually violent tactics, even by the standards of other recent confrontations, such as the G20 protests.” The police then raided houses several months after the event, carrying off young Muslims, and a judge is now busy handing out sentences of up to two and a half years in a disproportionate attempt to impose deterrents, which appear only to confirm that the draconian, anti-Muslim impulses of the “War on Terror” have now extended to Muslims engaged in political protest. As Milne also noted, “Of 119 people arrested, 78 have been charged, all but two of them young ­Muslims (most between the ages of 16 and 19), according to Manchester University’s Joanna Gilmore, even though such figures in no way reflect the mix of those who took part.”

At most, those involved in confrontation with the police during a political protest should receive suspended sentences and/or community service, but this has happened in only a few cases, and given that the police, by all credible accounts, behaved with particular provocation on the day, and that the majority of those involved seem to have done little more than hurl the odd bottle in the vague direction of the police, without actually harming anyone, the sentences being handed down by Judge John Denniss are a disgrace.

I urge anyone concerned by these worrying developments to get involved with the Gaza Protesters Defence Campaign, on the Stop the War Coalition’s website, where there is also a downloadable petition, and I’m cross-posting below an informative article from Saturday’s Guardian.

Sent to jail for throwing a single bottle
By Simon Hattenstone and Matthew Taylor, the Guardian, March 13, 2010

Yahia Tebani, photographed by Anna Gordon for the GuardianBadi Tebani and his wife were sleeping peacefully when all hell broke loose. He shudders at the memory. The front door was forced open, and then came the screaming. “Wah, wah, wah, get down, get down, you are under arrest.” Any number of voices. He thought it was a nightmare — that he was back in Algeria in the bad old days before he was granted political asylum in Britain, and that the military had broken into the house. When he opened his eyes, his bedroom was full of police officers. “I have diabetes and high blood pressure,” he says quietly. “It was worse than Algeria, even. I became very depressed.”

It was 5 am, April 2009. Badi’s eldest son Hamza, 23, takes up the story. “I woke up and tried to get out of bed. The next thing is three police officers jump on top of me with their knees, and they handcuffed me so hard I screamed. That’s when I really woke up.” Hamza had been sleeping in shorts. When he asked if he could put a shirt on the police said no and opened the window. “It was freezing. I was shaking.”

His three brothers, the youngest of whom was 15 at the time, were also handcuffed. Hamza says there were too many officers to count — somewhere between 20 and 30. They took computers, clothes, iPhones, everything. “I’ve never been in trouble, never been to the police station except when my car was broken into, and they were treating me as a criminal. One of the officers was playing card games with my iPhone, another was just ordering coffee.”

Badi, an Arabic teacher, tuts. “They make our house into a coffee shop.”

But it wasn’t Badi or Hamza the police were after. It was Yahia, one of Hamza’s younger brothers. When Yahia heard that the police were looking for him he was confounded. “I didn’t know why they were there, and then I hear my name and I’m shocked.”

Three months earlier, in January last year, Yahia had been outside the Israeli embassy on a fractious demonstration against Israel’s sustained bombing of Gaza. The British foreign secretary, David Milliband, had condemned the “unacceptable” loss of life caused by the Israeli strikes on Gaza, saying the “dark and dangerous” events could fuel extremism, and had called for an immediate ceasefire from both Israel and Hamas.

Protesters complained that the demonstration was policed provocatively and that they had been “kettled” inside a tunnel and beaten. Meanwhile, the police complained that they had been assaulted by demonstrators.

Yahia, 18, says both accounts are true. He claims that the policing was aggressive and intimidatory, and that demonstrators responded by throwing sticks and bottles at the embassy and the officers, who were wearing full-body shields. Yahia picked up a few sticks from discarded banners and flung them in the direction of the police. He was one of approximately 50,000 demonstrators, many of whom threw objects. It was a mixed bunch — white and black, Muslim and Christian, Stop the War Coalition, CND, all sorts. This was one of a number of Gaza demonstrations covered on television news, and it was reported there had been some trouble — but nothing on the scale of, say, the G20 protests or the poll tax riots.

Yahia, who was studying media technology at Kingston University, had gone on the march for two reasons — to protest, and to interview fellow demonstrators for a project on Gaza. The crowd was held by the police for four hours and eventually released. Some people were filmed and had to give their name and address to the police, some were arrested. Yahia simply left of his own accord, and eventually got home at midnight.

He told Hamza it had been a difficult day, it had given him plenty of food for thought, and that was that — until the police broke into the family home in Finsbury Park, north London, three months later. Yahia was arrested in March and charged with violent disorder and burglary — at one point during the demo, he says, he had taken a chair from the nearby Starbucks to sit on, but police reports said the Starbucks was trashed and mugs and chairs were used as weapons. He was advised that the burglary charge would be dropped if he pleaded guilty to violent disorder, for which he would probably receive a suspended sentence or community service. He thought a lesser charge of affray would have been fairer, but agreed to the compromise. “It would always look bad in the future if it says burglary. People won’t know what really happened, so I couldn’t risk that being on my file.”

What Yahia didn’t realise was nearly all the protesters who pleaded guilty to violent disorder would end up receiving immediate prison sentences. His friend Sidali is serving two years. Yahia was in court the day Sidali was sentenced. “He didn’t even throw sticks,” he claims. “He just pushed or something, and his clothes were ripped a bit. In court he was crying. The shock on his face, I’ve never seen anything like that. Pah!” He blows his lips together in dismay.

Yahia is to be sentenced this month. How’s he feeling? “Stressed. Pah. Just waiting to go in. I’ve been asking my friend what it’s like. He says time goes quick — he doesn’t want to scare me.”

It’s not just the prospect of prison that terrifies him, it’s what comes after. “If I’ve got ‘ex-prisoner’ on my file, how am I going to get a job? It will destroy my career.”

At Isleworth crown court in London, where the cases are being heard, a disturbing pattern is emerging. Most of the 78 protesters charged with public order offences were young men in their late teens or 20s. Many were students. And nearly all were Muslim. Some 22 protesters have already received prison terms of up to two and a half years for public order offences, and more cases are due to come before the courts in the coming months.

The Gaza Protesters Defence Campaign has been formed by the families of some of those arrested, together with sympathetic MPs, the Stop the War Coalition and CND. The campaign aims to highlight the perceived injustice, and has launched a petition which will be presented to the attorney general and the director of public prosecutions.

Earlier this month, families queued up outside committee room 15 in the House of Commons for a campaign meeting. Many feel bewildered by the sentences the courts have passed on their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. When Joanna Gilmore, a researcher at the University of Manchester’s law school who has monitored the cases, gets to her feet the room is already full, and latecomers are forced to listen from the corridor. “The vast majority of the people involved here are of exemplary character,” she says, to mutters of approval. “The demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful and if you compare the relatively minor disturbances that took place with the violence on other demonstrations these sentences are very severe.”

Gilmore, who has followed all the court cases, says the police arrested more people at the Gaza protests than at any political demonstration since the poll tax riots, when about 90 were charged with public order offences. At last year’s G20 demonstrations, during which a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland was looted, 20 were charged.

“Many were on their first demonstration and were protesting because they were appalled about what was happening in Gaza,” Gilmore says. “These people and their families are in shock and say that they will never take part in political demonstrations again.”

Bruce Kent, a former general secretary of CND and long-time peace activist, gets to his feet to address the packed meeting. Kent, 80, had been on the demonstration and says he was “amazed and indignant” about the reaction of the police and the courts.

“I don’t know why there isn’t absolute outrage … All this will do is solidify in people’s minds the idea that there is a persecution of Muslims which is determined and organised and will result in some young people being radicalised.”

He says there is a huge discrepancy in the way different people are treated by the law, and recalls a time in 1986 when he had been convicted of criminal damage after cutting a wire fence during a protest at a nuclear base. “I was in the crown court waiting with my toothbrush packed. I thought I was off to one of her majesty’s holiday camps. Not at all, not even a fine. Why? Because I am middle-class and white.”

Like Yahia Tebani, 24-year-old Ashir was in bed when the police raided her west London flat at 4 am. The strange thing is, she says, her brother, who is due to be sentenced for his part in the demonstrations this month, has never been interested in “politics or religion” and only joined the protest because he was at his cousins’ house when they decided to go.

Although Ashir says her younger sibling did not throw any missiles, she admits he did protect himself when the “police people started fighting.” He left as soon as he could, giving his details to officers. Two months later the police made their unannounced visit.

“We heard a disturbance at the neighbour’s flat first and I heard loads of banging and shouting,” she says. “I looked out of the window but no one had police uniforms on so I didn’t know what was happening. A few minutes later when we were getting back into bed we heard people running up the stairs and then our door burst open. I was so scared because I had no idea what was happening or who these people were.”

