Archive for December, 2010

Summoning Up the Spirit of Ronnie Lane: The Triumphant Return of Slim Chance

Those of you who know me as the world’s most incessant commentator on Guantánamo and related issues in the “War on Terror” — or, of late, as a fierce opponent of the coalition government’s plans to butcher the British state — may be surprised to find me writing a music review, but back in 2005, after several years chronicling British counter-culture through my books Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield, I was drawn to the story of Ronnie Lane — and specifically, his solo career with his band Slim Chance — through my friendship with the musician Charlie Hart, who played with Ronnie at this time, living for a while at the farm in Shropshire that was Slim Chance’s spiritual home.

As a result, I wrote the sleeve notes for the DVD release of the excellent film about Ronnie’s life and music, “The Passing Show,” directed by Rupert Williams and James Mackie for the BBC (with invaluable help from Darinagh O’Hagan), and originally broadcast in January 2006. I also came close to writing a biography of Ronnie, but when the offer finally came through, after many months of discussions with publishers, I was already in another world, far from the hills of Shropshire, in which manacled prisoners in orange jumpsuits, in a prison on a US naval base in Cuba, were presented as “the worst of the worst” by some of the most powerful men in the world, and I had access to publicly available documents which demonstrated that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld were lying, and the truth was that most of the men held at Guantánamo had no connection to terrorism at all.

That project — first through my book The Guantánamo Files, and, since May 2007, through my dedicated journalism — has pretty much taken over my life, although when Charlie announced that he was planning the return of Slim Chance with several former members, I was delighted to become involved, putting together this review of Slim Chance’s powerful and moving gig at the 100 Club last month, which was published on the new Slim Chance website, and which, I hope, will play a small part in encouraging others to book Slim Chance and to allow others to experience Ronnie’s music brought back to life by those who knew him well, and who are doing such a great job of reviving his work.

Summoning Up the Spirit of Ronnie Lane: The Triumphant Return of Slim Chance, 100 Club, London, November 27, 2010
By Andy Worthington

Every now and then, amidst all the manipulation of reality shows and youth-based hype, something truly special happens in the world of music. On Friday November 27, 2010, at the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street, that special something was the return of Slim Chance.

In the 1970s, Ronnie Lane, founder member of psychedelic pop stars the Small Faces, left that band’s hard- rocking, hard-drinking successors, the Faces, for a farm in Shropshire and a musical vision — focused on his new group, Slim Chance — which, as well as sticking two fingers up at the celebrity trappings of rock stardom, was refreshingly original: a melting pot of rock, folk and blues influences, with some Gypsy leanings and a sprinkling of Motown grooviness.

Infused with Ronnie’s trademark wit and wistfulness, Slim Chance essentially had a pastoral heart — featuring fiddles, mandolin and accordion — but were also fully capable of rocking out when the spirit seized them. Between 1974 and 1976, they released three albums for Island — Anymore For Anymore, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance and One For The Road — and members of Slim Chance also appeared on two more albums, Rough Mix (with Pete Townshend) in 1977 and See Me in 1979.

Although commercial success largely eluded Slim Chance, Ronnie’s many fans have long been aware that the body of work that he created in these years stood the test of time, and bore comparison with the powerful songs that Ronnie crafted as part of the Faces — songs like “Debris,” “Stone” and “Ooh La La,” which added some depth and humanity to the Faces’ general good-time hedonism.

In 2004, seven years after Ronnie’s death, following a long battle with multiple sclerosis, the seeds of the Slim Chance reunion were sown at a memorial concert for Ronnie in the Royal Albert Hall. Former Slim Chance member Charlie Hart put together a band that featured other originals Alun Davies, Henry McCullough and Chrissie Stewart, and they were joined by guests including Pete Townshend, Paul Weller, Ron Wood and Sam Brown — just some of the many musicians touched by Ronnie’s life and music.

For the latest Slim Chance reunion, five former Slim Chance members — Charlie Hart, Steve Simpson, Alun Davies, Steve Bingham and Colin Davey — got together with Geraint Watkins to immerse themselves more thoroughly in the Ronnie Lane Songbook, and the result, as the crowd at the 100 Club rapturously realized on November 27, was that special something — an evening of musical magic — that I mentioned at the start of this article.

Without attempting to replace Ronnie — which would be an impossible task — the band share vocals, with Steve and Alun singing most of the songs, but Geraint and Charlie also involved (each bringing a different perspective to the songs), and they bring Ronnie’s spirit to life through monster grooves, fiddle duels, the keening interplay of mandolin and fiddle, and the heartfelt interpretation of Ronnie’s words.

The result is quite extraordinary, a masterclass of professional musicians diving deep into a collection of simple songs with deceptively complex arrangements that makes much of what passes for live music these days seem either drab or over-rehearsed. Magic, indeed — or perhaps a form of musical alchemy, the unforeseen result of six skilled musicians bringing emotional involvement and intense musical enthusiasm to a collection of songs that not only pays tribute to Ronnie, but also invokes his spirit.

One cannot help thinking that Ronnie would have been delighted by the rough edges and the passion that runs through every single song in the two sets which revive 22 songs, from the well-known Faces numbers to the great body of work from the Slim Chance years. Untrained ears might recognize a few of these — “How Come,” for example, which was a hit in 1974, and “The Poacher” — but what is constantly amazing is how powerful every single song is, from the rousing sing-along anthems “Lad’s Got Money,” “Kuschty Rye” and “One for the Road” to the reflectiveness of songs like “Anymore for Anymore” and “Annie.”

Charlie told me afterwards that the response from the crowd was almost overwhelming, but the emotions were no less intense in the audience. We sang along, we swayed, we were energized and moved. Many of us never knew Ronnie, but he was with us all the same.

Note: Below is a video, via YouTube, of “Anymore for Anymore,” as played at the 100 Club, which I hope captures something of the spirit of the performance:

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Video: 15-Year Old Tells UK Government Why It Has Radicalised A Generation

As the last legislative hurdle to the government’s savage cuts to university funding fell in the House of Lords on Tuesday evening, the determination of Britain’s young people to resist the plans to raise tuition fees from £3,290 a year to £9,000 a year, and to cut 100 percent of the funding to arts, humanities and the social sciences, was undimmed.

Although the government’s plans were supported by the Lords, there was some spirited opposition in the debate. Labour peer Lord Triesman said, “This afternoon’s decision will switch the concept of universities from being a public good, as they have always been through modern history, to essentially a private sector market driven by personal private investment.” He added, “There was always a likelihood there would be an increase in fees, but on these kind of scales, it was never contemplated.”

In addition, Lord Krebs, the principal of Jesus College, Oxford. asked the government to explain “why it is cutting university funding when Britain is already spending less on higher education as a proportion of GDP than Hungary, Mexico, Poland and Brazil,” as the Guardian described it, and there was also criticism from the Rt. Rev. John Saxbee, the bishop of Lincoln and the Church of England’s chair of education, who said he was “concerned about the withdrawal of funding to humanities and social sciences, subjects he believed were essential to encouraging ’rounded human beings.'” He added, “We must ask whether the normalising of debt in this way is morally defensible, or socially sustainable. Higher education is not a privatised commodity to be bought and sold on the open market.”

Sadly, an amendment tabled by Lord Bilimoria, a crossbench businessman and a former chancellor of Thames Valley University, in which he called for the increase in fees to be phased in, and explained, “There are cuts, and there is carpet bombing,” was also defeated, leaving the coalition government triumphant, even though the capitulation of the Lib Dems may well have destroyed them as a party, and the Tories have no guarantee that they will be able to survive a continuing backlash by students and schoolchildren, especially, if, in the New Year, the resistance to the government’s cuts programme begins to shape into more of a a mass movement, as I anticipate it will.

Yesterday, as an indication of the strength of feeling engendered in young people by the government’s brutal and ill-conceived plans, I was alerted to the following video on YouTube — filmed last month in London at the first national conference of the anti-cuts umbrella group, Coalition of Resistance, and already watched by over 370,000 people — in which Barnaby, a 15-year old schoolboy, explains perfectly how the younger generation has finally awoken — after the strange slumber of the Labour years — to the injustices heaped upon them, and how they will not be resting from their dissent any time soon. As was noted in the email accompanying the link, “This video of a 15-year old called Barnaby is remarkable for several reasons. First because he’s just 15, also because he seems to be new to political protest, and most importantly because Clegg, Cameron, and Cable seem to have inadvertantly radicalised a generation — and that can only be a good thing.”

Barnaby is just one voice of the new revolutionary youth of the UK, and part of a vibrant alternative to a craven mainstream media and increasingly rattled government ministers. As David Cameron spoke of “feral thugs” (revealing Etonian class disdain in full flow), and Theresa May toyed with introducing water cannons, the media, with few exceptions, wittered on incessantly about the threat to the Royals, Charles and Camilla, whose car was attacked in Regent Street after the police failed to realize that a group of young protestors was moving faster than them.

Recalling King Mob, a book by the historian Christopher Hibbert about the “Gordon Riots” of 1780, which I reviewed back in 2005, it occurred to me how the incident was actually like a momentary rebirth of the “London Mob,” who used to rise up regularly in centuries past — as they did in 1780 — when they were thoroughly sick of their oppression. And from here my mind wandered to the 1848 Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common, trade union agitation in the 1880s, and that last demonstration of the revolt of the people pushed too far by the abuse of power, the Poll Tax Riot of 1990.

This, I’m delighted to realize, has already been recognized, by those who were not even born 20 years ago, as the precursor to the great struggle unfolding right now — overturning an unjust law passed by an unpopular goverment; in this case, one without even the mandate that Margaret Thatcher achieved at her third election victory in 1987, and it is, I hope, only a matter of time before the students and schooldchildren — the vanguard of opposition to a regime of cuts on everyone but the rich and the super-rich, whose effects are akin to Thatcher’s attempt to impose a level tax on all, regardless of income — are joined, in significant numbers, by other affected groups and individuals.

On Sunday, the Observer wrote about the anti-fees protests, and also about the abolition of the Education Maintanance Allowance, introduced in 2004, which helps young people from low-income households stay in education after the age of 16. As the article explained, “Almost 647,000 of England’s 16- to 18-year-olds receive the allowance,” which provides £30 a week to young people from households with incomes below £20,817, tapering to £10 a week for those with household incomes under £30,810. This, combined with the perceived blow to university prospects for those from poorer households (who, understandably, are not taken by the government’s concessions), is what has particularly galvanized schoolchildren into action, and the Observer captured the mood, echoing many of the points made by Barnaby, above:

What has triggered this change? For years, the young have been dismissed as apathetic. What has happened to make tens of thousands of them pour on to the streets in the bitter cold – not once, but again and again; not just in London, but in Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds? What has sparked the re-emergence of student occupations in lecture theatres across the country? What is it about the coalition government and its policies that has ignited so much anger?

Shiv Malik, co-author of the book Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth, says the under-thirties feel betrayed — sold out in favour of their parents and grandparents. Fees, he argue, are just one part of the jigsaw. The 29-year old took to the streets himself on Thursday, and was injured after being hit by a police baton. He argues that most of the protesters were not anarchists or socialists but young people whose instinct to revolt had been awakened for the first time.

