An interview with Andy Worthington, author of “The Guantánamo Files” (for Celebrity Dialogue)


The following interview, conducted by email, was published on the website Celebrity Dialogue, run by blogger Zeeshan Kureshi, which describes itself as being “dedicated to bringing forward those who have made a difference in our world.”

Celebrity Dialogue: Andy, we really appreciate the time you took out of your busy schedule for Celebrity Dialogue. First of all, let’s start from your early life. Tell us about your childhood, education etc.

Andy Worthington: I grew up near Hull, in the north of England, and studied English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford University more years ago than I care to remember.

Celebrity Dialogue: How did it all begin: your journey as a journalist and historian?

Andy Worthington: My journey began when I became fascinated by the ancient sacred sites of England in 1996. I then undertook a number of long-distance walks through the countryside of southern England in the summer of 1997 and 1998, visiting these sites, which I then attempted to write up as a book.

Celebrity Dialogue: One of your previous books, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, what was it about?

Andy Worthington: The process of writing a book about these long-distance walks was ultimately unsuccessful, but it led to me focusing on one particular part of the story — the Stonehenge Free Festival, an anarchic annual event that I had visited in my youth — and writing, instead, a social history of Stonehenge, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, in which I explained how, over the course of over 100 years, archaeologists and the State had come up against an extraordinary array of other people with claims on England’s most famous prehistoric monument: Druids, student revellers, free festival goers, anarchists, hippies, new age travellers, green activists, feminists, anti-nuclear protestors, anti-road protestors and land reformers. This then led to a second book, The Battle of the Beanfield, about a critical confrontation between a convoy of travellers and green protestors and the might of Margaret Thatcher’s police in a field in Wiltshire in June 1985, and from there, having conducted research into civil liberties, human rights and the law, I was in a good position to move onto a more challenging topic: Guantánamo.

Celebrity Dialogue: How did you get interested and involved in the Guantánamo detention camp?

Andy Worthington: I was interested from the moment Guantánamo opened, and we saw the dehumanized prisoners, shackled, kneeling in their orange jumpsuits, and subjected to sensory deprivation. I then followed the stories of the released British prisoners, in 2004 and 2005, and their accounts of torture and abuse, and, in the summer of 2005, began trying to find out who was held at Guantánamo. As the US government had not yet been obliged to release the names and nationalities of the prisoners, this involved tracking down news reports relating to released prisoners, reading interviews with released prisoners, and drawing on largely speculative prisoner lists compiled by the Washington Post and the British human rights group Cageprisoners, but it was enough to get me started.

Celebrity Dialogue: Tell us about your book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. What motivated you to write this book?

Andy Worthington: In spring 2006, following the initial research described above, I got lucky. The Pentagon lost a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press and was obliged to release the first ever prisoner list, plus 8,000 pages of documents providing the allegations against the prisoners and transcripts of the tribunals and review boards held at Guantánamo — a largely sham process designed to demonstrate that the prisoners were “enemy combatants,” who could be held without rights. However, these tribunals and review boards at least allowed the prisoners to tell their side of the story, and it was through a four-month analysis of these documents — a process that no one else undertook, to my surprise — that I was able to establish a chronology of the men’s capture, and a context for their capture, whether in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan, or in other countries, subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and held in secret prisons. This, together with other information — including how the majority of the men were seized not by Americans but by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments were widespread — enabled me to understand, and to demonstrate, that the overwhelming majority of the men were not terrorists, but were, instead, either completely innocent men or low-level Taliban recruits, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who had been persuaded to take the side of the Taliban against other Muslims (in the Northern Alliance) in Afghanistan’s long-running civil war. Moreover, it seems clear that many of these men had not advanced beyond basic training, and others had served only as cooks or guards.

Celebrity Dialogue: You have researched so much about the Guantánamo Bay prison, yet you haven’t been to that place. How does it feel?

Andy Worthington: To be honest, it feels fine. I regret, in some ways, missing out on the Military Commissions — the trials that took place at Guantánamo in 2007-08 — because at those trials journalists could actually see the prisoners and hear the proceedings, whereas otherwise they are given a PR tour, and are told that the authorities are running a lawful, humane facility, even though the men are held without charge or trial and no one is allowed to speak to any of them. The only people who genuinely have insightful access to the prison are the lawyers (and their translators), who actually get to meet the men.

Celebrity Dialogue: If given a chance, would you like to visit the detention center personally?

Andy Worthington: As above, only if someone flew me out there to report on a trial, and I’m hoping that no further trials will take place at Guantánamo, and that those whom the administration wants to try — just 35 of those still held — will be tried in federal courts in the US.

Celebrity Dialogue: After meeting some of the former prisoners up and close, did you find them to be the “beasts” media has portrayed them to be?

Andy Worthington: Of course not. When the men were largely seized randomly, and were, in most cases, sold to their US captors, it’s extremely difficult to find anyone who would qualify as a dangerous person in any sense. Of the men I have met — mostly the British ex-prisoners, but a few others, including former al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj — what has impressed me the most is not just that they were seized by mistake, but that they have, in most cases, survived their ordeal in the most extraordinary manner, through their faith, and through the support network of the prisoners themselves.

Celebrity Dialogue: How did your personal relationship develop with some of the former prisoners you came to know during your quest in this case?

Andy Worthington: The people I have come to know the best are a former prisoner who does not live in the UK, with whom I have been in contact for several years, and two of the British ex-prisoners: Moazzam Begg, who read a draft of my book before publication, and Omar Deghayes, who was still in Guantánamo at that time. Omar and I are currently spending a lot of time together, taking the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” on a UK tour, and it is a real pleasure to be getting to know him better, and to be able to start working together on publicizing the stories of those who are still held at Guantánamo.