Every detail chimes with Yahia’s experience — the family were handcuffed for two and a half hours, Ashir only had her nightclothes on and was not allowed to get dressed and her computer was taken. “They said I may have weapons in the house, but I didn’t understand — what weapons could I have? I am not a criminal. They went through everything. They said they were looking for evidence, for clothes that my brother had been wearing on the demonstration. They took my laptop which had my university dissertation on spa tourism on it because they said he had had access to it. I asked if I could at least email the dissertation to myself but they said I wasn’t allowed to touch it. I still have not got it back almost a year later even though I keep asking for it. I had to start my dissertation from where I had last saved it on a uni computer.”

Ashir, who does not want to give her real name because she fears going public might result in her brother being given a bigger sentence, still has panic attacks about what happened that night. “I am scared if I see any police anywhere. Even if I was angry about something I would never go on a demonstration now because I have seen what can happen.”

Muhammad Sawalha, president of the British Muslim Initiative anti-racist group, has two questions: why were such a high proportion of those arrested Muslim, and why have they been dealt with so heavy-handedly?

Actually, Judge John Denniss has been quite clear about sentencing policy. He has said, more than once, the draconian sentences are meant to act as a deterrent to future protesters. But, because of the fact that the people being brought before the courts are disproportionately Muslim, Sawalha says, the consequences could be disastrous: “The British Muslim Initiative encourages Muslims to express their feelings and ambitions and frustrations only through political and legal processes. But if anything sends the message that Muslims cannot express themselves through political processes, and they will not be dealt with like others, it will give more strength to the fringes within the community who say democracy and the political system doesn’t apply to Muslims in this country. This will only increase the frustration and sense of alienation among these people.”

Dr Khalil al-Ani says his son Mosab was one of the lucky ones. There was no pre-dawn raid, no handcuffs, no ransacking. He was simply asked to surrender his passport to the police. Months after throwing an empty Orangina bottle — the police said it was at them, Mosab said it was at the Israeli embassy gates — he was charged. Mosab, who was on a medical access course, hoped to be a dentist or dental technician. He is now in prison serving a one-year sentence.

It was the first demonstration Mosab had been on since his family marched against the Iraq war in 2003. Al-Ani, an Iraqi who works as a GP in Wakefield and Leeds, was pleased his son would be on the march. His two sisters were also going, and Al-Ani felt Mosab, then 20, would protect them.

Mosab was arrested on the day and taken to a police station where he admitted throwing the bottle, apologised, and stressed that he had not aimed it at the police. He was released and returned to Yorkshire, but didn’t tell his father what had happened — he didn’t want to worry him, and he assumed it was the last he would hear of it.

“He didn’t think it was serious because how many times have you seen something like this or more serious, and nothing happens.” Al-Ani stops, and apologises for his tears. “I’m sorry I get so emotional. I came to this country in 1981. You can hear by the way I speak my accent is not purely British. It is a foreign accent after all these years. But Mosab was born here in 1988 — he is British in every sense. This is the first time I feel that because he’s a Muslim he’s been discriminated against. What he did was certainly wrong, but he should be treated similar to a British citizen. He’s gone to prison for a single bottle that didn’t hurt anybody.”

The astonishing thing is, he says, that the judge gave Mosab a flawless character reference. “He said, ‘I know you came here peacefully, I know you have an excellent character, I know you were not armed, you said sorry to the police.’” He was sure his son would go free. “I was so pleased. Then the judge says, ‘I’m going to give you this sentence to deter other people.’”

Back in north London, Badi Tebani is looking at the door the police forced open. As they left the house, they made a point of telling him it was still in one piece. “When they finished their work, the police officers show me the door and say, ‘It’s not broken, look, look,’ and they took a photograph. I told him, it doesn’t matter if you broke the door, you broke my life.”

Note: For further coverage, see this Institute of Race Relations article by Harmit Athwal, this article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent, and this article in the Guardian by Matthew Taylor, looking at MPs’ concerns about the disproportionate sentences.

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.

Republican Witch-hunters Embrace Dictatorship

Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol of Keep America SafeAre there no depths to which the Republican Party will not sink in its unprincipled assaults on President Obama’s counter-terrorism policies? The latest unconstitutional monstrosity from the right’s lunatic fringe came courtesy of Keep America Safe, a toxic organization headed by Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who recently put out a disgraceful TV ad, “Who Are the Al-Qaeda Seven?” The ad questioned the loyalty and patriotism of nine lawyers in the Justice Department lawyers who had represented prisoners at Guantánamo before joining the DoJ. Cheney is joined on the board of Keep America Safe by Bill Kristol and Debra Burlingame.

To be fair, Cheney’s ad has backfired badly, drawing the ire not only of those on the left, but also of heavyweight conservatives, nineteen of whom signed a statement last week denouncing it, declaring, “We consider these attacks both unjust to the individuals in question and destructive of any attempt to build lasting mechanisms for counterterrorism adjudications,” and adding that the attacks on the lawyers “undermine the Justice system more broadly,” by “delegitimizing” any system in which accused terrorists have lawyers, whether that system is federal court trials or Military Commissions.

Those who signed the statement included former Solicitor General Ken Starr, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, former White House lawyer Brad Berenson, John Bellinger, the former legal adviser to the National Security Council and the State Department, and two former detainee policy officials in the Bush administration, Matthew Waxman, and Charles “Cully” Stimson, who, ironically, was himself forced to resign from the DoD in 2007 after starting a similar witch-hunt against corporate law firms whose lawyers represented prisoners at Guantánamo.

Interestingly, another former Bush official who signed the statement is Daniel Dell’Orto, the Acting General Counsel for the DoD after the resignation of William J. Haynes in 2008. Dell’Orto was close to those who established the Bush administration’s torture regime as the deputy to Haynes, who was one of Dick Cheney’s key “War Council” lawyers, along with David Addington, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales and Timothy Flanigan.

Further criticism came from the Conservative author and lawyer Paul Mirengoff, who “contrast[ed] what Cheney is doing to the anti-communist crusades launched by Sen. Joseph McCarthy,” as the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein explained, following a call to Mirengoff, and from Peter D. Keisler, an Assistant Attorney General in the Bush administration’s Justice Department, who told the New York Times that it was “wrong” to attack the lawyers, and that “There is a longstanding and very honorable tradition of lawyers representing unpopular or controversial clients.”

Moreover, in the Wall Street Journal on March 10, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey wrote that Keep America Safe’s argument was “both shoddy and dangerous.” Mukasey pointed out that “a lawyer who undertakes to represent someone whom his neighbors — perhaps rightly — revile as a threat to the public welfare is obligated to bring his talents to bear just as forcefully in favor of that client as he would if he were representing Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the French artillery officer who in 1895 was found guilty of treason and sent to Devil’s Island for little more than being Jewish.”

This is all very encouraging, of course, because the only people who can legitimately complain that lawyers who worked on behalf of prisoners at Guantánamo shouldn’t work for the Justice Department and are, essentially, traitors to their country, are those who believe that time should have stopped before the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to ask why they were being held.

The only reason that the Supreme Court made this decision was because prisoners in Guantánamo who stated that they had been seized by mistake had no way of challenging their detention. This was because the Bush administration had created a legal black hole at Guantánamo, holding men (and boys) neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects, to be put forward for federal court trials on charges related to terrorism, but as “enemy combatants,” a novel category of human being with no rights whatsoever.

Those who worked on the prisoners’ cases may have been doing so for reasons that some Conservatives find distasteful, but the blunt truth is that those who took on Guantánamo cases were — and still are — working as part of a fully functioning civilized country that respects the rule of law, and those who regard such actions as a sign of fraternizing with the enemy are, if not just opportunistic leeches, playing the fear card, the kind of deluded people that America can do without, apologists for the dictatorial powers seized by President Bush that would have been anathema to the Founding Fathers.

Sadly, however, much of the damage wrought by Liz Cheney and her colleagues will never be undone. In a country where a large percentage of the population is permanently whipped up into a frenzy regarding the Obama administration’s response to terrorism by opportunistic broadcasters and lawmakers, who have seized on national security issues as a winning card in a relentlessly negative campaign, it’s probable that many of the Conservative voices criticizing Liz Cheney will have been ignored.

Even more worrying, however, is the fact that, despite this backlash in defense of America’s foundation as a country based on the rule of law, other Republican lawmakers continue to insist that they should be dictating the Obama administration’s policies, even though their proposals smack of the kind of hysterical overreaction that got us in this mess in the first place.

President Obama made a terrible mistake last May when he accepted calls to revive the Military Commission trial system for Guantánamo prisoners, and also signaled his willingness to continue holding other men indefinitely without charge or trial. A government driven more by principles and less by pragmatism would have insisted, as Obama suggested on taking office, that the only acceptable ways of dealing with the prisoners was to put them forward for federal court trials, or to release them.