“George Osborne kept his promises to the older generation — to keep their free eye tests, their winter fuel allowance, their free prescriptions, their free bus passes,” says Malik. “Eighty per cent of winter fuel recipients are not winter-fuel poor. If you means-tested [them], you would make £2bn to spend on higher education.”

He argues that what has particularly angered the young is David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s insistence that the cuts are necessary to prevent heaping debt on to the next generation. “They have cut our futures and are lumbering us with debts anyway,” he declares.

Students interviewed by the Observer at the protest last week expressed the same concerns:

“By the time the cuts are put into place, my uni will be hanging by a shoestring and the government want to charge people three times the amount,” said Lucinda Hodge, 22, from Goldsmiths, University of London. “Politicians don’t care about young people as we don’t vote as much. We are just collateral damage.”

Others had come from school and college. “There is a slim chance of going to university now,” said Roze Brooks, 17. “Quite frankly I won’t be able to pay,” said Jack Jordan, 16.

There was even some sympathy in the right-wing press. While condemning the violence, the Daily Mail also commented: “We … worry that graduates will have to start paying this money back at about the time they are buying their first house and starting a family, crippling them financially just as they try to become fully fledged members of society.”

Young people are discussing fears about their financial futures. “Debt for ever?” asked Holly Carlile, 22, from the University of Birmingham. “Will we ever be out of rented accommodation? How are we expected to put a single foot on the property ladder?”

For now, Barnaby is not the only hero. There is also Jody McIntyre, a 20-year old activist who has cerebral palsy, but who, nevertheless, was pulled out of his wheelchair by the police on two occasions in Parliament Square at last Thursday’s tuition fees protests, and dragged across the street.

Although McIntyre, who requires a helper to push his wheelchair for him, was clearly the victim of targeted police brutality last week, he was subjected to unacceptably harsh questioning on the BBC by correspondent Ben Brown, who, as an article in Business Review Europe explained, was “extremely confrontational towards McIntyre, accusing him of provoking officers by throwing objects, wheeling towards police and shouting abuse, despite there being no documented evidence of any of these actions in the footage.”

McIntyre refused to be drawn, maintaining his dignity and composure, and explaining, “I was not throwing anything at police officers and I was not posing a threat to anyone.” Asked whether he was “wheeling towards officers,” he pointed out that he was “unable to operate his own wheelchair and was being pushed by his brother,” and, as the article explained, “The footage does not suggest that he was threatening police officers in any way.”

McIntyre was also able to point out that the media “was trying to distract the public from the real cause of the protests,” which he correctly pinpointed as “the rise in tuition fees, which would mean only the elite would be able to attend university,” and when Brown tried again to dismiss his complaints about the violence to which he had been subjected by stating that he had not filed an official complaint, was rebuffed when McIntyre explained that he “was in discussion with lawyers about the right best way to proceed with an official complaint,” and one would be made in the “very near future.”

This also gave McIntyre the opportunity to score another point, bringing the story of another protestor injured by the police, 20-year old student Alfie Meadows, into the conversation. Meadows, who was struck by a police truncheon, in what he described as “the hugest blow he ever felt in his life,” suffered a stroke and underwent three hours of surgery after he was attacked. McIntyre described him as being in hospital, “within an inch of his life” and also pointed out that, when he first arrived at the hospital, the police tried to prevent hospital staff from providing him with medical assistance.

Meadows’ ordeal led to a protest at Scotland Yard against “kettling,” the police tactic of enclosing protestors in a confined area for many hours, which is, essentially, a form of collective punishment. Legal challenges to the tactic, which was introduced in 2001, have not, to date, been successful, but after the repeated use of “kettling” throughout the last few weeks’ demonstrations, a new legal challenge has been mounted by Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, who has stated that the police tactics “breach articles 5, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights” (“Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person,” “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” and “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly”).

Shiner, who is well-known as a human rights lawyer, is acting on behalf of five protestors – including four sixth-formers – who were kettled for up to five hours in Trafalgar Square. The lead claimant is his daughter, Bethany, who recently completed a masters degree in art and politics at Goldsmiths College. Speaking to the Guardian, she said, “I was with a group of young people who behaved at all times perfectly properly and lawfully. We then found ourselves kettled in sub-zero temperatures. It is outrageous that the police should resort to such tactics against all protestors, most of whom were acting peacefully.” As Phil Shiner added, “My clients are very concerned that the Metropolitan Police are now using kettling as a stock response to all public protests and appear to have authorised kettling in advance of this particular protest.” Shiner has sent a pre-action letter to the Met Chief, Sir Paul Stephenson, and the police have 14 days to respond. He added, “The police are required to have a range of lawful responses to different scenarios and not just resort to the most coercive tactics at the first sign of trouble. The policy of kettling has to be struck down.”

While Phil Shiner awaits a response to his legal challenge, protestors are regrouping, making plans for the New Year, and forging new coalitions.

Of particular interest, as an organization that appears to have arisen as an offshoot of the student protests, is UK Uncut, which has targeted Vodaphone and Sir Philip Green’s fashion empire as part of a frontline campaign against tax avoidance, and which is therefore involved in widening the debate, pointing out that cuts in one part of the economy could be avoided if other areas were targeted (corporate tax evasion is one very obvious focus, but I would also like to see more attention directed at the City). Also of interest, as mentioned above, is Coalition of Resistance, a broad movement of opposition to the government’s policies, whose founding statement (signed by Tony Benn and 73 others) was published in the Guardian in August, and, on the student front, the London Student Assembly, an umbrella organisation made up of various protest groups, including the Education Activist Network and the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, which grew from an initial meeting of 170 students.

The Assembly held its first meeting at the London School of Economics on December 10, and, as Michael Chessum, from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, told the Evening Standard, “People are saying we have become a serious mass movement for the first time in a generation. Let’s get some rest over Christmas and come back to reverse these measures. We are not going to give up and go home.” Chessum also picked up on the popular dissent of 20 years ago that did so much to destroy Margaret Thatcher’s authority. “A generation of people have been sold out by their elected representatives,” he said, “but it can still be reversed, just like the Poll Tax was. The Poll Tax is a concrete example of how mass protests can overturn already existing legislation.”

The Assembly was critical of the National Union of Students, after the union organized a candlelit vigil on the day of the vote last week, which attracted just 2,000 students, while more than 20,000 turned out for the march organised by the Assembly. Mark Bergfeld, from the Education Activist Network, said, “The National Student Assembly could develop into a rival to the NUS if the movement continues to grow as it has over the last couple of weeks. We only saw a few hundred people at the NUS rally. People are tired of being in a union that doesn’t align itself with students. It was an ineffective protest. If you hold a candlelit vigil you are mourning the death of higher education, but we are still fighting for it.”

The Assembly has a point, certainly. NUS President Aaron Porter has, like a politician-in-waiting, been swift to condemn violence, and the candlelit vigil certainly appeared to be nothing more than a capitulation planned in advance, However, Porter also recognizes that something unprecedented is happening. As he told the Observer, “There has been a build-up of issues — not just tuition fees but the EMA, youth unemployment, struggling to get onto the housing ladder and bleak prospects for the future — all coming together to spark a wave of protest. The NUS considers this level of youth activism to be unprecedented, perhaps since the 1960s.”

So have a good Christmas break — unless, of course, you’re amongst the 100,000 workers in the public sector who will be hearing about your job losses over the holiday period. With youth unemployment at an all-time high, and the jobless total now over two and half million, 2011 looks set to be the coalition government’s Year of Discontent, dwarfing the recent student protests and fundamentally challenging the authority of a government that has no genuine mandate for its cruel and destructive 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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Ten Thoughts About Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

1.

Since its founding in December 2006, WikiLeaks, which was established as, essentially, a secure information clearing house for whistleblowers around the world to provide sensitive information, some of which would then be released to the public, and which was reportedly set up by “Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa,” has declared that its “primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations.” From the release of a single document in December 2006 — a “secret decision,” signed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a Somali rebel leader for the Islamic Courts Union, which “had been culled from traffic passing through the Tor network to China,” and which “called for the execution of government officials by hiring ‘criminals’ as hit men” — WikiLeaks has received millions of documents, and has, amongst other achievements, exposed corruption in Kenya, made available the Standard Operating Procedure for Guantánamo from 2003 and 2004 (and compared the changes), attacked Scientology, exposed Sarah Palin’s emails, and published a membership list of Britain’s far-right BNP.

In the last eight months, however, since WikiLeaks began focusing on major stories involving the United States, there are concerns that Julian Assange the figurehead has been taking over from WikiLeaks the organization in perceived importance, and that both are overshadowing the importance of the whistleblower who leaked the information in the first place — by many accounts, Bradley Manning, a 23-year old junior US army intelligence analyst. who is facing a court martial and a 52-year prison sentence for leaking the 251,287 US diplomatic cables that are currently being published, as well as the army field reports from Afghanistan and Iraq (released in July and October), and “Collateral Murder“, the 39-minute video showing an Apache helicopter gunning down a group of armed men, civilians and two Reuters journalists in Baghdad, whch was released in April, and which started the global focus on WikiLeaks as the foremost exposer of American secrets.

As Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker explained in an article in June this year, the leaked video “was digitally encrypted, and it took WikiLeaks three months to crack.” Assange told Khatchadourian that unlocking the file was “moderately difficult.” Bradley, increasingly overlooked in media reports, may not have a company philosophy like WikiLeaks, but it is important that he is not forgotten, and it is also important to recognize his own reasons for embarking on the biggest leak of secrets in US history. “God knows what happens now,” Manning apparently wrote after the release of the “Collateral Damage” video. “Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms. If not … then we’re doomed as a species. I will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens.” He also wrote, “I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Assange must certainly be credited for his work on encryption. Khatchadourian called him “a cryptographer of exceptional skill,” his “near-genius IQ” has been noted on many occasions, and this has played an enormously significant role in preventing WikiLeaks’ security from being breached. In the New Yorker article, Khatchadourian also explained how WikiLeaks’ security works:

The entire pipeline, along with the submissions moving through it, is encrypted, and the traffic is kept anonymous by means of a modified version of the Tor network [one of the inspirations for WikiLeaks, in which Assange was involved, which dealt with millions of secret transmissions], which sends Internet traffic through “virtual tunnels” that are extremely private. Moreover, at any given time WikiLeaks computers are feeding hundreds of thousands of fake submissions through these tunnels, obscuring the real documents. Assange told me that there are still vulnerabilities, but “this is vastly more secure than any banking network.”

However, troubling stories about Assange’s leadership style were circulating in summer, before the “Cablegate” revelations, with complaints by former employees about “what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood,” as the New York Times explained in an article in October. The Times “spoke with dozens of people who have worked with and supported him in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, Britain and the United States. What emerged was a picture of the founder of WikiLeaks as its prime innovator and charismatic force but as someone whose growing celebrity has been matched by an increasingly dictatorial, eccentric and capricious style.” Smari McCarthy, an Icelandic volunteer, said that “‘About a dozen’ disillusioned volunteers [had] left recently,” and over the summer, Assange also “suspended Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German who had been the WikiLeaks spokesman under the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt, accusing him of unspecified ‘bad behavior.'”

