“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” – A Pre-Election Trip to Birmingham


Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoOn reflection, two days before the General Election was a weird time to be travelling anywhere to show “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the new documentary film, co-directed by Polly Nash and myself, which former prisoner Omar Deghayes and I have been touring since February.

This week it was as though the impetus to push against the injustices of the “War on Terror” had stalled. On Tuesday morning, six former prisoners — including Omar, and Binyam Mohamed, who is also featured in the film — defeated the government in the Court of Appeal, when three senior judges overturned a ruling made last November by another judge, who approved the use of secret evidence in a civil claim for damages. This was an unprecedented event in British history, and when the Court of Appeal overturned the ruling, those with a keen sense of history and the law rejoiced. “How audacious! The government tries to overturn principles of law dating back to [the] 13th century,” Afua Hirsch wrote in the Guardian.

In the fog of election week, however, the impact was dulled, as no one knew who would be in power to deal with the fallout from this ruling — whether it will be accepted, or appealed; and whether the new government will turn its back on secrecy and injustice, or, indeed, whether more darkness — the same, or worse — is to come.

In this uncertain world, Omar and I travelled to Birmingham for two screenings of the film — at Aston University and at Birmingham Library Theatre, in a screening organized by Birmingham Film Society — which had been booked before the election date was announced. We stayed with Moazzam Begg, who joined us for Q&A sessions following both screenings, had attentive crowds and great organizers, the sun shone and we discussed plans for future activities. Omar and I ate fish masala at a chip shop near Aston University, we ate lamb kebab and chips and drank freshly squeezed orange juice in a friendly Pakistani restaurant further out of town, and drank coffee and watched the world pass in the city centre. On Wednesday evening, we walked along the canals, and I was impressed at how, as in so many places in the UK, public spaces have been developed in the last decade or so. But the election hovered, largely unspoken, over everything. The popular support for proportional representation. The unaddressed fallout from the banking crisis. The savage cuts reportedly to come, which no one wants to discuss.

I could go on, attempting to capture this unease, and the strange feeling of discussing pressing issues of accountability for the British government’s complicity in rendition and torture — and calls for the return of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo (also featured in the film) — without knowing who these calls should be directed at. Instead, however, I’m going to cross-post a short article, entitled, “England,” which I think perfectly captures these issues, and which was posted by a blogger named Jamblichus, who returned to the UK from South Korea just days before the Election, and came to see the film shortly after his arrival. He describes his interests as “[t]o point out and record the abuse of power by corporations, politicos, police and anyone else who has it coming,” and “[t]o give big-ups to academics, poets, musicians, activists and any other souls who have something interesting and unusual to say.”

By Jamblichus, May 6, 2010

Flying into England the air feels muggy. It reminds me on landing of arriving in Africa a decade ago; the night heavy, the air thick, the dark full of unknown but not unnerving sounds — a strange familiarity.

The English look heavy too: thickset, more tattoos than I remember there being, shoulders hunched and faces, posture, gestures all somewhat inward looking and deliberate, if not unpleasantly so.

It’s good to be home and I’m reminded that we drive like maniacs here. Not in the Korean way — erratic, mannerless, dismissive of red lights but respecting of speed limits — but in a distinctly British way: courteous, horn-free but brutally fast.

A few days after arriving I go to see the film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” by campaigning journalist Andy Worthington and sit through a Q&A afterwards with former detainees Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes.

I won’t rehash their stories here — although I urge a visit to Begg’s site Cageprisoners — but it was their current concerns as much as the travesty that is Guantánamo and their horrific experiences there that shocked me.

Just yesterday the Court of Appeal overturned a ruling that, for the first time in British history, allowed the government to use secret evidence in a civil claim for damages.

The decision was a resounding victory for the six former Guantánamo prisoners — Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil El-Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed and Martin Mubanga — who have brought a case against the British government.

But the government is likely to appeal the ruling. The precedent a win by the state on this issue would represent is astonishing. The right to use evidence in court against you in a civil suit that neither you nor your lawyer can see. It could be anything, entirely made up to smear political opponents.

Disgusting and deeply disturbing. Andy Worthington lists on his blog here the MPs who have signed up to early day motions opposing the use of secret evidence in UK courts and calling for the release of the last British resident in Guantánamo respectively. Of the 149 MPs who have signed the motions, just three are Conservative.

It seems utter madness that they look likely to get a majority.

A few days later, feeling guilty at not having registered to vote in enough time, I set the alarm for 4:00 am and drove into Birmingham Hall Green to canvass for the Liberal Democrats whose candidate could just clinch the seat if enough former Labour voters go that way …

Trudging the streets of Moseley and Kings Norton for three hours to the dawn chorus and the intermittent roar of buses I was struck by the beauty of the city. Old trees line many of the streets, decrepit redbrick buildings with crumpled but still magisterial presence and everywhere difference, unique variations in architecture that Seoul so lacks.

Most locals would no doubt think I’m nuts but it really struck me what a gorgeous place it was. Even if it did give me savage blisters. Note to inexperienced political leafleters: bring the following four essentials:

  • MP3 player.
  • Satchel.
  • Thermos flask with coffee.
  • Plasters.

About the film

“[T]his is a strong movie examining the imprisonment and subsequent torture of those falsely accused of anti-American conspiracy.”
Joe Burnham, Time Out

“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.

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, and see here for a short trailer.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and currently on tour in the UK), 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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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