This failure has given succor to those who are desperate to come up with novel ways of dealing with terrorist suspects that would have been far more difficult to launch had the administration acted more decisively. When Attorney General Eric Holder announced in November that five men — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — would face federal court trials for their alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks, he was following a course that reflected the best of America’s legal traditions, and, as he recently 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.”

Nevertheless, by also reviving the Military Commissions, the administration allowed itself to be ambushed by critics who stirred up opposition to the decision to hold federal court trials, which has led to a ludicrous situation in which Sen. Lindsey Graham, in some unholy alliance with Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel (who “walked out” the door whenever Guantánamo was mentioned, according to a source cited by Mayer) has been pushing Obama to reconsider the decision to try the men in federal courts.

Sen. Graham is not the only one pushing at Obama’s self-inflicted vulnerability on Guantánamo and related issues. Since the failed plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was apprehended on Christmas Day, countless critics have charged headfirst into the lawless space inhabited by Liz Cheney and Keep America Safe, arguing that Abdulmutallab should not have been interrogated by the FBI, read his rights, and charged in a federal court, and, in some cases, arguing that he should specifically have been waterboarded and sent to Guantánamo.

Joe Lieberman and John McCainThis, sadly, is no fringe activity reserved for lunatics, and just last week, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced a bill, the “Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act of 2010” (PDF), in which they proposed to ban civilian trials for those designated by the federal government as “unprivileged enemy belligerents.” The bill defines an “unprivileged enemy belligerent” as “an individual who (a) has engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners; (b) has purposely and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners; or (c) was a part of al-Qaeda at the time of capture,” meaning that it could easily extend to anyone who allegedly supports hostilities against the US — including, it would seem, American citizens.

Moreover, the bill proposes stripping these “unprivileged enemy belligerents” of any of the legal rights usually afforded those accused of crimes in the United States, proposing that they should be taken into military custody for the purposes of interrogation and determination of their status, with the possibility that, after interrogation and determination of status, some might be designated as “high-level detainees.” In addition, the bill proposes holding these men “for the duration of hostilities,” and, if desired, putting them forward for trials by Military Commission.

In a ludicrously overblown press release, Sen. McCain ignored all the evidence that Abdulmutallab’s interrogation had provided useful information, stating that the primary reason for introducing the legislation was “to ensure that the mistakes made during the apprehension of the Christmas Day bomber, such as reading him a Miranda warning, will never happen again and put Americans’ security at risk.”

We are, I suppose, fortunate that Sen. McCain did not win the 2008 presidential election, as this bill so shockingly echoes almost every vile innovation that the Bush administration established in its “War on Terror.” However, it is depressing that, while Liz Cheney has provoked some Republicans to remember that America already has laws for dealing robustly and fairly with terrorist suspects as part of its criminal justice system, other Republicans are still intent on undermining history and America’s self-image by insisting that terrorists are warriors, ignoring the Military Commissions’ lamentable history of dealing with terrorist suspects, ignoring the federal courts’ successful history of dealing with those very cases, and, in the case of Senators McCain and Lieberman, apparently believing that resuscitating the darkest years of modern American history will serve any useful purpose at all.

Like Liz Cheney, McCain and Lieberman seem to have forgotten that dictators or those who support them, rather than elected officials who are obliged to uphold the US Constitution, are the only people who believe in holding people in arbitrary detention, neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects, but as “enemy combatants” — or in 2010’s remake, “unprivileged enemy belligerents” — who can be held indefinitely, and interrogated in conditions that, when last tried out in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, led inexorably to the torture that John McCain used to deplore.

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.

Six New UK Screenings of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” including the London International Documentary Festival

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoThroughout this year, I’m touring the UK with former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, showing the new documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (which I co-directed with filmmaker Polly Nash). In the last few weeks, Omar and I (often accompanied by Polly) have screened the film in London, Oxford, Bradford and Norwich, and this week we’re showing it at SOAS and UCL in London (on Tuesday and Wednesday), and the University of Kent (on Thursday), with a short Scottish tour following the week after.

Full details of the UK tour can be found here, and I’m delighted to report that, in the last week, we have received confirmation of six more screenings, in London, Cardiff, Aston, Birmingham and Newcastle, including our second film festival, the London International Documentary Festival (the first was a wonderful festival in Norway in February). NOTE added April 15: The Cardiff event has now been postponed.

The London International Documentary Festival (LIDF), now in its fourth year, takes place from April 23 to May 9, and “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” will be shown at the Free Word Centre on Farringdon Road (the old Guardian building) on Monday April 26. Further details here, including booking information.

Please see the updated tour list for details of the other newly confirmed screenings — at London South Bank University on Monday March 29, Cardiff University (Tuesday April 20 — postponed), Aston University (Tuesday May 4), Birmingham Central Library (Wednesday May 5), and Newcastle University (Tuesday May 11) — as well as those already confirmed (in Dundee, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Nottingham and Colchester).

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.

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 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

“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

“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.

Abu Zubaydah’s Torture Diary

Abu ZubaydahTo coincide with the publication of my article, “What Torture Is, and Why It’s Illegal and Not ‘Poor Judgment,’” in which I revisited the scandalous whitewash of the Justice Department report into the conduct of John Yoo and Jay Bybee (the lawyers who sought to redefine torture in the notorious “torture memos” of August 2002), I reproduce below a transcript of the statements made by the “high-value detainee” Abu Zubaydah during interviews with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, following his transfer to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006.

Abu Zubaydah’s testimony comes from the leaked ICRC report on the 14 “high-value detainees” who arrived in Guantánamo in September 2006, which was published last April by the New York Review of Books (PDF), and I’m posting it here because it complements the main themes of my article: that torture cannot be redefined, that what took place was demonstrably torture, that John Yoo deliberately ignored evidence that contradicted his agenda, and that hundreds of prisoners — both in Guantánamo and secret prisons — were subjected to some variation on the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were approved for use on Abu Zubaydah in the “torture memos” written and approved by Yoo and Bybee. I also believe that it’s clear from the chronology established by Abu Zubaydah that his torture began long before the memos were issued on August 1, 2002, through prolonged sleep deprivation if nothing else, and would like to point out that, during this period, approval for the techniques used on him had to be personally approved at the highest levels of the administration.

As the ICRC explained in an introduction to Zubaydah’s statements, “Abu Zubaydah reported the following regarding his detention in Afghanistan, where he was held for approximately nine months from May 2002 to February 2003. He had previously been held in hospital for what he believes were several weeks and had several operations to severe gunshot injuries sustained at the time of arrest.”

Abu Zubaydah’s Statements to the ICRC

I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. The room measured approximately 4m x 4m. The room had three solid walls, with the fourth wall consisting of metal bars separating it from a larger room. I am not sure how long I remained in the bed. After some time, I think it was several days, but can’t remember exactly, I was transferred to a chair where I was kept, shackled by hands and feet for what I think was the next 2 to 3 weeks. During this time I developed blisters on the underside of my legs due to the constant sitting. I was only allowed to get up from the chair to go the toilet, which consisted of a bucket. Water for cleaning myself was provided in a plastic bottle.

I was given no solid food during the first two or three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was only given Ensure [a nutrient supplement] and water to drink. At first the Ensure made me vomit, but this became less with time.

The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting type music was constantly playing. It kept repeating about every fifteen minutes twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise.

The guards were American, but wore masks to conceal their faces. My interrogators did not wear masks.

During this first two to three week period I was questioned for about one to two hours each day. American interrogators would come to the room and speak to me through the bars of the cell. During the questioning the music was switched off, but was then put back on again afterwards. I could not sleep at all for the first two to three weeks. If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face.

After about two or three weeks I began to receive food, rice, to eat on a daily basis. They gave it once a day. I could eat with my hand, but I was not allowed to wash. It was also around this time that I was allowed to lie on the floor. I remained naked and in shackles, but I could sleep a little. It went on like this for about another one and a half months.

During the first few days a doctor came and gave me an injection. I was told it was an antibiotic. After about one and a half to two months I was examined by a female doctor who asked why I was still naked. My measurements were taken and the next day, I was provided with orange clothes to wear. This was followed, however, by more threats that worse was to follow.

Indeed, the next day guards came in to my cell. They told me to stand up and raise my arms above my head. They then cut the clothes off of me so that I was again naked and put me back on the chair for several days. I tried to sleep on the chair, but was again kept awake by the guards spraying water in my face.

When my interrogators had the impression that I was cooperating and providing the information they required, the clothes were given back to me. When they felt I was being less cooperative the clothes were again removed and I was put again on the chair. This was repeated several times.