2.

Reinforcing this notion of imperiousness, WikiLeaks made a grave error in summer, when the Afghan war logs were published, in not redacting the names of Afghans who may have suffered reprisals because of it. As the New York Times reported, “Several WikiLeaks colleagues say [Assange] alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops.” Birgitta Jonsdottir, a core WikiLeaks volunteer and a member of Iceland’s Parliament said, “We were very, very upset with that, and with the way he spoke about it afterwards. If he could just focus on the important things he does, it would be better.” As Shiraz Socialist pointed out in a recent post, the following exchange took place in July, when Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer interviewed Assange, who was furious that the (London) Times had falsely accused him of contributing to the death of a man who had, in fact, died two years earlier:

What about these named sources? Might he have endangered their lives?

“If there are innocent Afghans being revealed, which was our concern, which was why we kept back 15,000 files, then of course we take that seriously.”

But what if it’s too late?

“Well, we will review our procedures.”

Too late for the individuals, I say. Dead.

3.

In trying to make sense of the latest releases — the 251,287 US diplomatic cables, of which just 1,344 had been released by December 12 — it is important to note a distinct difference between the release of the cables and the previous releases relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which can be seen as performing an important anti-war function, exposing intimate, day-to-day details of wars that are widely regarded as illegal and/or futile. While it has been, and will continue to be fascinating to have behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering, frank opinions about world leaders, and verbatim transcripts of these leaders’ own opinions exposed to public consumption, as well as a number of genuinely important stories — including, from my perspective, revelations that the Bush administration put pressure on Germany not to investigate US torture, and that Obama then did the same with Spain — the motives overall are not so clear-cut.

Assange’s motives, as described in an article in the Independent in summer, can be found in a document he wrote in 2006, entitled, “Conspiracy as Governance” (PDF), which “detailed how leaks could be an instrument for breaking down unrepresentative government that thrived on keeping information secret.” Others have discussed his anarchism. Following a BBC Newsnight broadcast last week, examining his personal blogs, the British anarchist Ian Bone wrote, “Assange quotes frequently from German anarchist Gustav Landauer and shares some of his thinking. Assange believes by exposing the hypocrosies of governments that faith in government will decline and individuals will take on more personal responsibilities for their lives which will in turn see the state row back on its own role. Not my kind of anarchism but anarchism nevertheless. Anarchists have tried to bring down governments but Assange is trying to bring down the lot at once!”

However, two additional factors also need to be taken into consideration when considering the release of the cables.

4.

The first of these is a US problem involving classification and accessibility. Ironically, had the US intelligence agencies not failed so spectacularly to communicate with one another before the 9/11 attacks, those terrorist attacks might have been thwarted. In response, the database pillaged so easily by Bradley Manning (or whoever leaked the documents, if not Manning) was established, and, although “top secret” information presumably remains as compartmentalized as ever, opened up all other information (including “secret” information) to a ludicrous extent, with the information that was leaked available to three million government employees — something that all but the most deluded officials would surely have concluded was a disaster waiting to happen. All that was required, as we have seen, was a disgruntled employee with a CD disguised as a Lady Gaga album.

5.

The second factor is that, unlike with the war logs, which Assange shared with a number of media partners — the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times — the “Cablegate” releases have been coordinated much more closely with these media partners (now including Le Monde and El Pais) than previously, to the extent that it is the media partners who appear to have been dictating what is released, and when, and WikiLeaks has followed, as the Associated Press explained in an article on December 3. This is worth reading in its entirety, and it includes a reference to New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller telling readers in an online exchange that the Times “has suggested to its media partners and to WikiLeaks what information it believes should be withheld.” Keller wrote, “We agree wholeheartedly that transparency is not an absolute good. Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity.”

Assange himself admitted as much in a Q&A session on the Guardian‘s website, when he wrote, “The cables we have release[d] correspond to stories released by our mainstream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it. The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organisations to make sure the process is working.”

In addition, as Scott Shane explained in an article for the New York Times on Saturday:

[E]ven as the government seeks to rein in WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks is reining in itself. The confidential diplomatic cables it disclosed have unquestionably turned the discreet world of diplomacy upside down. But the disclosures have been far more modest than WikiLeaks’ self-proclaimed dedication to total transparency might suggest.

Had it chosen to do so, WikiLeaks could have posted on the Web all 251,287 confidential diplomatic cables about six months ago, when the group obtained them. Instead, it shared the cables with traditional news organizations and has coordinated the cables’ release with them. As of Friday, fewer than 1 percent of the cables had been released on the Web by the antisecrecy group, The Times and four European publications combined.

“They’ve actually embraced” the mainstream media, “which they used to treat as a cuss word,” [Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University,] said. “I’m watching WikiLeaks grow up. What they’re doing with these diplomatic documents so far is very responsible.”

When the newspapers have redacted cables to protect diplomats’ sources, WikiLeaks has generally been careful to follow suit. Its volunteers now accept that not all government secrets are illegitimate; for example, revealing the identities of Chinese dissidents, Russian journalists or Iranian activists who had talked to American diplomats might subject them to prison or worse.

In an op-ed essay for The Australian last week, Mr. Assange … declared his devotion to some core Western press values. “Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media,” he wrote. “The media helps keep government honest.”

Moreover, it is also apparent that the media partners have been liaising with the US government beforehand, and that Assange himself attempted to reach out to the US. The Associated Press reported that “US officials submitted suggestions to the [New York] Times, which asked government officials to weigh in on some of the documents the newspaper and its partners wanted to publish,” and that these redactions were then shared with the other media partners, and with WikiLeaks. “The other news organizations supported these redactions,” Bill Keller of the New York Times explained. “WikiLeaks has indicated that it intends to do likewise. And as a matter of news interest, we will watch their website to see what they do.”

As for Assange, the AP reported that “Days before releasing any of the latest documents, Assange appealed to the US ambassador in London, asking the US government to confidentially help him determine what needed to be redacted from the cables before they were publicly released. The ambassador refused, telling Assange to hand over stolen property. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called Assange’s offer ‘a half-hearted gesture to have some sort of conversation.'” However, as was reported in the Washington Post, “Assange then wrote another letter to State, reiterating that ‘WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States.’ In that second letter, Assange stated that the department’s refusal to discuss redactions ‘leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful,’ and then indicated that WikiLeaks was undertaking redactions on its own.”

This cooperation wth the US government, in turn, raises two additional questions: how can Assange and WikiLeaks be the prime villains in the “Cablegate” releases, when they have, in effect, acted as little more than a conduit between the original whistleblower (or whistleblowers) and the mainstream media, and what is the mainstream media’s agenda? On this latter point, I would have to conclude — and this is not meant to sound uncharitable — that they have seized on “Cablegate” as a way of using both the initial whistleblower(s) and WikiLeaks as the basis for what, at the current rate, could be at least a years’ worth of front-page or otherwise significant stories.

6.

Discussions about Julian Assange’s alleged sex crimes are unwise unless, or until he has been extradited to Sweden and officially charged.

7.

Discussions about Julian Assange’s possible extradition to the US are, however, extremely important. In light of the above, it is somewhat inexplicable that, in announcing “an active, ongoing, criminal investigation” into WikiLeaks’ releases, Attorney General Eric Holder “declined to equate WikiLeaks to traditional news organizations that enjoy certain free-speech protections,” as the AP described it. “I think one can compare the way in which the various news organizations that have been involved in this have acted, as opposed to the way in which WikiLeaks has,” Holder said, although he “did not elaborate on the distinction he sees between WikiLeaks and the publications.”

Nevertheless, the latest reports suggest that the US government is indeed looking at ways to extradite Assange to the US. Its basis for doing so is the Espionage Act of 1917. This criminalizes the communication of “information relating to the national defense,” which “the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States.”  However, as Peter Kirwan noted on Wired, although the Espionage Act “theoretically makes criminals of Julian Assange, the newspaper editors working with WikiLeaks and anyone who reads, or even Tweets, about the contents of a classified cable, [t]he law’s sweeping nature has troubled judges for the best part of a century. As a result, administrations have become reluctant to deploy it.” Kirwan added, “A civilian recipient of classified data has never been convicted under this law. Nor has someone like Assange, who will claim to be protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

This is certainly true. Although the Nixon White House pursued “The Pentagon Papers” whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg under the Espionage Act, it is Bradley Manning, and not Julian Assange, whose position corresponds to that of Daniel Ellsberg. Assange’s position is more analogous to that of the New York Times in Ellsberg’s case (publishing the leaked papers), and, of course, Nixon refused to pursue the Times, accepting, as the courts have since 1917, that part of the media’s function, in a society with free speech, is the ability to draw on information produced by whistleblowers. As Peter Kirwan also noted, however, to pursue Assange, the Obama administration “may be forced to argue that WikiLeaks isn’t a media organisation, but merely a web site, devoid of editorial functions, that publishes raw data,” although “The argument that only ‘established’ media outlets can count on First Amendment protection is profoundly at odds with the reality of media production and consumption in the 21st century. Any prosecution on these grounds will provoke storms of criticism and ridicule.”

In addition, Assange’s close working relationship with WikiLeaks’ media partners further undermines the US government’s argument, as do comments made by defense secretary Robert Gates, described in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week as “a savvy Washington veteran” by former federal prosecutor Baruch Weiss, who made a point of noting Gates’ comments on the supposed WikiLeaks scandal.  “I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon, but added, crucially, “I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought … Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

8.

In contrast, ardent right-wingers (and the Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein) have looked idiotic in their hysterical condemnations of the leaks. Feinstein wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which, contradicting Secretary Gates, she argued that the “damage to national security” caused by the leaks “is beyond question.” Others, of course, called for Assange’s assassination, or described him, predictably, as a terrorist, but perhaps the most damaging response that is somewhat rooted in the real world came from Sen. Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, who suggested that the New York Times and other news organisations, as well as WikiLeaks, should be investigated under the Espionage Act. Lieberman told Fox News, “To me the New York Times has committed at least an act of, at best, bad citizenship, but whether they have committed a crime is a matter of discussion for the Justice Department.” Lieberman is clearly pushing against 93 years of judicial refusal to prosecute traditional media outlets for their reporting — and their defense of free speech — but as has been made clear above, I think it is fair and appropriate to argue that WikiLeaks is more of a media outlet than anything else, and as Steve Vladeck, professor of law at American University, has explained, Lieberman’s angling for media prosecutions represents “crossing a proverbial Rubicon that even the most secrecy-obsessed, First Amendment-indifferent administrations have consistently refused to attempt to bridge.” The results, as Peter Kirwan noted, “would include a full-blown constitutional crisis.”

9.

