An interview with Andy Worthington for Labour Briefing: Guantánamo, Torture and “Outside the Law”

28.5.10

The following interview, conducted by Louise Whittle, is published in the June 2010 issue of Labour Briefing (see here for subscription details, and/or a free copy of the current issue), and was cross-posted yesterday on Louise’s site, Harpymarx.

Labour Briefing: What made you (and Polly Nash) make the film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”?

Andy Worthington: The film arose as a follow-up to my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, published by Pluto Press. Polly, who has worked in film and TV production for 20 years, is an old friend, and when the book was published I thought that its central themes would translate well to film: specifically, about how prisoners were not “the worst of the worst,” seized by US forces “on the battlefield,” but were, instead, mostly innocent men or low-level Taliban recruits, sold to the US military by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, and how some of the men were in Afghanistan or Pakistan as missionaries or as humanitarian aid workers.

Polly agreed, and so we put together a structure for the film, telling these stories by focusing on the cases of three particular British prisoners — Shaker Aamer (who is still held) and Binyam Mohamed and Omar Deghayes (both released) — and I then approached contacts I had established for the interviews that tell the story: in particular, lawyers Tom Wilner, Clive Stafford Smith and Gareth Pierce, and former prisoners Omar Deghayes and Moazzam Begg, with myself providing some of the commentary and interpretation.

Labour Briefing: What reaction have you received so far from the mainstream media and from the anti-war movement?

Andy Worthington: Sadly, there has been silence for the most part from the mainstream media, although in March the BBC in Kent and in Scotland took an interest in the ongoing UK tour of the film undertaken by myself and Omar Deghayes, and we have had successful screenings everywhere we’ve been, including at Amnesty International’s HQ in London, at the National Film Theatre, and as part of the London International Documentary Festival in April. There has been stronger support from the anti-war movement, and several screenings have been organized by various Stop the War groups.

Unfortunately, the mainstream seems to think that Guantánamo is an old story, even though Obama has reached a state of paralysis in his attempts to close the prison, and 181 men are still held, with no sign of when — or how — this aberrant experiment will actually be brought to an end. It would be nice to think that a distributor will pick up on the film, and realize that there is an audience for the film, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Labour Briefing: What reaction have you had from other countries?

Andy Worthington: I took the film on a short US tour in November, but I have to say that, after an initial flurry of optimism in the wake of Obama’s election, something close to despair has set in amongst progressives and liberals — or people are still fooling themselves that Obama has waved a magic wand and thoroughly repudiated the crimes of the Bush years, which, of course, he has not. Polly and I are discussions with an American distributor, and I hope something comes of that, because the film really needs to be seen widely in the US.

In February, Polly and I were invited to take part in a film festival in Oslo (the Human Rights, Human Wrongs Festival), which was very successful. We’re also waiting to hear from various film festivals around the world, and volunteers are currently translating it into various other languages, so I’m hopeful that it will eventually be seen by international audiences.

Labour Briefing: To what extent do you think you were only able to scrape the surface in making “Outside the Law”? Do you think it is possible to lift the lid on the system of secret prisons and the use of rendition states to do the West’s dirty work in torturing people in secret?

Andy Worthington: There are obviously other stories to be told — particularly about the whole program of “extraordinary rendition” and secret prisons, and about the complicity of other countries in the “War on Terror,” including the UK, which was deeply involved, as recent court cases have shown. Part of the problem is that countries are fighting tooth and nail to prevent these stories coming out, as they provide evidence of complicity in war crimes, but another problem is the Obama administration, which is maintaining that it wants to “look forward and not back.” I think that the truth will eventually be revealed, but it will take many more years, and in the meantime I think we all need to also focus on making sure that our governments are cleaning up their acts.

Labour Briefing: What impact has the experience had on the men released from Guantánamo, such as psychological and political effects?

Andy Worthington: I think it depends. The former prisoners that I have come to know have mostly shown extraordinary resilience, though their faith and through the bonds they established in Guantánamo to help them survive their ordeal, but I know that not everyone has been so strong, or so fortunate. Former prisoners in the West have access to psychological counseling, but this is not available elsewhere, even though many other former prisoners need it. In addition, of course, very few former prisoners can find work after being held at Guantánamo, unless they can find a way to be become involved in human rights. I recommend people to look at the work of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, founded by former prisoners, which is attempting to raise money for the welfare of former prisoners, and also to establish court cases against those who authorized or facilitated their detention, rendition and torture.

Labour Briefing: To what extent has the political culture within Britain changed so that questions of legality and illegality and human rights issues are seen as marginal?

Andy Worthington: I think the UK is less fooled than the US when it comes to swallowing the fear-filled rhetoric of the “War on Terror,” but it is sadly true that Islamophobia has taken hold, and that it has not only infected popular discourse, but has also infected the government and the intelligence services. I don’t doubt that there are threats out there, but the approach is to tell Muslims to shut up and not to discuss, let alone be angered by Britain’s foreign policy. In addition, Britain has its own version of Guantánamo, in the cases of the men — all Muslims — who are detained under control orders, or on deportation bail, on the basis of secret evidence that they are unable to challenge adequately. If this were happening to any other group, there would be a public outcry, but because it’s happening to Muslims, it is somehow regarded as acceptable. That, in a nutshell, tells you how far we have drifted from respect for the law, and for the fundamental principle that no one should be deprived of their liberty except in a court of law, and by a jury of their peers.

Labour Briefing: What do you think the new government should be doing in dealing with the whole issue of illegal imprisonment and torture?

Andy Worthington: The new government needs to look very closely — and urgently — at existing anti-terror legislation: the use of secret evidence, control orders and deportation bail, in particular, but also the idiotic attempt to outlaw the “glorification of terrorism,” which runs the very real risk of criminalizing thought crimes.

For me, this is all tied in with the increase in racism and xenophobia over the last 15 years, so I hope that the new government will also uphold Britain’s obligations to refugees, and will recognize that there is something truly appalling about the way in which failed asylum seekers are held, and will also recognize that we need a grown-up debate about how to stop criminalising asylum seekers and pretending that we don’t need to address the problem of the many, many thousands of failed asylum seekers who are living in poverty below the radar, hiding out from a society whose only response to them, though illegal under the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture, is, “Send them all back!”

Politics being as it is, however, I doubt that the new government will do any of this willingly.

Labour Briefing: Shaker Aamer is still detained in Guantánamo. What can activists do to highlight and campaign against this injustice?

Andy Worthington: Push the new government for his return. Shaker is the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was cleared for release in 2007, but is still held. I advise activists to send letters to the Prime Minister and the foreign secretary [a letter is here] asking them to demand Shaker’s return, and also to ask for the UK to accept Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived here for three years. Ahmed was also cleared for release in 2007, but is terrified of returning to Algeria.

I also believe that the UK government should accept other cleared prisoners, like Ahmed, who cannot be returned to their home countries, but who, unlike Ahmed, have no connection with this country. This is the least that Britain should be doing, after being so intimately involved with the crimes of the “War on Terror,” and it is unacceptable that the UK has been standing by, while Albania, Belgium, Bermuda, Bulgaria, France, Georgia, Hungary, Ireland, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland have all helped out by taking cleared prisoners who have no previous connection with them, in order to close Guantánamo and to bring to an end these men’s undue suffering.

Note: Please also see here for a letter that readers can send to MPs asking them to take action for Shaker Aamer, and to oppose the use of control orders and secret evidence.

“Outside the Law”: reviews and feedback

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

“[T]hought-provoking, harrowing, emotional to watch, touching and politically powerful.”
Harpymarx, blogger

“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

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), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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