Eventually (I don’t remember after how long), I was allowed to have a mattress and was given a towel to use as a sheet to cover myself with while sleeping. I was allowed some tissue paper to use when going to toilet on the bucket.

There then followed a period of about one month with no questioning. During this period I was given food, rice and beans, on a daily basis, varying between once and twice a day. They also continued to give me Ensure to drink. My cell was still very cold and the loud music no longer played, but there was a constant loud hissing or crackling noise, which played twenty-four hours a day. I tried to block out the noise by putting tissue in my ears.

There then followed a period of about one month with no questioning. Then, about two and a half or three months after I arrived in this place, the interrogation began again, but with more intensity than before. Then the real torturing started. Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area 1m x 0.75m and 2m in height. The other was shorter, perhaps only 1m in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face….

I was then put into the tall black box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside … They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.

During these torture sessions many guards were present, plus two interrogators who did the actual beating, still asking questions, while the main interrogator left to return after the beating was over. After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.

I was then placed again in the tall box. While I was inside the box loud music was played again and somebody kept banging repeatedly on the box from the outside. I tried to sit down on the floor, but because of the small space the bucket with urine tipped over and spilt over me. I remained in the box for several hours, maybe overnight. I was then taken out and again a towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed into the wall with the plywood covering and repeatedly slapped in the face by the same two interrogators as before.

I was then made to sit on the floor with a black hood over my head until the next session of torture began. The room was always kept very cold.

This went on for approximately one week. During this time the whole procedure was repeated five times. On each occasion, apart from one, I was suffocated once or twice and was put in the vertical position on the bed in between. On one occasion the suffocation was repeated three times. I vomited each time I was put in the vertical position between the suffocation.

During that week I was not given any solid food. I was only given Ensure to drink. My head and beard were shaved everyday.

I collapsed and lost consciousness on several occasions. Eventually the torture was stopped by the intervention of the doctor.

I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.

At the end of this period two women and a man came to interrogate me. I was still naked and, because of this, I refused to answer any questions. So they again repeatedly slapped me in the face and smashed me against the wall using the towel around my neck. The following day I was given a towel to wear around my waist, but I was still very cold.

Then, little by little, things started to get better. I was again given rice to eat. Then my mattress was returned. I was allowed to clean my cell. The tall box was removed, but the short one remained in the room outside my cell, I think as a deliberate reminder as to what my interrogators were capable of. One week after the end of torture I was given a pair of green shorts and a top to wear. The food also improved with the addition of beans and fruit.

I was provided with water and allowed to wash inside the cell. However, the loud noise continued throughout the nine months I spent in that place. I was never given any outdoor time.

Note: Mark Danner’s article analyzing the ICRC report, published in the New York Review of Books on April 9, 2009, is available 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.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison , Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA) (all May 2009) and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), UK Judges Compare Binyam Mohamed’s Torture To That Of Abu Zubaydah (November 2009), UN Secret Detention Report Asks, “Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?” (January 2010), Binyam Mohamed: Evidence of Torture by US Agents Revealed in UK (February 2010). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan (July 2009), US Torture Under Scrutiny In British Courts (July 2009), What The British Government Knew About The Torture Of Binyam Mohamed (August 2009), Torture in Bagram and Guantánamo: The Declaration of Ahmed al-Darbi (September 2009), UK Judges Order Release Of Details About The Torture Of Binyam Mohamed By US Agents (October 2009), “Model Prisoner” at Guantánamo, Tortured in the “Dark Prison,” Loses Habeas Corpus Petition (December 2009), Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List (January 2010), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive.

And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), Torture In Guantánamo: The Force-feeding Of Hunger Strikers (June 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Torture And Futility: Is This The End Of The Military Commissions At Guantánamo? (September 2009), A Truly Shocking Guantánamo Story: Judge Confirms That An Innocent Man Was Tortured To Make False Confessions (Fouad al-Rabiah, September 2009), UK Court Orders Release Of Torture Evidence In The Case Of Shaker Aamer, The Last British Resident In Guantánamo (December 2009), Shaker Aamer: UK Government Drops Opposition To Release Of Torture Evidence (December 2009), Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission (January 2010), Murders at Guantánamo: Scott Horton of Harper’s Exposes the Truth about the 2006 “Suicides” (January 2010), Two Algerian Torture Victims Are Freed from Guantánamo (January 2010), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

What Torture Is, and Why It’s Illegal and Not “Poor Judgment”

The seal of the US Justice DepartmentIt’s now over three weeks since veteran Justice Department lawyer David Margolis dashed the hopes of those seeking accountability for the Bush administration’s torturers, but this is a story of such profound importance that it must not be allowed to slip away.

Margolis decided that an internal report (PDF) into the conduct of John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, who wrote the notorious memos in August 2002, which attempted to redefine torture so that it could be used by the CIA, was mistaken in concluding that both men were guilty of “professional misconduct,” and should be referred to their bar associations for disciplinary action.

Instead, Margolis concluded, in a memo (PDF) that shredded four years of investigative work by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), the DoJ’s ethics watchdog, that Yoo and Bybee had merely exercised “poor judgment.” As lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel, which is charged with providing objective legal advice to the Executive branch on all constitutional questions, Yoo and Bybee attempted to redefine torture as the infliction of physical pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” or the infliction of mental pain which “result[s] in significant psychological harm of significant duration e.g. lasting for months or even years.”

Yoo, notoriously, had lifted his description of the physical effects of torture from a Medicare benefits statute and other health care provisions in a deliberate attempt to circumvent the UN Convention Against Torture, signed by President Reagan in 1988 and incorporated into US federal law, in which torture is defined as:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person …

Obsessed with finding ways in which “severe pain” could be defined so that the CIA could torture detainees and get away with it, Yoo drew on some truly revolting examples of physical torture, citing a particularly brutal case, Mehinovic v. Vuckovic, in which, during the Bosnian war, a Serb soldier named Nikola Vuckovic had tortured his Bosnian neighbor, Kemal Mehinovic, with savage and sadistic brutality. Yoo dismissed the possibility that other torture techniques — waterboarding, for example, which is a form of controlled drowning, and prolonged sleep deprivation — might cause “significant psychological harm of significant duration,” or physical pain rising to a level that a judge might regard as torture.

In both of his definitions, however, Yoo was clearly mistaken. No detailed studies have yet emerged regarding the prolonged psychological effects of the torture program approved by Yoo and Bybee, largely because lawyers for the “high-value detainees” in Guantánamo have been prevented — first under Bush, and now under Obama — from revealing anything publicly about their clients.

However, lawyers for Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was charged in the Bush administration’s Military Commissions, made a good show of demonstrating that bin al-Shibh is schizophrenic and on serious medication, when they argued throughout 2008 that he was not fit to stand trial, and I have seen no evidence to suggest that bin al-Shibh was in a similar state before his four years in secret CIA prisons.

Abu ZubaydahAn even more pertinent example is Abu Zubaydah, a supposed “high-value detainee,” held in secret CIA prisons for four and a half years, for whom the torture program was originally developed. Zubaydah’s case may well be the most shocking in Guantánamo, because, although he was subjected to physical violence and prolonged sleep deprivation, was confined in a small box and was waterboarded 83 times, the CIA eventually concluded that he was not, as George W. Bush claimed after his capture, “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” but was, instead, a “kind of travel agent” for recruits traveling to Afghanistan for military training, who was not a member of al-Qaeda at all.

Zubaydah was clearly mentally unstable before his capture and torture, as the result of a head wound sustained in Afghanistan in 1992, but as one of his lawyers, Joe Margulies, explained in an article in the Los Angeles Times last April, his subsequent treatment in US custody has caused a profound deterioration in his mental health that would certainly constitute “significant psychological harm of significant duration.” Margulies wrote:

No one can pass unscathed through an ordeal like this. Abu Zubaydah paid with his mind. Partly as a result of injuries he suffered while he was fighting the communists in Afghanistan, partly as a result of how those injuries were exacerbated by the CIA and partly as a result of his extended isolation, Abu Zubaydah’s mental grasp is slipping away. Today, he suffers blinding headaches and has permanent brain damage. He has an excruciating sensitivity to sounds, hearing what others do not. The slightest noise drives him nearly insane. In the last two years alone, he has experienced about 200 seizures.

Moreover, when it came to defining physical torture, the OPR Report’s authors noted that, as so often in the memos, Yoo had ignored relevant case history. The key passage in the report deals with the US courts’ decisions regarding the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). Yoo had drawn on Mehinovic for his description of physical torture “of an especially cruel and even sadistic nature,” and, as the authors noted, he also argued that “only ‘acts of an extreme nature’ that were ‘well over the line of what constitutes torture’ have been alleged in TVPA cases.”