Even more worrying, however, has been the extra-legal pressure exerted by senior officials in the Obama administration, who, it seems, have been directly responsible for putting pressure on companies hosting WikiLeaks, or companies accepting donations for WikiLeaks, to shut down those operations. Personally, I can understand that, when the US government whispers threateningly down the phone at senor executives of major companies, they do what they are told. As a result, I am unwilling to condemn unconditionally the cowardice of companies like Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard and others, who have been subjected to customer boycotts on a large scale since their capitualtion emerged. What does interest me, however, is how hackers — including, most notoriously, the group identified only as “Anonymous,” — have responded by taking down some of these sites. Again, I’m not convinced that this is the most appropriate course of action with regard to those individual companies, but as a demonstation of the power of hackers to throw down a gauntlet to a US administration which is clearly guilty of bullying and aggression that has nothing to do with its supposed legal compiants against Assange and Wikileaks — and fears that the US stance wil lead to attempts to clamp down viciously on the Internet — it is a powerful demonstration of quite what they are up against.

10.

My final point, briefly, concerns reports that Julian Assange has a secret weapon to be used if anything adverse happens to him, or to WikiLeaks, which his lawyer, perhaps ill-advisedly, refered to as a “thermonuclear device.” This is a 1.4 GB file, labeled “insurance,” which was uploaded onto the WikiLeaks website in late July, just after the publication of the Afghan war logs, and has been downloaded by tens of thousands of supporters, altthough the 256-digit code required to unlock it has not been released. Assange himself has stated, “We have over a long period of time distributed encrypted backups of material we have yet to release. All we have to do is release the password to that material, and it is instantly available.”

The “insurance” file reportedly includes all the diplomatic cables, plus some or all of the following, which are reportedly in WikiLeaks’ possession: unredacted military reports from Guantánamo, reports on BP and other energy companies, documents on the Bank of America, and an aerial video of a US airstrike in Afghanistan that killed civilians. While the notion of banking secrets being exposed strikes me as phenomenally important — and undoubtedly in the public interest — I am, of course, fascinated by the mention of the Guantánamo files, which I had been told about confidentially some months ago. Theoretically, these could be phenomenally revealing, although I doubt, with the present political climate in the US, that, if released, they would do anything other than reinforce calls for the prison never to be closed at all, which makes me deeply hesitant about the prospect of them being made available.

In conclusion, then, although my inner anarchist has a tendency to celebrate the sweeping disclosure of secrets, the more nuanced person that I have become prefers to occupy a place in which a certain amount of responsible editorializing takes place — as, indeed, as been happening with WikiLeaks and its media partners. What is also clear is that the US administration’s bullying is intolerable, and I have little time for its wailing about secrets that were so ludicrously unprotected in the first place. Moreover, although I have no particular allegiance to Julian Assange, and believe that Bradley Manning is being unfairly overlooked in all the focus on Assange, WikiLeaks itself — especially in its global context, shining a light on closed regimes, rather than just in its focus on the US — remains an extraordinarily useful organization, or perhaps, I should say, an extraordinary important concept, and one that others, if they have the necessary security skills, can and should consider emulating.

All secrets may, indeed, not be worth releasing, just because they can be, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that the majority of the secrets maintained by governments do anything to improve the lives of the majority of their citizens — or of those affected by their political maneuvering around the world — and on that basis this whole crisis is not just about free speech, but about the legitimacy — and the legitimate reach — of mechanisms available in the 21st century for exposing the wrongdoing of governments, on the part, generally, of those who want the world to be a better, fairer and more just place.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Cross-posted on Common Dreams, The Public Record, The Smirking Chimp, Op-Ed News and William Bowles.

Guantánamo: A Dismal Week for America

Just when it seemed that President Obama’s paralysis regarding Guantánamo couldn’t get any worse — with any further trials or prisoner releases apparently on permanent hold because any other course of action would be politically inconvenient — the House of Representatives and the Director of National Intelligence have stepped in to make the prospect of closing Guantánamo even more remote.

Congress has an extremely poor record when it comes to Guantánamo, having pretty much endorsed whatever cruel and illegal nonsense came its way during the Bush years, and having demonstrated, in 2009, that it had no interest in any reforms proposed by President Obama.

Last October, by 258 to 163 votes (with the majority including 88 Democrats), the House of Representatives backed a motion proposed by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ken.), which was designed to “[p]rohibit the transfer of GITMO prisoners, period,” and which, in Rep. Rogers’ words, was concerned with “protecting the American people from all threats … including the warped intentions of terrorists and radical extremists.” It was telling that Representatives would vote in such large numbers for a motion based on such unsubstantiated information, given that there is no confirmation whatsoever that the majority of the prisoners held at Guantánamo are, or have ever been, “terrorists and radical extremists.”

Under pressure from the administration, the Senate foiled this plan, voting, by 79 votes to 19, to allow the administration to bring prisoners to the US mainland to face trials, as part of a $42.8 billion bill for Homeland Security, although no cleared prisoner could be resettled on the US mainland by the country that had wrongly imprisoned them in the first place — a veto that, it should be noted, was also endorsed by Obama’s Justice Department, the D.C. Circuit Court, and by President Obama himself, when he quashed a plan by White House Counsel Greg Craig to bring a handful cleared prisoners — out of 17 Uighurs, wrongly imprisoned Muslims who could not be returned to China because of the risk of torture — to live in the United States.

The House of Representatives’ plan to keep Guantánamo open

Last week, the House of Representatives was at it again, voting by 212 votes to 206, as part of a  $1.1 trillion appropriations bill, to prohibit the President from spending any money to transfer prisoners to the US mainland or to acquire facilities to hold them on US soil.

In the two relevant sections of the bill, those who drafted the legislation took particular aim at the administration’s plans to hold federal court trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, which were announced by Attorney General Eric Holder last November, but delayed by the President in the face of widespread opposition, and also at plans, announced last December, to buy a prison in Illinois to house prisoners designated for trials (34 at present) — and, more contentiously, 48 other prisoners designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Cleared prisoners — the 33 or so men awaiting third countries prepared to offer them new homes, because of fears of torture in their home countries, and because of the US ban on housing them in the US — would remain at Guantánamo, as would the 58 Yemenis cleared for release, who are now held as political prisoners because of a moratorium that President Obama announced last January, in response to widespread hysteria following the news that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen.

There was no word about what would happen to the one man who had been convicted in a trial by Military Commission — Ali Hamza al-Bahul, sentenced to life in November 2008 for producing a promotional video for al-Qaeda, after a one-sided trial in which he refused to mount a defense — but it was presumed by commentators that he would continue to be held at Guantánamo (even if the prison closed around him), and in the last six months he has been joined by two others — Ibrahim al-Qosi, a sometime cook for al-Qaeda, who accepted a plea deal in summer and is expected to serve just two more years, and Omar Khadr, the Canadian former child soldier, who accepted a plea deal in October, and who will be transferred to Canadian custody next October.

The first of the two sections in the appropriations bill that refer to Guantánamo (Section 1116) states, “None of the funds made available in this or any prior Act may be used to transfer, release, or assist in the transfer or release to or within the United States, its territories, or possessions Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or any other detainee who (1) is not a United States citizen or a member of the Armed Forces of the United States; and (2) is or was held on or after June 24, 2009, at the United States Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the Department of Defense.”

The second (Section 2210) states, “None of the funds provided to the Department of Justice in this or any prior Act shall be available for the acquisition of any facility that is to be used wholly or in part for the incarceration or detention of any individual detained at Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as of June 24, 2009.”

How House Democrats were fooled — and Obama was asleep at the wheel

What is particularly ridiculous about the vote is not so much that the House of Representatives contains so many elected representatives who are opposed to the President’s plans because they are either fearful and credulous about Guantánamo, or cynical and fearmongering, but, as The Hill reported on Thursday, that many Democrats in the House of Representatives had not even bothered to read the bill, and had failed to notice the two sections, and, moreover, that neither President Obama nor Eric Holder had alerted the House about its contents either.

As The Hill explained:

[Many] Democrats, including Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, said they didn’t even know the provision was included. Moran’s anger with the president boiled over in a short interview Thursday with The Hill about the provision and the tax debate held shortly after the Democratic Caucus voted to reject Obama’s tax-cut deal. “This is a lack of leadership on the part of Obama,” fumed Moran. “I don’t know where the f*** Obama is on this or anything else. They’re AWOL.”

Most Democrats didn’t know the provision was included in the continuing resolution until the rule for the bill hit the floor, when liberal members began defecting in large numbers. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a leading voice on national security issues, and the four top Democrats on the Judiciary Committee found out during the vote on the rule, Moran said. At one point, the rule governing the bill was hanging by just one vote while Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rushed around the floor doing damage control.

As The Hill also reported, Eric Holder finally responded the day after the vote, calling on the Senate to remove the provisions in the bill when they come to vote on it. The Hill explained that, in a letter, Holder “called the move an unprecedented grab of executive authority by Congress,” and stated, ”We have been unable to identify any parallel … in the history of our nation in which Congress has intervened to prohibit the prosecution of particular persons or crimes.” He did not, however, explain why, as Jim Moran explained, the administration was “AWOL” when it came to recognizing the poison pills tucked away in the bill.

Another unsubstantiated “recidivism” report

While we wait to see whether the Senate will indeed remove these two sections, supporters of Guantánamo secured another propaganda victory last week when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, headed, since August 5 this year, by Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, issued a “report” — actually a two-page “Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba” — which was about as damaging to the government’s plans to close Guantánamo as it was possible for a report to be. It makes me wonder who is running the show when Clapper, the former head of the Pentagon’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, “played a key role in promoting the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 invasion,” as Democracy Now! explained in August.

I have previously complained about the Pentagon’s tendency to produce unsubstantiated claims about the “recidivism” of released Guantánamo prisoners, which are then promoted enthusiastically by a mainstream media that loves shocking headlines for their own sake, and is prepared to abandon all pretense that they exercise journalistic rigor when presented with propaganda by the Pentagon. The last example of this distressing trend was in January this year, when the Pentagon claimed — without providing any supporting evidence whatsoever — that 1 in 5 of the prisoners released from Guantánamo had returned to militant activities.

Last week, again without providing any evidence, the Director of National Intelligence, “consistent with direction in the Fiscal Year 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act,” reported that, of the 598 detainees released from Guantánamo, “The Intelligence Community assesses that 81 (13.5 percent) are confirmed and 69 (11.5 percent) are suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer.” The assessment also noted, “Of the 150 former GTMO detainees assessed as confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities, the Intelligence Community assesses that 13 are dead, 54 are in custody, and 83 remain at large.” It was also noted that, of the “66 individuals transferred since January 2009” — under President Obama, in other words — “2 are confirmed and 3 are suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities.”

Predictably, the assessment’s own claims were amplified in subsequent headlines, which failed to distinguish between “confirmed” and “suspected” terrrorists or insurgents. Fox News ran with “25 Percent Recidivism at Gitmo,” and there was an unhinged, and completely inaccurate report on GOP USA, which claimed, in defiance of what had actually been proposed, “Guantánamo recidivism rate skyrockets under Obama early release program.” However, even the New York Times, which was badly stung last year when it ran a front-page story backing a claim that 1 in 7 released prisoners were recidivists, failed to report the story accurately. Although the Times‘ headline was the modest, “Some Ex-Detainees Still Tied to Terror,” the article itself stated that the report “offered the most detailed public accounting yet of what the government says has happened to former Guantánamo detainees, a matter that has been the subject of heated political debate.”