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoCelebrity Dialogue: You are the co-director of the documentary, “Outside the Law: The Stories from Guantánamo.” Tell us how you got involved in this project.

Andy Worthington: I proposed the idea of a documentary to a good friend, Polly Nash, around the time The Guantánamo Files was published. I thought that some of the central arguments of the book would translate well to film, and Polly agreed. We secured some seed funding from the college where she teaches — the London College of Communication — and established that we could tell the story most effectively through interviews with a handful of particularly knowledgeable individuals with whom I was in contact; primarily, the lawyers Tom Wilner in Washington D.C. and Clive Stafford Smith in the UK, and former prisoners Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes. I also took part in the film, and there are also appearances by solicitor Gareth Peirce, former Guantánamo chaplain James Yee, and Shakeel Begg, an Imam in London.

Celebrity Dialogue: Lately, you have been busy touring different locations for the screening of your documentary. Where have you been so far?

Andy Worthington: In early February, Polly and I went to Oslo to take part in the Human Rights, Human Wrongs Film Festival, and since then we have had several screenings in London — at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre, at the National Film Theatre, at LSE, SOAS, UCL and South Bank University. We have also taken it to Oxford, Bradford, Norwich, Canterbury, Dundee, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and have many more screenings lined up for the coming months, including the London International Documentary Festival. Full details can be found here.

Celebrity Dialogue: What was the response that you received from the general public during the screenings?

Andy Worthington: The response has been very positive. People are very impressed with the humanity of Omar, in particular, whom I regard as the heart of the film, and his combination of inner strength and vulnerability very powerfully brings home to people the human tragedy of Guantánamo. In addition, we have received support for the campaign to secure the release of Shaker Aamer, who is also featured in the film. The last British resident in Guantánamo, Shaker was cleared for release in 2007, but continues to be held not because of anything that he did, but because he has relentlessly stood up for the prisoners’ rights. People are also particularly engaged right now, because of recent revelations, in the UK courts, of British complicity in the torture of Shaker Aamer and the other man featured in the film, Binyam Mohamed.

Celebrity Dialogue: Are there any other places you would like the documentary to be screened?

Andy Worthington: As mentioned above, we have just been accepted as part of the London International Documentary Festival, at the end of April, and we are hoping that other film festivals will take the film. We’re also in discussions with distributors, and are especially looking at ways of getting the film out to American audiences, where its message is particularly important. We’re also interested in screenings being facilitated in as many countries as possible, and are pleased that a few people have recently volunteered to translate the film into other languages. We’re also encouraging people to put on their own screenings, by buying a DVD from the website of the production company, Spectacle.

Celebrity Dialogue: Which television channels have aired it so far?

Andy Worthington: None, although we are in discussions with a few people. Personally, I’d love it to be shown on TV in the Middle East and in Pakistan.

Celebrity Dialogue: In addition to spreading awareness about the plight of those who are suffering at the hands of governments, what else can be done?

Andy Worthington: Spreading awareness is extremely important, but public pressure is also significant. In the UK, this involves sending letters to government ministers, contacting MPs, organizing and attending protests. In addition, sending letters to the prisoners themselves lets them know that the world has not forgotten them, and also makes them less likely to be subjected to abuse in custody.

Celebrity Dialogue: Do you see hope for the Guantánamo prisoners and others like them around the world?

Andy Worthington: I always try to see hope. President Obama has lacked courage in closing Guantánamo — both in comprehending the full extent of the mistakes made by the Bush administration, and in fighting back against his opponents, who are playing an unprincipled political game with questions of national security. However, although there are questions still to be answered about how the US treats terrorist suspects in future, and whether the application of the Geneva Conventions will be unconditionally restored for prisoners seized in wartime, I think it’s fair to say that Guantánamo is, above all, regarded as a failed experiment that needs to be brought to an end. Sadly, however, there is still some way to go before this can become a reality, and I am discouraged, and even dismayed by the refusal of US lawmakers to offer new homes on the US mainland to cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture or other ill-treatment in their home countries, by the revival of the Military Commission trial system as an alternative to federal court trials, and, in particular, by the decision to continue holding other prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial, because they are regarded as too dangerous to release, even though the evidence against them is untrustworthy. Endorsing Bush-era indefinite detention is a terrible thing for the Obama administration to be proposing.

Celebrity Dialogue: In your opinion, how can governments be stopped from illegal detention and torture?

Andy Worthington: Again, by public pressure. We need to campaign to make sure that people — including politicians — accept that torture is illegal, fundamentally unreliable and morally corrosive, and to roll back the casual way in which it has been accepted over the last decade. And we can, in addition, support lawyers and judges who are committed to outlawing these practices and holding those responsible to account, and, as always, we can continue to educate others be spreading the word. Fundamentally, the way I see it, the senior Bush administration officials and lawyers who created and endorsed horrific policies enacted in the “War on Terror” need to be held accountable in a court of law. Otherwise, US laws and the UN Convention Against Torture mean nothing.

Celebrity Dialogue: After the Guantánamo issue is settled, do you see yourself continuing your fight against similar injustices or do you have other projects in mind?

Andy Worthington: I’ll get back to you on that when the Guantánamo issue is finally settled!

Celebrity Dialogue: Thank you so much for your time, Andy. We wish you the best of luck in your efforts and hope for your success in life.

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.

3 Responses

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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