The authors continued:

Thus, the memorandum asserted, “there are no cases that analyze what the lowest boundary of what constitutes torture.” [sic]

That assertion was misleading. In fact, conduct far less extreme than that described in Mehinovic v. Vuckovic was held to constitute torture in one of the TVPA cases cited in the appendix to the Bybee memo. That case, Daliberti v. Republic of Iraq, 146 F. Supp. 2d 146 (D.D.C. 2001), held that imprisonment for five days under extremely bad conditions, while being threatened with bodily harm, interrogated, and held at gunpoint, constituted torture with respect to one claimant.

A close inspection of Daliberti (which dealt with US personnel seized by Iraqi forces between 1992 and 1995) is revealing, as the D.C. District Court held that “Such direct attacks on a person and the described deprivation of basic human necessities are more than enough to meet the definition of ‘torture’ in the Torture Victim Protection Act.” The judges based their ruling on the following:

David Daliberti and William Barloon allege that they were “blindfolded, interrogated and subjected to physical, mental and verbal abuse” while in captivity. They allege that during their arrests one of the agents of the defendant threatened them with a gun, allegedly causing David Daliberti “serious mental anguish, pain and suffering.” During their imprisonment in Abu Ghraib prison, Daliberti and Barloon were “not provided adequate or proper medical treatment for serious medical conditions which became life threatening.” The alleged torture of Kenneth Beaty involved holding him in confinement for eleven days “with no water, no toilet and no bed.” Similarly, Chad Hall allegedly was held for a period of at least four days “with no lights, no window, no water, no toilet and no proper bed.” Plaintiffs further proffer that Hall was “stripped naked, blindfolded and threatened with electrocution by placing wires on his testicles … in an effort to coerce a confession from him.”

Yoo and his apologists will undoubtedly quibble yet again. There is the threat of electrocution, a threat made with a gun, and deprivation of water, in one case for eleven days, none of which feature in the OLC’s memos. However, outside of the specific torture program approved by the OLC, numerous prisoners who were held at Bagram before being transported to Guantánamo have stated that they were actually subjected to electric shocks while hooded (rather than being threatened with electrocution), and that being threatened at gunpoint was a regular occurrence.

Moreover, it has also been stated that the withholding of medication was used with Abu Zubaydah after his capture, when he was severely wounded, and it should also be noted that numerous ex-prisoners have stated that, in Guantánamo, it was routine for medical treatment to be withheld unless prisoners cooperated with their interrogators (PDF).

Most of all, however, a comparison between Daliberti and the OLC memos reveals the extent to which the techniques approved by Yoo resulted in “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” which clearly exceeded that endured by David Daliberti and his fellow Americans in Iraq.

First of all, there is waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that has long been recognized as torture by the United States. As Eric Holder noted during his confirmation hearing in January 2009, “We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam.” With this in mind, it ought to be inconceivable that anyone could argue that waterboarding Abu Zubaydah 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times could be anything less than torture.

In addition, the prolonged isolation, prolonged sleep deprivation, nudity, hooding, shackling in painful positions, cramped confinement, physical abuse, dousing in cold water, beatings and threats endured by the CIA’s “high-value detainees,” as revealed in the leaked ICRC report (PDF) based on interviews with the 14 men transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, completes a picture that surely “shocks the conscience” more than the torture described in Daliberti, especially as those held were subjected to these techniques for far longer periods.

Susan CrawfordShould any further doubts remain about the definition of torture — and how it was implemented in the “War on Terror” — these should have been dispelled in January 2009, when, shortly before President Bush left office, Susan Crawford, the retired military judge who was the Convening Authority for the Military Commissions at Guantánamo (responsible for deciding who should be charged) granted the most extraordinary interview to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

Crawford told Woodward that the reason she had not pressed charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi who was initially put forward for a trial by Military Commission, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and three other men, was because he was tortured in Guantánamo. “We tortured Qahtani,” she said. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

“The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent,” Crawford explained. “You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge,” and to conclude that it was torture.

As I explained in an article at the time:

Al-Qahtani’s treatment was severe, of course. As Time magazine revealed in an interrogation log that was made available in 2005 (PDF), he was interrogated for 20 hours a day over a 50-day period in late 2002 and early 2003, when he was also subjected to extreme sexual humiliation, threatened by a dog, strip-searched and made to stand naked, and made to bark like a dog and growl at pictures of terrorists. On one occasion he was subjected to a “fake rendition,” in which he was tranquilized, flown off the island, revived, flown back to Guantánamo, and told that he was in a country that allowed torture.

In addition, as I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files:

The sessions were so intense that the interrogators worried that the cumulative lack of sleep and constant interrogation posed a risk to his health. Medical staff checked his health frequently — sometimes as often as three times a day — and on one occasion, in early December, the punishing routine was suspended for a day when, as a result of refusing to drink, he became seriously dehydrated and his heart rate dropped to 35 beats a minute. While a doctor came to see him in the booth, however, loud music was played to prevent him from sleeping.

The techniques used on al-Qahtani were approved by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but the impetus came from the torture memos written and authorized by Yoo and Bybee. Moreover, although Crawford was not so principled when it came to considering the treatment to which the “high-value detainees” had been subjected in CIA custody — on the basis, presumably, that such information would be easier to conceal in a Military Commission than al-Qahtani’s well-publicized ordeal — it is clear from the ICRC report on the “high-value detainees” that their treatment also “met the legal definition of torture.” In addition, it seems probable that the treatment of the 80 other prisoners held in secret CIA prisons, the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, before their arrival in Guantánamo, and the treatment of over a hundred prisoners in Guantánamo, who were subjected to versions of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on al-Qahtani would also constitute torture.

Jay S. Bybee and John YooFor these reasons, David Margolis’ whitewash of John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee cannot be the final word. In his memo to Attorney General Eric Holder, dismissing the report’s conclusions, Margolis tried to claim that it was important to remember that Yoo and Bybee were working in extraordinary circumstances, striving to prevent another major terrorist attack. In an early version of the report, OPR head Mary Patrice Brown dismissed this argument, asserting that “Situations of great stress, danger and fear do not relieve department attorneys of their duty to provide thorough, objective and candid legal advice, even if that advice is not what the client wants to hear.”

This is correct, but another authoritative source also explains why there are no excuses for twisting the law out of all shape in an attempt to justify torture. As the UN Convention Against Torture stipulates (Article 2.2), “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

The UN Convention also stipulates (Article 4. 1) that signatories to the Convention “shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law” and requires each State, when torture has been exposed, to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution” (Article 7.1). As with Article 2.2, there are no excuses for not taking action, and that includes political expediency, or, as Barack Obama described it, “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

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 Truthout. You can Digg the original article here.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison , Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA) (all May 2009) and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), UK Judges Compare Binyam Mohamed’s Torture To That Of Abu Zubaydah (November 2009), UN Secret Detention Report Asks, “Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?” (January 2010), Binyam Mohamed: Evidence of Torture by US Agents Revealed in UK (February 2010). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan (July 2009), US Torture Under Scrutiny In British Courts (July 2009), What The British Government Knew About The Torture Of Binyam Mohamed (August 2009), Torture in Bagram and Guantánamo: The Declaration of Ahmed al-Darbi (September 2009), UK Judges Order Release Of Details About The Torture Of Binyam Mohamed By US Agents (October 2009), “Model Prisoner” at Guantánamo, Tortured in the “Dark Prison,” Loses Habeas Corpus Petition (December 2009), Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List (January 2010), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive.

And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), Torture In Guantánamo: The Force-feeding Of Hunger Strikers (June 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Torture And Futility: Is This The End Of The Military Commissions At Guantánamo? (September 2009), A Truly Shocking Guantánamo Story: Judge Confirms That An Innocent Man Was Tortured To Make False Confessions (Fouad al-Rabiah, September 2009), UK Court Orders Release Of Torture Evidence In The Case Of Shaker Aamer, The Last British Resident In Guantánamo (December 2009), Shaker Aamer: UK Government Drops Opposition To Release Of Torture Evidence (December 2009), Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission (January 2010), Murders at Guantánamo: Scott Horton of Harper’s Exposes the Truth about the 2006 “Suicides” (January 2010), Two Algerian Torture Victims Are Freed from Guantánamo (January 2010), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

A Tribute to Sarah Meyer, human rights activist

“Autumn Leaves,” a photo by Sarah Meyer of her garden. She wrote on November 1, 2009, “Huge winds and storms. The autumnal leaves on my lawn remind me of the autumn of my life.”I have just been informed that Sarah Meyer, a wonderfully supportive friend in the struggle for a better world, recently died of cancer. A retired UK registered homoeopath, Sarah had studied Jungian psychology for 30 years, while simultaneously studying Tibetan Buddhism, and, after retiring, worked as a freelance researcher, investigating human rights abuses worldwide from her home in Sussex. Born in the US, she was married, for 12 years, to the author and journalist Karl Meyer, with whom she had three children — Jonathan, Heather and Ernest.