“The most detailed public accounting yet”? The report provided no such thing, and the Times reinforced its journalistic failures by refusing to ask who these 150 men might be. We know of a handful of suspected — and disputed — recidivists in Russia, of a dozen or more in Saudi Arabia, of a Kuwaiti who became a suicide bomber, and of Afghans who resumed their opposition to the US — or took up arms for the first time — after their release, and we also know that some of these men were released because they fooled the US authorities in Guantánamo, and their captors were too arrogant to liaise with the Afghan authorities, who would have known who they were.

Why “recidivists” are not necessarily terrorists

However, there are three major problems with this current assessment: firstly, “suspected” terrorists or insurgents is a remarkably vague claim for an intelligence assessment, and is, I would suggest, worthless; secondly, the only way that this report could be remotely accurate would be if 3 out of every 4 released Afghans had taken up arms against US forces; and thirdly, focusing on the word “terrorist” — even in those unsubstantiated cases which are apparently “confirmed” — rather tends to obscure the fact that, if released Afghans are fighting against US forces, it may be that this is because they are from a country that is still under US occupation.

In conclusion, I have seen no evidence to suggest that more than a few dozen released prisoners have ever engaged in anything that could honestly be labeled “terrorism.” It may well be that dozens of released Afghan prisoners are fighting the US in their home country, but if so, the hysteria that is allowed to flourish at the mention of this information reveals a major failing on the part of the Obama administration.

In sitting back and continuing to hold prisoners at Guantánamo under legislation passed the week after the 9/11 attacks — the Authorization for Use of Military Force — the Obama administration persists in endorsing the false basis of the “War on Terror”: that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are, essentially, interchangeable. It is distressing that such a damaging piece of propaganda as this latest report should emerge from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence under Obama’s very nose, but it is more distressing that, by refusing to tackle the fundamental detention problem head-on — telling the American people in no uncertain terms that Guantánamo held, and in some cases continues to hold, a small number of criminal suspects (terrorists) and a far larger number of soldiers, as well as all the innocent men rounded up for bounties — the administration continues to foster and allow the type of counter-productive hysteria that regards all Guantánamo prisoners, past and present, as terrorists, when this has never been the case.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation. Cross-posted on The Public Record and Uruknet.

Quarterly Fundraiser: $1000 Needed to Support My Guantánamo Work

Please support my work!


Regular readers will know that, every three months, I ask for financial support to help me continue the work I began five years ago — researching the stories of the Guantánamo prisoners, publicizing the ongoing plight of the men still held, and reporting assiduously on stories relating to Guantánamo and the wider “War on Terror.”

If you can help out at all, please click on the “Donate” button above to make a payment via PayPal. All contributions are welcome. Readers can pay from anywhere in the world, but if you’re in the UK and want to help without using PayPal, you can send me a cheque (address here — scroll down to the bottom of the page), and if you’ve boycotted PayPal and want to send a check from the US, please feel free to do so, but bear in mind that I have to pay a $10 processing fee on every transaction. Securely packaged cash is also an option!

Although I confess that it’s sometimes hard to summon up the enthusiasm to continue this struggle, especially with such relentless bad news from the US, where President Obama has descended into paralysis regarding Guantánamo, and the most negative Republican Party in history has returned to full-on Bush-era scaremongering about the prison and its remaining 174 inmates, my financial situation is, in general, healthier than it was in the early days of my research and writing, when all my work was unpaid.

Since July this year, I have been employed for half the week by the British NGO Cageprisoners, and for the last two years I have also been paid by the Future of Freedom Foundation to write a weekly column, but much of my work remains unpaid — not only the research and the writing, including the majority of the 130 or so posts and articles since my last fundraising appeal in September, but most of the events that I attend, and the radio shows (and some of the TV shows) that I take part in to publicize the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo.

Perhaps more importantly, maintaining my website, and the hardware required to support it, sometimes springs unforeseen surprises on me, and this has been the case in the last few months, as my old PC, on which I wrote The Guantánamo Files, and my first 1000 articles on Guantánamo, finally gave up on me, and I had to buy a new computer. In light of the recent attacks on WikiLeaks, it has also occurred to me that I should employ some regular technical support to make sure that the gremlins are kept at bay, and that my site is fully backed-up and the security kept up-to-date, and this too will take a big bite out of my earnings.

So if you read my work, share it and cross-post it, and appreciate the role that this website plays in demonstrating the potential of the new media to cover stories that are ignored in the mainstream, or twisted, or not covered at all, please help out if you can.

The recent stories about WikiLeaks have reminded me that, nearly five years ago, when the Pentagon was obliged to release the names and nationalities of all the Guantánamo prisoners, and 8,000 pages of the allegations against them and the transcripts of their tribunals and review boards, WikiLeaks had not yet emerged on the scene. Although these documents were officially released, rather than being leaked, the process of analyzing them and making sense of them was similar to the process currently undertaken by WikiLeaks’ media partners at the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais and the New York Times. The difference is that, five years ago, I embarked on this project alone, and without any financial support, as every mainstream media outlet turned its back on the material.

I’m proud of this work, which provided a basis for my writing that is still relevant today — as can be seen in the nine-part series telling the stories of the 174 remaining prisoners in Guantánamo that I have been engaged in over the last few months — and although I have always believed that exposing the Bush administration’s lies and distortions about Guantánamo — inherited without sufficient skepticism by the Obama adminstration — is important in its own right, and is based on crucial notions of justice and accountability that are more important than money, I won’t complain if supporters recognize my contributions and can support my work on an ongoing basis. My website now receives over 250,000 page views a month, and is, effectively, an online newspaper, but unlike the traditional media it is not supported by advertising or by payment upfront, but by the generosity of those who employ me to write for them — and the generosity of those who enjoy free writing about Guantánamo and the “War on Terror” almost every day of the week.

Thanks for listening. The struggle continues, and the New Year not only marks the ninth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, but further concerted efforts to close the prison and to hold accountable those who authorized the torture, abuse and illegal detention of all those held in the “War on Terror.” I’ll be visiting the US for the anniversary, taking “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” to Poland in February, and will continue to write regularly, to speak out whenever possible, and to show the film across the UK, and I’m delighted that so many of you will be with me as this long journey to justice and accountability continues.

Andy Worthington
London
December 13, 2010

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Report on “A Day for Shaker Aamer” and Screenings of “Outside the Law” — and a Message of Support from Ken Livingstone

After two screenings of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the documentary film I co-directed wth Polly Nash — at UCL onThursday evening, and at Roehampton University on Friday — it was more than I could do to get down to Nine Elms for 12 noon on Saturday and the start of “A Day for Shaker Aamer,” an event organized by the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign and sponsored by Cageprisoners, Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union Council and Labour CND, to raise awareness about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, and to mobilize action to secure his return to the UK, and to his wife and family.

I’m glad to report, however, that the students in the Human Rights Society at UCL, and the human rights students at Roehampton were thoroughly engaged audiences, who peppered the speakers (myself and former prisoner Omar Deghayes at UCL, and myself and Polly at Roehampton) with questions, and listened intently as Omar spoke about his experiences — and those of his fellow prisoners — in US custody throughout the darkest years of a “War on Terror” that has not, sadly, been brought to an end by President Obama.

In addition, I told the sorry story of how Obama’s plans to close the prison have ground to a halt, but reminded the audiences that they can act to secure the return of Shaker Aamer — by writing to William Hague, writing to their MPs, encouraging their MPs to sign up to a Early Day Motion on Guantánamo proposed by the Green MP Caroline Lucas, and sending a postcard to Shaker in Guantánamo — and that they should take heart that the time has come for the exhaustion of any and all excuses to prevent his return.

This is because of the British government’s recent financial settlement with 15 former Guantánamo prisoners, and with Shaker, whose settlement cannot ultimately be agreed without his presence, because of an ongoing Metropolitan Police investigation into his allegations of torture in US custody in Afghanistan, while British agents were present, which cannot conclude without his presence, and because the judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture, which David Cameron announced in July, and which he wants to use to “draw a line” under the whole sordid affair, cannot even begin while one of the men whose evidence will need to be considered by the inquiry — Shaker Aamer — is still held in Guantánamo.

Those of us who have been studying his case closely for many years know that, ultimately, Shaker — who was cleared for release by a military review board under President Bush in 2007 — is not held because of any threat he poses to the national security of either the US or the UK, but because of his deep knowledge of American involvement in torture — and, perhaps, murder — at Guantánamo and his equally deep knowledge of American torture (and British complicity) elsewhere, which he learned and/or experienced as the foremost defender of the prisoners’ rights, and as an eloquent and passionate man who will not stand for injustice.

For Saturday’s event the BBC, the Press Association, AFP and Scotland on Sunday all reported on the rally at the site of the new US embassy, but failed to follow the march to Battersea Arts Centre for the main focus of the day, attended by many hundreds of people — a public meeting, chaired by the journalist and playwright Victoria Brittain, at which the speakers included Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo prisoner and director of Cageprisoners, human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, the journalist Yvonne Ridley,  and Anas Altikriti, the President and founder of the Cordoba Foundation. Press TV did turn up, however, and a report on the day’s events can be found here.

By the time I arrived later in the afternoon, the crowd had thinned out, but around 150 people stayed to watch “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” and afterwards there was a very lively Q&A session with myself, Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes and Polly Nash, in which Moazzam, in particular, was called upon to explain in detail how the recent financial settlements arose, which he did with some dignity, explaining how senior government ministers had, for the first time, listened to the prisoners and taken their stories on board, stressing that the release of Shaker had been central to the negotiations, but that the former prisoners had not been allowed to make the settlement reliant upon a firm promise that he would be freed, and refuting a claim that they had somehow sold out, or been bought off, by pointing out that, had they refused the settlement, those who were working would have been unable to pursue the case, because of the huge expenee involved, and those who were not would have had their legal aid cut off.

Personally, I believe that so much has already been exposed — including, in summer, direct evidence of the complicity in torture of Tony Blair and Jack Straw — that the settlement to bring to an end the civil claim filed by seven former prisoners is not the end of the story, especially as all the men have not been “gagged” as a result of the settlement, and have not been obliged to drop any of their allegations  about British complicity in their treatment in US custody — and, in some cases, in their abduction.

When I spoke, I was at pains to stress, as I had at UCL and in Roehampton, that, at present, everyone who is concerned about these matters should focus all their energies on securing Shaker’s return, which clearly cannot be put off for much longer, despite a rather feeble statement from the Foreign Office, as reported by Scotland on Sunday. A spokeswoman told the paper, “The Foreign Secretary raised the case of Shaker Aamer with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during his visit to Washington in November and was told that the US government continues to consider the case. As the Prime Minister has made clear to Parliament, the government continues to make best efforts to secure Shaker Aamer’s release and return to the UK. Ultimately this is a matter for the US.”

This last sentence is particularly worrying, as Shaker’s return is not just “a matter for the US,” but involves two countries — both the US and the UK — and the British government must not be allowed to forget that it can — and must — make Shaker’s return a priority.

Unfortunately, one of the star guests for Saturday’s event, Mayoral candidate and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, was unable to attend, but he sent along a message, which was read out at the end of the event, and which, I believe, provides a suitable conclusion to this report. He wrote:

It’s an absolute disgrace that prisoners including Shaker Aamer have been held without charge or trial at Guantánamo, and it’s now imperative that the British government starts to make real efforts to end this fundamental breach of human rights.

No one should be imprisoned without the basic human right to a trial. Guantánamo Bay is a stain on global politics and a symbol of everything that went wrong under Bush.

The impact on the families of those whose human rights are breached through indefinite imprisonment without trial is massive. It is impossible to imagine the effect on those people. Despite claiming they were doing “as much as they could,” it has now become clear that the issue was only raised sporadically and with little drive by previous foreign ministers.

It is a continuing scandal that the US will not simply release Shaker Aamer back to Britain.

Guantánamo Bay must be permanently closed, Shaker returned to Britain and never again must we allow our government to destroy human rights internationally at the behest of the US or any other power.

My thanks again to the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign for their hard work in organizing and promoting the event, to the sponsors, to everyone who turned up, and also to the organizatons who supported it: Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism, Love Music Hate Racism, Guantánamo Justice Centre, South London SWP, Kingston Peace Council, Brighton Against Guantánamo, Brighton and Hove Mosque, South London Communist Party of Britain, London Guantánamo Campaign, Justice for Aafia Coalition, Sutton for Peace & Justice, Norwich Amnesty Group, Battersea Islamic Culture & Education Centre, and Kingston Amnesty Group.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

Torture and Abuse on the USS Bataan and in Bagram and Kandahar: An Excerpt from “My Life with the Taliban” by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef

Cageprisoners has just posted an excerpt from My Life with the Taliban by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban government’s ambassador to Pakistan before the 9/11 attacks, who was seized by the Pakistani authorities a few months later. Handed over to the US authorities, he was one of a number of supposedly signficant prisoners held on the USS Bataan (including the Australian David Hicks), and was then moved to the US prisons at Bagram airbase and Kandahar airport. He was transferred to Guantánamo in July 2002, and was released in September 2005.

His autobiography has been well-received. Foreign Affairs described it as “A counternarrative to much of what has been written about Afghanistan since 1979 … Zaeef offers a particularly interesting discussion of the Taliban’s origins and the group’s effectiveness in working with locals,” and the Sunday Telegraph wrote, “Spies, generals and ambassadors will pounce on this book, poring over its pages for clues to a way out of the Afghan morass.”

This fascinating excerpt from the book, cross-posted below, deals with Zaeef’s detention in Pakistan, on the USS Bataan, and in Bagram and Kandahar.

An Excerpt from “My Life with the Taliban” by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef (Hurst & Co.)

When we arrived in Peshawar I was taken to a lavishly-fitted office. A Pakistani flag stood on the desk, and a picture of Mohammad Ali Jinnah hung at the back of the room. A Pashtun man was sitting behind the desk. He got up, introduced himself and welcomed me. His head was shaved — seemingly his only feature of note — and he was of an average size and weight. He walked over to me and said that he was the head of the bureau. I was in the devil’s workshop, the regional head office of the ISI.

He told me I was a close friend — a guest — and one that they cared about a great deal. I wasn’t really sure what he meant, since it was pretty clear that I was dear to them only because they could get a good sum of money for me when they sold me. Their trade was people; just as with goats, the higher the price for the goat, the happier the owner. In the twenty-first century there aren’t many places left where you can still buy and sell people, but Pakistan remains a hub for this trade. I prayed after dinner with the ISI officer, and then was brought to a holding-cell for detainees. The room was decent, with a gas heater, electricity and a toilet. I was given food and drink — even a copy of the Holy Qur’an for recitation — as well as a notebook and pen. The guard posted at the door was very helpful, and he gave me whatever I requested during the night.

I wasn’t questioned or interviewed while being held in Peshawar. Only one man, who didn’t speak Pashtu and whose Urdu I couldn’t understand came every day to ask the same question over and over again: what is going to happen? My answer was the same each time he asked me. “Almighty God knows, and he will decide my fate. Everything that happens is bound to his will”.

All of the officials who visited me while I was detained in Peshawar treated me with respect. But none of them really spoke to me. They would look at me in silence but their faces spoke clearer than words could, humbled by pity and with tears gathering in their eyes. Finally, after days in my cell, a man came, tears flowing down his cheeks. He fainted as his grief and shame overcame him. He was the last person I saw in that room. I never learnt his name, but soon after — perhaps four hours after he left — I was handed over to the Americans.

It was eleven o’clock at night and I was getting ready to go to bed when the door to my cell suddenly opened. A man (also with a shaved head) entered; he was polite and we exchanged greetings. He asked me whether I was aware of what was going to happen to me. When I said that I knew nothing, he said that I was being transferred, and that it would happen soon. So soon, in fact, that he recommended that I should prepare straight away by taking ablutions and by using the toilet. Without asking for any further details, I got up and took my ablutions.

The USS Bataan

Barely five minutes had passed when other men arrived with handcuffs and a piece of black cloth. They shackled my hands and the cloth was tied around my head covering my eyes. This was the first time in my life that I had been treated in this way. They searched my belongings and took the holy Qur’an, a digital recorder and some money I still had with me. As they led me out of the building, they kicked and pushed me into a car. None of them had said a word so far. We drove for almost an hour before they stopped the car. I could hear the sounds of the rotating blades of a helicopter nearby. I guessed that we were at an airport where I would be handed over to the Americans. Someone grabbed me and pulled an expensive watch that I was wearing from my wrist as the car drove closer to the helicopters. The car stopped again, but this time two people grabbed me on each side and took me out of the car. As they brought me towards the helicopter, one of the guards whispered into my ear. Khuda hafiz. Farewell. But the way he said it, it sounded like I was going on a fantastic journey.

Even before I reached the helicopter, I was suddenly attacked from all sides. People kicked me, shouted at me, and my clothes were cut with knives. They ripped the black cloth from my face and for the first time I could see where I was. Pakistani and American soldiers stood around me. Behind these soldiers, I could see military vehicles in the distance, one of which had a general’s number plate.

The Pakistani soldiers were all staring as the Americans hit me and tore the remaining clothes off from my body. Eventually I was completely naked, and the Pakistani soldiers — the defenders of the Holy Qur’an — shamelessly watched me with smiles on their faces, saluting this disgraceful action of the Americans. They held a handover ceremony with the Americans right in front of my eyes. That moment is written in my memory like a stain on my soul. Even if Pakistan was unable to stand up to the godless Americans I would at least have expected them to insist that treatment like this would never take place under their eyes or on their own sovereign territory. I was still naked when a callous American soldier gripped my arm and dragged me onto the helicopter. They tied my hands and feet, sealed my mouth with duct tape and put a black cloth over my head. That was in turn taped to my neck, and then I was shackled to the floor of the helicopter. All this time I could neither shout nor breathe. When I tried to catch my breath or move a little to one side, I was kicked hard by a soldier. On board the helicopter, I stopped fearing the kicking and beating; I was sure that my soul would soon leave my body behind. I assured myself that I would soon die from the beatings. My wish, however, wasn’t granted.

The soldiers continued to shout at me, hit and kick me throughout the journey, until the helicopter finally landed. By then I had lost track of time. Only Allah knows the time I had spent between cars, helicopters and the place where I now found myself. I was glad when the helicopter landed, and allowed me to hope that the torment had come to an end, but a rough soldier took me and dragged me out of the helicopter. Outside, a number of soldiers beat and kicked me. They behaved like animals for what seemed like hours. Afterwards, the soldiers sat on top of me and proceeded to have a conversation, as if they were merely sitting on a park bench. I abandoned all hope; the ordeal had been long and I was convinced I would die soon. Still I saw the faces of the Pakistani soldiers in my mind. What had we done to deserve such a punishment? How could our Muslim brothers betray us like this?

I lay curled up for two hours on the ground and then they dragged me to another helicopter. It appeared to be more modern than the last one. The guards tied me to a metal chair, and throughout the flight I was not touched. No one told me where I was being taken, and the helicopter landed some twenty minutes later. Again, the soldiers grabbed me and led me away. It seemed like a long way; I was still blind-folded, but I could hear that there were many people in the vicinity. They pulled me up to my feet and an interpreter told me to walk down the staircase in front of me. The stairs led inside and the noise of the people above slowly faded. There must have been six flights of stairs before we stopped and the black bag was pulled from my head. The duct tape was ripped off my face, and my hands were untied.

Four American soldiers stood around me and to my left I could see cells — they looked more like cages — with people inside. The soldiers brought me to a small bathroom, but I couldn’t shower. My limbs and body throbbed with the pain of the beating I had received earlier in the day during the torment of the helicopter flight. I felt paralysed and had little sensation in my arms or legs. I was given a uniform and led into one of the cages. It was small, perhaps two metres long and a metre wide, with a tap and a toilet. The walls were made out of metal bars with no seals. Before they left, the guards told me to go to sleep and locked the door behind me. Alone in the cage, I reflected on the last few days. How did I end up in this cage? Everything was like a dark dream, and when I lay down and tried to get some sleep amid the aching of my bruised body, I realised that I no longer knew whether I was awake or asleep.

The next morning I looked out from my cage and saw a soldier guarding the door. There were three other cages around mine, all covered in rubber. It dawned on me that I was in a big ship, one of the ships used in the war against Afghanistan off the Pakistani coast. I could hear the loud rumble of the ship’s engines throughout the night and morning, and I was sure that this was one of the ships that had launched missiles at Afghanistan.

I barely moved my eyes — not daring to look around — out of fear. My tongue was dry and stuck to the top of my mouth. On the left side I could see a few other prisoners who were together in one cell. A soldier came with some food and another prisoner was brought onto the ship. The men ate their breakfast and stood together. We were not permitted to talk to each other, but could see one another while the food was handed to us. I eventually saw that Mullahs Fazal, Noori, Burhan, Wasseeq Sahib and Rohani were all among the other prisoners, but still we could not talk to each other.

A soldier entered my room and handcuffed me to the bars of the cage. They searched my room and afterwards I was interrogated for the first time; fingerprints were taken and I was photographed from all sides. They wrote up a brief biography before bringing me back to my cage. I found that I had received some basic items in my absence: a blanket, a plastic sheet and a plate of food — rice and a boiled egg. I had not eaten for a long time, and returned the empty plate to the guard who stood in front of my cage. I had just lain down to rest when I heard another soldier coming with handcuffs. Shackled once more, I was brought to the interrogation room. This time I was asked about Sheikh Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar. They asked me where they were, what their current condition was, and then about some key commanders of the Taliban forces — where they were hiding, what had happened to them and what they were planning. 11 September came up only once, and then only in a very brief question. They wanted to know if I had known anything about the attack before it happened. These were the main things I was asked in the dark and small interrogation room on the ship.