Sarah and I had never met, but I had come across her prodigious research on global human rights abuses on her website, Index Research, while I was researching my book The Guantánamo Files in 2006, and we had been in email contact ever since. She was, as I mentioned above, wonderfully supportive, as, for example, when she sent me an email last March stating simply, “Thank you, dear person, for all your work. It is so superb. You remind me of another favorite friend of mine, Dahr Jamail.” On a cold morning in London, words like these provided a real spur to carry on with what can sometimes seem like a thankless task.

I had been particularly drawn to Sarah’s work because she covered Afghanistan in extraordinary detail, compiling and commenting on a wide range of reports, but she also covered other aspects of the “War on Terror” — and the crimes of the West that preceded it. Even while very ill in November last year, she was working with the BRussells Tribunal Advisory Committee, a group of “intellectuals, artists and activists who denounce the logic of permanent war promoted by the American government and its allies” (of which she was a member) on a legal case filed in Spain against George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown “for commissioning, condoning and/or perpetuating multiple war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Iraq.” Her last post on human rights issues in relation to terrorism, entitled, “Surveillance Societies,” was posted on her site on October 31 last year. Inspired by journalist Henry Porter’s assiduous campaign against ID cards and the surveillance state in the UK, it contained a wealth of information that was typical of her reports, and I urge readers with an interest in any of these issues to investigate her research.

My thoughts are with Jonathan, Heather and Ernest, and, as part of a small tribute to Sarah, I’d like to quote from the introduction to her last post on Index Research, “Birth Is The Disease; Death Is The Cure,” in which she discussed her illness and prepared for her death:

The language applied to cancer sounds like Obama’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We hear about “battles” — “Fighting the Enemy” and the “War on Cancer.” Constructively discussing the actual process of life and death can often be a no-go zone. Even the word “death” is replaced by the awful term, “passing away.”

I am almost 73 now, and I am ready for death. The suffering of peoples on our planet is a burden for me. I have tried for much of my life to be useful, but of course one cannot “cure” this central crux of life itself.

I can think of no finer tribute to Sarah than for her work to be preserved at Index Research, for future researchers to use, to continue her struggle for a better world, and would like to share with readers the last email I received from Sarah, in January, which shows the generosity of spirit that she maintained throughout her life:

Dear Andy,

Sorry to tell you that I have stage 4 terminal cancer. I no longer have the ability to use the computer (Jonathan is typing this for me) and my memory is shot to hell. However, I am still reading everything you write. Thank you for everything you have done for me and for everybody else.

Love Sarah

My response was poor but heartfelt. I told Sarah that her news rather put everything else in perspective, and that my thoughts were with her. I should have mentioned that her work, and her life, will live on in the lives of those who were touched by her great feeling for humanity.

In conclusion, there are, perhaps, no better words to sum up Sarah’s belief in human rights than those of Martin Luther King Jr., which she included in every email:

Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?” But, conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.

Note: An index of Sarah’s work can also be found on the BRussells Tribunal website here, where she was described by her colleagues as “A remarkable and strong woman,” who “contributed a lot to our efforts to expose the criminal US war policies.”

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.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”: Report on screenings in Bradford and Norwich

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoFormer 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.

Shaker Aamer and two of his childrenAs 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.

Ahmed BelbachaFor 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.

Bradford PlayhouseDespite 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.

Recent feedback

“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. 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 three recent reviews of the film, see the full-length articles by Sarah Gillespie (which was widely cross-posted) and Harpy Marx, and also a review by Michael Bentley.

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.

(‘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.

Guantánamo Uighurs Back in Legal Limbo

Uighurs in Guantanamo protest their continued imprisonment, June 2009Last Monday, the Supreme Court declined to review a case brought on behalf of seven men in Guantánamo whose release into the United States was ordered by a US judge 17 months ago. The men in question are Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, and the ruling ordering them to be rehoused in the US was made in October 2008 by Judge Ricardo Urbina.

In light of the Supreme Court’s June 2008 ruling, in Boumediene v. Bush, granting the Guantánamo prisoners habeas corpus rights, the government had suffered a humiliating court defeat, and had then abandoned all pretense that the Uighurs — sold to US forces after fleeing a settlement in which they had been living in Afghanistan — were “enemy combatants.” It had long been apparent to the Bush administration that the men had only one enemy — the Chinese government — and the government had also accepted that it could not repatriate them, because they would face torture or other ill-treatment, and so, for many years, the State Department had been obliged to try to find new homes for them in other countries.

This was a difficult task, and although Albania accepted five of Guantánamo’s 22 Uighurs in May 2006, no other country would help out, and it took another two years and four months — and the Boumdediene ruling — until a judge was able to examine their case, and to order that, because no other country had been found that would accept the remaining 17 men, and because the government had conceded that they were not “enemy combatants,” their continued detention was illegal, and the government should offer them new homes on the US mainland.

The government, predictably, appealed, and in February 2009 the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled against the men, and against Judge Urbina’s heroic ruling, casting the men back into legal limbo by ruling that matters relating to immigration were not for the courts to decide, but were, instead, the exclusive preserve of the Executive branch.

In light of the Uighurs’ particular circumstances, this was a callous ruling, but it was unsurprising given that one of the judges in this notoriously conservative court was Judge A. Raymond Randolph, who had the dubious distinction of writing the three major Guantánamo decisions issued by the D.C. Circuit — in Al Odah v. United States, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush — which were all reversed by the Supreme Court.

More surprising was the fact that the Justice Department, under Obama, chose to maintain the Bush administration’s position, but this was a harbinger of further cowardice to come, and although Greg Craig, the White House Counsel, then established a plan to bring two of the Uighurs to the US in April, and secured the agreement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and defense secretary Robert Gates, Obama quashed the plan when he started taking flak from Republican critics, and the Uighurs were once more abandoned.

Through extraordinary diplomatic maneuvering, Special Envoy Daniel Fried managed to secure new homes for ten of the men in the months that followed. Four went to Bermuda in June, and another six to the island of Palau, in the Pacific, at the end of October. In the meantime, the Supreme Court agreed to take the men’s case, to decide whether Judge Urbina — and the men’s lawyers — had been right, and that habeas was meaningless if a judge was unable to order the release into the US of innocent men, seized by mistake, for whom no other country could be found.

However, before the Mar. 23 deadline arrived for the Supreme Court to review the case, Switzerland threw the government a lifeline, offering new homes to two of the men. This still left five others, but they had all been offered new homes in Palau and another country, which they had refused. As a result, the government asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the case as “improvidently granted,” because of the Swiss offer, and because the other five men “had received offers of resettlement, which were later withdrawn, from the Republic of Palau and a second unidentified country.”

Despite the offers, this remains a complicated situation. Switzerland has made its offer, but has not yet brought the men to their new homes, and the Palau deal is less straightforward than it may at first appear. Although some critics have argued that the men are angling for new homes in the US and have consigned themselves to life imprisonment in Guantánamo by refusing the offer, their lawyers have stated that they had genuine doubts about the terms of resettlement, and fears that they would still not be safe from the Chinese government, which were perfectly legitimate.

Quite how these problems will be resolved is at present unclear. The Supreme Court ruled that, because offers of resettlement had been made, “This change in the underlying facts may affect the legal issues presented,” adding, “No court has yet ruled in this case in light of the new facts, and we decline to be the first.” As a result, the Supreme Court referred the case back to the D.C. Circuit, noting that the court “should determine, in the first instance, what further proceedings in that court or in the District Court are necessary and appropriate for the full and prompt disposition of the case in light of the new developments.”

At first glance, this appears to be bad news, and it is, of course, in the sense that the Uighurs are still stuck at Guantánamo, and the Supreme Court refused to fulfill the dreams of Guantánamo’s fiercest opponents — myself included — who had hoped that the highest court in the land would finally order the Executive to take responsibility for the Bush administration’s horrendous mistakes by giving new homes to wrongly detained men. From my point of view, this would not only encourage other countries to continue taking cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated, but would also demonstrate to the American people, in the clearest manner possible, that not everyone held at Guantánamo was a terrorist, and that terrible mistakes were made.

However, despite this disappointment, the Supreme Court did not merely bounce the case — Kiyemba v. Obama — back to the lower courts. Clearly and deliberately, the justices actually vacated the Court of Appeals ruling, which they need not have done, banishing the judges’ contentious ruling about immigration and the reach of habeas corpus, and allowing the Uighurs’ lawyers to file a petition requesting that the case be remanded back to the District Court to look at anew, with a full exploration of all the issues surrounding habeas rights and the resettlement proposals.

Vacating the Court of Appeals ruling was not only a positive step in terms of reviving the issues outlined above; it also removed some of the other baleful effects of that particular ruling that had impacted negatively on other detainee issues.

In an email exchange, Michel Paradis, a civilian defense lawyer with the Pentagon, assigned to the Military Commissions, explained that “the biggest problem with Judge Randolph’s now vacated decision was that it went far beyond what the facts and issues in the case required,” and that Randolph “strained to reach the most sweeping ground on which to decide the case.”

Paradis continued:

I would not be surprised if there were some debatable issues over the application of immigration laws, but Judge Randolph went far beyond that, and, as he did in Al Odah, Boumediene and Hamdan, threw in a gratuitous paragraph that said GTMO detainees simply do not qualify as persons protected by the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.

The practical effect of this paragraph has been pernicious. In Rasul v Myers [a torture case brought against senior US officials by several British ex-prisoners], Judge Randolph relied on this paragraph to rule that former British detainees are not “persons” and therefore were not protected from religious harassment by federal law. And since the D.C. Circuit’s rulings control the district courts, the district judges have ruled, in the Obaidullah case for example [an Afghan recently put forward for a trial by Military Commission], that forced confessions can be admitted even into a civilian federal court if they happen to have been made by a GTMO detainee. So this paragraph did not simply create second-class persons, it created a class of non-persons. And it did so in a way that was not only dubious legally, but wholly unnecessary.

Moreover, although Judge Randolph papered over Boumediene, Judge Rogers, who concurred with the result in Kiyemba, strongly objected to Judge Randolph’s apparent effort to overrule the Supreme Court. Likewise, in Rasul, Judge Brown, who was one of the Bush administration’s more contentious appointments to the D.C. Circuit, called Judge Randolph’s reasoning “constricted” and “untenable” (strong words for a federal court opinion) and insisted that “’persons’ are individual human beings, of whom the American people are just one class.”

From this, it is clear that the Supreme Court had more in mind than just the Uighurs, and that it was extremely important to dismiss, for the fourth time, an unacceptable ruling made by Judge Randolph. Admittedly, this hurls the Uighurs back into a legal limbo, but my hope is that the case will be returned to the District Court, and that a judge with the decency and respect for the law demonstrated by Judge Urbina in October 2008 will once more be able to address these issues in a responsible manner, and may, for the second time, set in motion a process that, this time, might lead to the resettlement of innocent men from Guantánamo on the US mainland.

Not only would this be the right thing to do, but nothing — and I mean nothing — would do more to silence the opportunistic fearmongers who delight in stirring up hysteria about Guantánamo at very opportunity than for one of these men to be brought to live in America, where ordinary, decent people would soon realize that the hysteria is nothing more than a cynical attempt to preserve the Bush administration’s lies about the wretched experiment undertaken at Guantánamo.

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.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), A Letter To Barack Obama From A Guantánamo Uighur (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Real Uyghur Slams Newt Gingrich’s Racist Stupidity (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Who Are The Four Guantánamo Uighurs Sent To Bermuda? (June 2009), Guantánamo’s Uighurs In Bermuda: Interviews And New Photos (June 2009), Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo on Democracy Now! (June 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Is The World Ignoring A Massacre of Uighurs In China? (July 2009), Chair Of The American Conservative Union Supports The Guantánamo Uighurs (July 2009), Three Uighurs Talk About Chinese Interrogation At Guantánamo (July 2009), House Threatens Obama Over Chinese Interrogation Of Uighurs In Guantánamo (July 2009), A Profile of Rushan Abbas, The Guantánamo Uighurs’ Interpreter (August 2009), A Plea To Barack Obama From The Guantánamo Uighurs (August 2009), Court Allows Return Of Guantánamo Prisoners To Torture (September 2009), Finding New Homes For 44 Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners (October 2009), Justice At Last? Guantánamo Uighurs Ask Supreme Court For Release Into US (October 2009), Senate Finally Allows Guantánamo Trials In US, But Not Homes For Innocent Men (October 2009), Six Uighurs Go To Palau; Seven Remain In Guantánamo (October 2009), Who Are The Six Uighurs Released From Guantánamo To Palau? (November 2009), Guantánamo Uighurs In Palau: First Interview And Photo (November 2009), Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship (December 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

London Bangla Interview with Andy Worthington, Author of “The Guantánamo Files”

The following interview, with the London Bangla free newspaper, was conducted by email and published in two parts, in the most recent issues of the newspaper, which has a print run of 30,000 copies. I’d like to thank Emdad Rahman for coming up with a great set of questions that allowed me to cover all the relevant topics in detail.

London Bangla: Do you believe Guantánamo prisoners will receive a fair trial?

Andy Worthington: That depends. If the Obama administration proceeds with federal court trials, then yes, we have to presume that they will be as fair as possible. Unfortunately, the administration has also revived the Military Commissions, the “terror trials” first introduced by former Vice President Dick Cheney, which are widely viewed as a second-tier judicial system, designed to secure convictions when the evidence is weaker. At present, Republicans, and some Democrats, are so caught up in hysteria that they’re opposing federal court trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks. This is in spite of the fact that the Military Commissions only produced three verdicts in seven years, whereas the federal courts have successfully prosecuted hundreds of cases related to terrorism.

London Bangla: For the benefit of our readers please explain the safeguards of the Geneva Conventions?

Andy Worthington: Basically, the Geneva Conventions, developed after the horrors of the Second World War, provide a minimum baseline for humane treatment to anyone — whether a soldier or a civilian — seized during wartime, under Common Article 3. The Conventions also prohibit coercive interrogations, but in its rush to interrogate prisoners coercively in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — in other words, to be able to use torture, which is illegal under any circumstances — the Bush administration decided that prisoners in the “War on Terror” were not protected by the Geneva Conventions.

London Bangla: Why is the term “enemy combatants” used?

Andy Worthington: The term was used to enable the Bush administration to hold prisoners neither as enemy prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects, to be put forward for trials, but as a novel category of human being with no rights whatsoever.

London Bangla: Please tell us of any high profile cases?

Andy Worthington: The most high profile cases are those of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks. They are among 14 “high-value detainees” who were brought to Guantánamo in September 2006 from secret CIA prisons, where they had been held for up to four and a half years.

However, many other prisoners — 30 to 40 more — arrived at Guantánamo after being held in secret CIA prisons. One is Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was sent to Morocco to be tortured for 18 months, and was then held in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, known as the “Dark Prison,” where prisoners were held in compete darkness, chained to the walls and forced to listen to ear-splittingly loud music for 24 hours a day.

Binyam Mohamed was released from Guantánamo in February 2009, primarily because the British and American governments hoped to bring to a halt a court case in the UK, in which his lawyers were seeking evidence of British knowledge of, and complicity in, his torture by US agents in Pakistan, before he was sent to Morocco. However, the case continued, and on 10 February this year, judges ordered these documents to be released (also see here).

Shaker Aamer and two of his childrenAlso caught up in this currently unfolding torture scandal is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who has a British wife and four British children. He now has a court case involving allegations that British agents were present when he was tortured in Afghanistan before he was sent to Guantánamo in 2002, and his lawyers hope that this court case will push the British government to press for his return. He was cleared for release in 2007, but the US is unwilling to release him, and it seems that the reason is that he is a supremely eloquent opponent of injustice, who has persistently opposed the brutal detention policies of the “War on Terror,” and who, moreover, knows more about Guantánamo’s workings than any other prisoner.

Both Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer are featured in a new documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and myself), which is currently on a UK tour.

London Bangla: How many women are there imprisoned at Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: None, although after many years the US finally admitted that at least one woman had been held in Bagram, in Afghanistan, who may — or may not — have been Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman who was convicted in a New York court in February this year.

London Bangla: Are there minors?

Andy Worthington: There are still a few prisoners who were minors when they were seized: Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was 15 when he was seized in July 2002, and Hassan bin Attash, the younger brother of one of the men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, who was 17 when he was seized and rendered to a prison in Jordan, run as a proxy prison for the CIA, before being sent to Guantánamo. Throughout Guantánamo’s history, at least 22 prisoners were held who were under 18 when they were seized.

London Bangla: Are there any prisoners that may have mental / physical / learning difficulties?

Andy Worthington: I suspect that there are many, but it’s impossible, as yet, to know who they are. Some of the prisoners don’t have lawyers, others have refused to see their lawyers — or the authorities have said that they refused to see them, even though this is often not true. And in the cases of prisoners who do have lawyers, all communication is treated as presumptively classified. Lawyers can only speak about, or publicize their client’s cases when this information has been declassified, and it may well be that information revealing mental health problems is being hidden by the authorities. We’ll only know the awful truth when Guantánamo finally closes, and everyone held is either charged or released.

London Bangla: Please describe some torture methods?