The Americans knew — I was sure — that I had little to do with the things that they asked me about. I had not been informed, nor did I have any previous knowledge, of the attacks on the United States or who was responsible for them. But just as these things happened to me, thousands of others were defamed, arrested and killed without a trial or proof that they had been complicit or responsible. On the ship I thought that I would never see my friends and family again. I thought they would never know what had happened to me.

No one should be in such despair, especially a Muslim, but I had to remember the Soviet invasion, and the behaviour of the Russians in Afghanistan. I thought of the destiny of those sixty thousand Afghans who were just devoured by the Soviet monster. They were gone forever; no one returned alive, and no one knew anything about them. For the first time, I could feel what those people must have felt, deep in my bones. I wanted my spirit to join them and to be finished with this anguish. I wanted to escape the cruelties of those vicious animals, those barbarous American invaders.

After five or six days on the ship I was given a grey overall, my hands and feet were tied with plastic restraints and a white bag was put over my head. I was brought onto the deck of the ship along with the other prisoners. We were made to kneel and wait. The restraints cut off blood to our hands and feet. Some of the other prisoners were moaning because of the pain but the soldiers only shouted and told them to shut up. After several hours we were put into a helicopter and we landed three times before we reached our final destination. Each time we landed the soldiers would throw us out of the helicopter. We were forced to lie or kneel on the ground and they kicked and hit us when we complained or even moved.

In the helicopter we were tied to the walls or the floor, most of the time in a position that was neither kneeling nor standing. It was torment, and with each passing minute the agony grew. On our penultimate stop when I was thrown to the ground, one of the soldiers said, “this one, this is the big one”. And while I could not see them, they attacked me from all sides, hitting and kicking me on the ground. Some used their rifles and others just stomped on me with their army boots. My clothes were torn to pieces and soon I was lying naked in the fresh snow. I lost all feeling in my hands and feet from the restraints and the cold. The soldiers were singing and mocking me. The USA is the home of Justice and Peace and she wants Peace and Justice for everyone else on the globe, they said over and over again. It was too cold to breathe and my body was shaking violently, but the soldiers just shouted at me telling me to stop moving. I lay in the snow for a long time before I finally lost consciousness.

Bagram

I woke up in a big room. I could see two guards wearing balaclavas and holding large sticks in their hands in front of me. My body ached all over. When I turned my head I saw two more guards behind me in each corner of the room, both pointing pistols at my head. They were all shouting at me. “Where is Osama? Where is Mullah Omar? What role did you play in the attacks on New York and Washington?” I could not even move my tongue. It had swollen and seemed to be glued to my upper palate. Lying in that room, in pain and being screamed at, I wanted to die. May Allah forgive me for my impatience! They left when they noticed that I could not answer; then other soldiers came and dragged me into a run-down room without a door or a window. They had given me some sort of clothes but still it was too cold and once again I lost consciousness. I woke up in the same room. A female soldier was guarding the entrance and came over to me. She was the first soldier that was nice and behaved decently, asking me how I was and if I needed anything. Still I could not talk. I thought I was in Cuba at first, having lost all sense of time, but when I saw that the walls were covered in names and dates of Taliban I realized that I was still in Afghanistan.

I could hardly move. My shoulder and head seemed broken and the pain rushed through me with each heartbeat. Silently I prayed that Allah would be pleased with me and that he protect other brothers from the ordeal I was going through. When it became dark I called for the female soldier to help me. I asked her if I was allowed to pray. She said that I was. My hands were still tied so that I could hardly perform tayammum. I was still praying when two soldiers entered the room. They let me finish my prayer before they asked me if I felt better, if I was cold or needed anything. All I said was alhamdulillah. I dared not complain, and I knew they could see the bloody bruises on my face, my swollen hands and my shaking body. They asked me about Sheikh Osama and Mullah Mohammad Omar but I had nothing to tell them. My answer did not please them, and I could see the anger in their faces. But even though they threatened me and tried to intimidate me, my answer stayed the same and they left.

I had not eaten for six days because I was not sure if the military food rations they gave me were halal. For nearly one month they kept me in that small run-down room, and all I had for food was a cup of tea and a piece of bread. The soldiers would not let me sleep. For twenty days I lay in the room with my hands and feet tied. I was interrogated every day.

On 24 January 2002, six other prisoners were brought into my room, most of whom were Arabs. They stayed for a few hours before they were taken away again. They returned the next day and I asked them what had happened. They told me that Red Cross representatives had come to to inspect the camp, register prisoners and collect letters for their families. They said that they did not know why they were being hidden away. We talked some more, and food was brought, the first time I had had enough to eat.

Kandahar

In the following days we were moved several times. Each time we would be blindfolded, made to kneel and sit in uncomfortable positions for hours. On 9 February we were transferred out of Bagram and flown down to Kandahar. Once again we were tied up, kicked and beaten, dragged through the mud and made to wait outside in the cold. Many of the prisoners screamed and cried while they were abused. The same happened when we arrived after the brief flight. I was hit with sticks, trampled on and beaten. Five soldiers sat down on me while I lay in the cold mud. They ripped my clothes to shreds with their knives. I thought I would be slaughtered soon. Afterwards they made me stand outside; even though it was extremely cold I felt nothing but pain. They dragged me into a big tent for interrogation. There were male and female soldiers who mocked me, while another took a picture of me naked.

After a medical check up I was blindfolded again and dragged out of the tent. The soldiers rested on the way, sitting on me before bringing me to another big prisoner tent that was fenced off with barbed wire. Every prisoner was given a vest, a pair of socks, a hat and a blanket. I put the clothes on and covered myself with the blanket. It was cold in the tent and other prisoners were brought in one after another. Interrogations went on all day and night. The soldiers would come into the tent and call up a prisoner. The rest of us would be ordered to move to the back of the tent while they handcuffed the prisoner and led him out. The soldiers would abuse prisoners on the way, run their heads into walls — they could not see — and drag them over rough ground.

A delegation of the Red Cross came to the camp to register us and gave each prisoner an ID card. We were all suspicious of the delegates and believed that they were CIA agents. The Red Cross was trying to connect the prisoners with their families, arranging for letters to be exchanged and providing some books. They also arranged showers for us. Each prisoner got a bucket of water and was forced to take his shower naked in front of the other prisoners. We were allowed to shower once a month. No water was provided for ablutions. We received bottled drinking water from Kuwait and sometimes prisoners would use it to wash their hands and face, but as soon as the guards noticed the prisoner would get punished. I was held in Kandahar from 10 February till 1 July 2002. We were repeatedly called for interrogation. The tactics of the Americans changed from time to time; they would alternate between threats and decent treatment or they would try to cut deals with us. I was asked about my life, my biography, my involvement in the Taliban movement and so on. But the discussion always returned to Sheikh Osama and Mullah Mohammad Omar. Often an interrogation that began in a humane and decent way would end up with me being grabbed and roughly dragged out of the room because I did not have any information about the life of Sheikh Osama or the whereabouts of Mullah Mohammad Omar.

There were twenty people in each prison tent. The camp in Kandahar was better than Bagram. We were allowed to sit in groups of three and talk to each other; there were more facilities in general. All in all I believe there were about six hundred prisoners in the Kandahar camp. They conducted night-time searches, rushing into each prison tent and ordering all prisoners to lie face-down on the floor while they searched us and every inch of the tent. They brought in dogs to go through the few belongings we had, and to sniff up and down our bodies. There was no real food; all we were given was army rations, some of which dated back to the Second World War. Many were expired and no one could tell if we were allowed to eat the meat that was in the rations, but we had no choice: we had to eat the food or we would starve. The situation improved in June when we were given rations that were labelled halal. The new rations tasted better, and they weren’t out of date any more. We were also given some Afghan bread and sweets, a real luxury. Helicopters and airplanes landed day and night close by and the constant noise kept us awake. Many of the soldiers would also patrol during the nights, shouting and waking us. Three times each day all the prisoners would be counted. We were all given a number; I was 306. Until the time I was released I was called 306.

When I was taken to Bagram, every day I hoped that it would be my last. I only had to look at my shackled hands and feet, my broken head and shoulders, and then I would look at the inhuman, insulting behaviour of these American soldiers; I had no hope of ever being free again. When I met the six prisoners who were being hidden from the Red Cross in Bagram, I understood that there was something going on … I did not see any representatives of the Red Cross at Bagram because the Americans had also hidden me from them, but when I was transferred from Bagram to Kandahar, I saw the Red Cross on the second day after I arrived. They did not have a Pashtu translator with them, just an Urdu speaker whom they had taken from their Islamabad office. He was not Pakistani himself, but he could speak fluent Urdu. They had Arabic speaking staff as well. For Pashtu they had three people who hardly could speak the language at all: Julian, Patrick, and a German who had spent a lot of time in the Peshawar area. It was the first time that I had been able to tell my family that I was alive. I was given a pencil and paper, and a soldier sat in front of me while I wrote. When I was finished I gave the pencil and the paper back to the soldier. I did not receive any letters from home when I was in Kandahar, and nobody gave me any information about my family, about what had happened to them after I was arrested.

There were lots of Red Cross representatives going back and forth, talking to us through barbed wire. They were asking questions about our health and other problems. They told us that whatever we said would stay safe with them, and that they would not tell the Americans. But we were suspicious. We thought they might be lying; we could not trust them and we were not open with them. We did not tell them what was in our hearts. We could not complain about the situation, because right in front of their eyes the Americans were taking us to interrogation, they were dragging us along the ground, sometimes with two or three soldiers sitting on top of us. The Red Cross delegates saw this, but they did not help.

The detainees told all of the brothers to be careful in what they said. According to them, there were many American spies masquerading as Red Cross delegates, tricking us while pretending to help. But in any case we had nothing useful for the Americans. We had nothing to do with any spying. The only sensitive issue was complaints, and the fact that many of the brothers had given false names and addresses when they were captured. So now they could not give new names and addresses to the Red Cross, so their letters were being sent to the wrong places. It was hard for them to tell the truth to the Red Cross, because they were afraid the information would get back to the Americans. I had the same suspicions when I was in Guantánamo.

We did not understand the level of assistance we were getting from the Red Cross while we were in Kandahar. But I did know three things they were doing: first, they were connecting us to our families with those letters, which was very important. Second, they gave us four Qur’ans per each set of twenty people. Third, they arranged for us to take our first shower in four months, even if it was a communal, naked, and very embarrassing shower. They also gave us clean overalls. According to the Red Cross, all of these things were done at their suggestion.

Our guards changed shifts twice a day and many of the low-ranking soldiers misbehaved, bearing ill-will towards Muslims. Every time they would appear, we had to stand in a row looking at the ground, and if the number of a prisoner was called he had to say ‘welcome’. Any prisoner who disobeyed these orders was punished. Every day all prisoners were lined up outside and made to stand in the sun. There were about twenty tents that held eight hundred prisoners. Not all soldiers were the same, but some would command us to stand there for half-an-hour before they took the attendance register and almost two hours afterwards. No one was allowed to sit down or stand in the shade, no matter what his condition. May Allah punish those soldiers!