Andy Worthington: In Guantánamo, between 2002 and 2004, torture methods and other methods of cruel and inhuman treatment included prolonged sleep deprivation (moving prisoners from cell to cell every few hours, for weeks at a time), prolonged isolation, 20-hour interrogations in a 24-hour period (repeated for long periods), the use of extreme heat or cold, forced nudity, shaving of hair and beards, religious abuse, exploitation of phobias (dogs, for example), sexual humiliation, and short-shackling for long periods in painful positions. In CIA custody, a handful of prisoners were also subjected to waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning.

London Bangla: What can be done further to highlight the torture of prisoners?

Andy Worthington: Education is the key to publicizing the crimes of the “War on Terror.” Everything described above is illegal, but in the post-9/11 world, it has become fashionable to claim that torture works and is necessary, and also that it is necessary to hold people without charge or trial. These are all lies. Torture is illegal, and those who order it are liable for prosecution under the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture, to which all supposedly civilized countries — including the US and the UK — are signatories. Moreover, torture doesn’t work. Skilled interrogators have always known that “rapport-building” is the only way to extract useful information, and that torture only induces its victims to tell interrogators what they want to hear. In addition, there is no excuse for holding anyone without charge or trial. If you have evidence, try them in a court of law. If you don’t, release them. It really is a simple as that.

London Bangla: How many prisoners or “enemy combatants” have been found guilty of any charges?

Andy Worthington: Three, in the Military Commissions. David Hicks, an Australian, accepted a plea bargain in March 2007, receiving a nine-month sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to providing “material support to terrorism.” Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni and a driver for Osama bin Laden, received a five and a half month sentence in August 2008 for providing “material support to terrorism,” and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni who made promotional videos for al-Qaeda, received a life sentence in November 2008 for conspiracy and material support, but only after a one-sided trial in which he refused to mount a defence. Hicks and Hamdan are now free men, and lawyers for al-Bahlul are currently appealing his conviction.

London Bangla: What is the charge most commonly attributed to prisoners?

Andy Worthington: There is no common charge, but most of the men have been accused of supporting al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban, even though the former is a terrorist group and the latter was, in 2001, the government of Afghanistan. This deliberate blurring of the distinctions between al-Qaeda and the Taliban has been a profound problem, and remains so to this day.

From my research, I have no hesitation in saying that only around 35 of the prisoners, at most, had any connection to terrorism, and that, of the other 740 or so prisoners, around half were involved with the Taliban, but only as recruits in an inter-Muslim civil war in Afghanistan that began long before 9/11 and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism, and the other half were completely innocent men, seized because the US was offering bounty payments, averaging $5000 a head, to its Afghan and Pakistan allies, who seized the majority of the prisoners held at Guantánamo.

London Bangla: How long did your book take to write and did you meet prisoners / detainees?

Andy Worthington: My book took 14 months to write, because I had to piece together a narrative and a chronology from over 8000 pages of Pentagon documents, from news reports, from lawyers’ accounts, and from the accounts of released prisoners. I didn’t actually meet any released prisoners until after I had completed the book (although, as mentioned, I drew on some of their accounts), but have now met most of the released British prisoners, and am in touch with some former prisoners in other countries. On the tour of “Outside the Law,” I’ll be traveling with Omar Deghayes, who features in the film and was released from Guantánamo in December 2007.

London Bangla: Who will speak for the 774 men who have been held in Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: Well, I do obviously (and that line is taken from the publisher’s blurb for my book), through the book, the film, and the 500+ articles that I’ve written in the last three years, which can all be found on my website.

But in a wider sense, the answer to your question is, “We all do.” It should scare all of us that, in the name of combating terrorism, our fundamental values have been eroded to the extent that so many people now regard indefinite detention without charge or trial and the use of torture as somehow acceptable. Habeas corpus — the right not to be held without charge or trial — was invented in England nearly 800 years ago, and many fine and principled people struggled for centuries to outlaw the use of torture. For all this to be swept away is extraordinary, and extraordinarily worrying.

London Bangla: Please briefly explain the process of “extraordinary rendition” that underpins the US administration’s “War on Terror.”

Andy Worthington: Basically, it’s a form of international kidnapping. “Rendition” existed long before 9/11, and involved kidnapping wanted criminals and bringing them to justice in the US. With “extraordinary rendition,” the whole part about bringing prisoners to justice was dropped, and hundreds of men were rendered to foreign prisons, where proxy torturers did the CIA’s dirty work for them, or to secret prisons run by the CIA, where torture was, as directed by senior officials in the Bush administration, and sanctioned by lawyers, brought “in-house.” It remains the most disgraceful period in modern American history.

London Bangla: How long did you study the released Pentagon transcripts?

Andy Worthington: I spent about four months transcribing and collating the transcripts, and am still amazed that no major media outlet did the same. It’s an achievement that I’m very proud of, and it still informs my work on Guantánamo to this day.

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.

Three US screenings of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” – in Boulder, Philadelphia and Northampton

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoI’m delighted to report that three screenings of the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and myself), which is currently on a UK tour, have been arranged by pioneering grass-roots activists in the US. All the screenings are free, and Polly and I, and the production company Spectacle, would like to encourage more people to arrange their own screenings. DVDs are available to buy here, and there’s an electronic press kit here, including a poster that you can adapt for your own screenings. Please let me know if you go ahead with a screening, and I’ll publicize it.

Screenings of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” in the US, March 2010

On Tuesday March 16, at 7 pm, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center will be showing the film at Atlas Building 100, CU-Boulder, Boulder, Colorado. Email for further information, and see the website here.

On Wednesday March 17, at 6 pm, The World Can’t Wait (which supported my visit to the US in November, to show the film in New York, Washington D.C. and the Bay Area) presents a screening at Moonstone Arts Center, 110A S. 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Email for further information, or phone 215-735-9598, and see the website here.

On Friday March 19, at 7 pm, the film will be shown at the Media Education Foundation (MEF) in Northampton, Massachusetts. The screening is organized by the Northampton Committee to Stop the War in Iraq and co-sponsored by the Pioneer Valley chapter of No More Guantánamos. Nancy Talanian, the director of No More Guantánamos, will speak and answer questions from the audience. For further information, please email Nancy Talanian, and see the MEF website here.

No More Guantánamos is the organization that, last November, lit the first sparks of what should be a national debate about the future of cleared Guantánamo prisoners who cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture of other ill-treatment, by supporting a resolution in Amherst, Massachusetts to welcome two men — Ahmed Belbacha and Ravil Mingazov — into the community, and to ask Congress to drop its opposition to cleared prisoners being resettled on the US mainland. The resolution was passed by Amherst Town Meeting on November 4, and a public forum was held in Northampton on November 19, featuring Guantánamo lawyers Zachary Katznelson and Gary Thompson, which was filmed and is available below:

Solving the Guantanamo Quagmire: One Town At a Time, 59 minutes from Ernest Urvater on Vimeo.

Please visit the website of No More Guantánamos to support its work, and, if possible, to find out how you can form a new chapter, or join an existing one, to help address the plight of prisoners who have been cleared for release but cannot return home, and to keep America talking about how the American people can put pressure on lawmakers to accept responsibility for the Bush administration’s terrible mistakes, and to dispel the ongoing lies about how Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst.” Please see here and here for a few examples of why this propaganda is so disturbingly mistaken.

No More Guantánamos defines it aims as follows:

  • To engage the public in a fact-based dialogue about the planned closure of Guantánamo Bay prison and US detainee policy
  • To transform prisoners’ images in the US from faceless, nameless “terrorists” to human beings who deserve fair treatment and a presumption of innocence until proven guilty
  • To use prisoners’ stories to overcome unfounded fears of prisoners in your community
  • To enable prisoners cleared for release but who can’t return home to settle in the US or help them get where they want to go

In addition, on February 14, the Northampton Friends Meeting approved a minute (the Quakers’ term for a resolution), stating, “As Quakers we are spirit led by our Quaker values and confronted by our sense of justice, we declare to each other and our neighbors our profound desire to support all efforts to reestablish the lives and livelihood of those men wrongly incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay Prison who our government has determined pose no threat to our country.” The Northampton Friends’ Justice, Peace and Witness Committee drafted the minute and has sent it to all the Friends Meetings in their Quarter to affirm and send to the New England Yearly Meeting, for the consideration of all Friends Meetings in New England. Nancy Talanian, who spoke before the Justice, Peace and Witness Committee in January, called the minute “a positive step toward helping the men wrongly held to regain their freedom and rebuild their lives.”

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.

In the case of Shaker Aamer, 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.

Recent feedback

“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. 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.

“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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The Guantánamo Files book cover

The Guantánamo Files

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The Battle of the Beanfield

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion book cover

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion

Outside The Law DVD cover

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo

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