The guards inspected the tents inside and outside along the barbed wire every day. One time a soldier found a piece of broken glass outside on the ground. He was one of the meanest soldiers, and upon discovering the piece of glass he gave it to me and asked where it had come from. I tossed it back to him and said that I did not know; we had brought nothing with us. The glass must have been here before, I told him. The soldier kept repeating his question. “Don’t talk. I will fuck you up”, he screamed at me. I was forced to kneel with my hands behind my head for several hours; from time to time he would kick or push me to the ground. There was no point in complaining about the behaviour of the soldiers; it would only make the punishment even worse. I will never forget the treatment I suffered at the hands of these slave rulers.

Kandahar prison camp had several sections. Next to the ordinary prison tents, one of the old hangars — previously a workshop for air planes — was now being used for the prisoners. Most prisoners feared it as a place of extreme punishment. Several times I saw prisoners being transported to the hangar bound with metal chains. In another separate location they deprived prisoners of sleep, holding them for months on end. The camp was guarded by six watchtowers and patrols, on foot and with vehicles, which took place all day and night. There are too many stories from the time when I was a prisoner in Kandahar. One day a new prisoner was brought to the prison tent where I was detained. He was a very old man. Two soldiers harshly dragged him into the tent and dropped him on the floor. He was ordered to stand but neither could he stand nor was he able to understand the men. He seemed to be confused; other prisoners told him to stand up but it was as if he could not distinguish the soldiers from the prisoners.

On the second day when he was called for interrogation and had to lie down to be tied up, he did not understand again. None of the other prisoners were allowed to help him; we were told to move towards the far end of the tent. Soon the soldiers let their passions loose and kicked him to the ground. One of them sat on his back while the others tied his hands together. All the while the old man was shouting. He thought he was going to be slaughtered and screamed, “Infidels! Let me pray before you slaughter me!” We were shouting from the back of the tent that he was just going to be interrogated and that he soon would be back at the tent, but it was as if he was in a trance. I cried and I laughed at the same time. There was so much anger in me as I watched the old man being dragged outside. When he came back I sat down to talk to him.

He said he was from Uruzgan province and that he lived in Char Chino district. He told me he was 105 years old, and eventually he was the first man to be released from the Hell of Guantánamo. In the camp we would pray together in congregation. One morning while I was leading the morning prayer, we had just started performing the first raqqat when a group of soldiers entered our tent and called the number of an Arab brother to take him for interrogation. The brother did not move, but continued with his prayer as is commanded by Allah. He was called a second time. By the third time, the soldiers rushed in, threw me to the ground, pressing my head into the floor, sitting on me while two others grabbed Mr Adil, the Arab brother from Tunis, and dragged him out. There was no respect for Islam.

Every day prisoners were mistreated in the camp. A Pakistani brother who had a bad toothache had only been given Tylenol by the medic in the camp. Eating was painful and difficult for him, and he could not manage to finish his food in the thirty minutes allocated for each meal. When the soldier came to collect his plate, he asked to be given more time because of his teeth. The soldier took him to the entrance and hit him in the mouth while the rest of us watched helplessly. After we saw how they treated the Pakistani brother, we decided to go on hunger strike. Word spread quickly and soon the entire camp had stopped eating. When the camp authorities came to find out what the reason for the strike was, we informed them about the abuses of the soldier and that we would no longer tolerate them. We were promised that incidents like this would be prevented in the future and we stopped the hunger strike. Even though we were subject to harsh conditions, this was the first hunger strike to have taken place under the American invaders’ custody.

The next day Mohammad Nawab, who was very ill and could not stand up, was beaten and kicked. The soldiers had come to inspect the tent and ordered the prisoners to move to the back. Mohammad Nawab had not moved; he had remained in bed. When the soldiers saw him, a group of them started to beat and kick him before they dragged him to the end of the tent and dropped him at our feet. I should mention that not all American soldiers behaved in this way; some were decent and respectful and did not join their comrades in the abuses. Some abuses were worse than others and affected everyone in the camp. One afternoon I woke up to the sound of the men crying. All over the camp you could hear the men weep. I asked Mohammad Nawab what had happened. He said that a soldier had taken the holy Qur’an and had urinated on it and then dumped it into the trash.

We had been given a few copies of the Qur’an by the Red Cross, but now we asked them to take them back. We could not protect them from the soldiers who often used them to punish us. The Red Cross promised that incidents like this would not be repeated, but the abuses carried on. The search dogs would come and sniff the Qur’an and the soldier would toss copies to the ground. This continued throughout my time in Kandahar. It was always the same soldier who acted without any respect towards the Qur’an and Islam. There were many other incidences of abuse and humiliation. Soldiers were conducting training with the prisoners as guinea-pigs: they would practise arrest techniques — all of which were filmed — and prisoners were beaten, told to sit for hours in painful positions. The number of such stories is endless.

All the while the interrogations continued. One night, when I had already been in Kandahar for several months, I was called for interrogation. I was asked if I wanted to go home, told that they had not benefited from my detention and had found no proof that I was involved beyond my dealings as Ambassador. They were planning to release me, they said. They would arrange for money, a phone and anything else I needed. After all this they told me the condition for my release: all I had to do was help them find Sheikh Osama and Mullah Mohammad Omar. Any time I would choose detention over this kind of release. I would not dare to put a price on the life of a fellow Muslim and brother ever!

I interrupted them and asked them what the reason for my detention was. They said that they believed I know about Al Qaeda, the Taliban, their financial branches, and about the attacks on New York and Washington. I had been arrested to investigate all these allegations. Given that they had not found any proof of what they had accused me of, they must see that I was innocent, I said. I had been arrested by the Pakistani government, and should be released without any conditions. For three days they talked about financial aid and a possible deal if I would agree to their terms, but I turned all their offers down. Once again their behaviour changed. They threatened me and my life, again.

The next day a group of soldiers came to our tent throwing a bunch of handcuffs towards a group of prisoners. After they put on the handcuffs, they were tied together and led away. We all wondered what was happening. Some believed that we were being released; others speculated that they might get transferred. But they all were brought back a few hours later. Each and every one was shaved — their beards, hair and eyebrows. Every single hair was gone. This was the worst form of punishment. In Islam it is forbidden to shave one’s beard. It is considered a sin in the Hanafi faith. It is better to be killed than to have one’s beard shaved. I was in the next group that was led away to the barber. I asked the barber not to shave my beard; he replied with a hard slap to my head. I did not open my eyes for several minutes while the pain rushed through me. Later, when a doctor asked me what had happened to my face and I complained about the barber, I received another slap from the doctor, telling me I should not complain about the American invaders.

During one interrogation session, I was asked if I knew Mr Mutawakil [the Taliban foreign minister] and there were several other questions relating to him. Finally I was asked if I wanted to meet him. I doubted that he had been arrested and asked where he was and how I could meet him. A few moments later he entered the room. He had brought me a packet of Pakistani biscuits, but my hands were tied and I was unable to eat them. Nor was I allowed to take them with me. We talked for ten or fifteen minutes and then he left again. In the short meeting I learnt that I would soon be transferred to Cuba. Mr Mutawakil did not say much more about that. He knew that Allah knew best what would happen to me. The next day I was interrogated again. I was told that I would be transferred to Cuba on 1 July.

The interrogator added that those going to Cuba would spend the rest of their lives there and that even their bodies might never find their way back to Afghanistan. This was my last chance, he said; I had to make a decision to go home or to be transferred to Cuba. Once again he stated the conditions for my release. If I were to go home, I would have to work with and help the American intelligence agencies in their search for Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, remaining their slave for the rest of my days. May Allah save us from committing such a sin! Even though I was given a day to think about it, I replied immediately: “I am not more talented or important than any of the brothers detained here. I accept the decision made for me by Almighty Allah. I have not committed any crime, and so will not admit to any crime. It is now up to you to decide what to do with me and where I shall be transferred”. After this interrogation I hoped that the transfer would come soon.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Cageprisoners Discusses the Repatriation of Aafia Siddiqui with Pakistan’s Interior Minister

Yesterday, Cageprisoners, the British NGO that works to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the “War on Terror,” announced that it had “helped spearhead roundtable talks with senior members of the Pakistan government over the repatriation of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui,” the Pakistani neuroscientist, who was recently given an 86-year prison sentence in the US for attempted murder, after a trial in New York, ad is now held in a notorious psychiatric prison in Texas, Carswell, where many inmates have died, and reports of abuse are rife.

Despite the verdict, Dr. Siddiqui is widely regarded as a former CIA “ghost prisoner,” whose “capture” in Afghanistan in July 2008 (where she reportedly tried  — and failed — to shoot two US soldiers before being shot herself) and subsequent rendition to the US were arranged so that she could be consigned to oblivion in a US prison after what was little more than a show trial, in which all disussion of her missing five years — and the missing years of two of her three children, who disappeared with her — was prohibited. I have written about Aafia Siddiqui’s case extensively this year, most recently in my article, Wikileaks: Numerous Reasons to Dismiss US Claims that “Ghost Prisoner” Aafia Siddiqui Was Not Held in Bagram, and it appears to me that securing her repatriation — as the Justice for Aafia Coalition has also been pressing for — is the best way forward.

In a press release, Cageprisoners stated that it has “completed the first round of discussions with the Pakistan Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, in Islamabad,” and added, “The landmark meeting, which also involved the sister of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui, involved key discussions and ideas to work towards her return. At the meeting the Minister agreed to make a formal written request to the US State Department for the repatriation of Dr. Aafia.”

Cageprisoners also explained that it “will be working on avenues to help the government seek the return of Dr. Aafia as the organisation believes it is crucial that she be returned to Pakistan as soon as possible.”

Cageprisoners Board member, Saghir Hussain, who travelled from London a few days ago to take part in the crucial meeting, said:

The Pakistani people’s reaction to the continued incarceration has become a major issue in relations between the US and Pakistan. The US government needs to be made aware that her continued detention will be an impediment to their wider strategic goals in that region Therefore, we believe that the US government could be persuaded to return Aafia to Pakistan if the request came from the highest echelons of the civil and military establishment.

Note: See here for a Press TV report about the discussions regarding Aafia Siddiqui’s possible repatriation, featuring Saghir Hussain, and, as I mentioned in my last post about Aafia, please — if this case moves you at all — send a card or letter to Aafia, to let her know that she has not been forgotten, and to ensure that those responsible for her — in a facility called the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, which has a terrible reputation for violence and abuse — know that the outside world is watching. Readers can also use the resources on this page on the Justice For Aafia Coalition’s website to ask senior US and Pakistani officials to secure her repatriation to Pakistan.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

On Human Rights Day, A Call to Release Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo

Today is the 60th anniversary of Human Rights Day, declared by the United Nations in 1950 to mark the adoption by the UN of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — essentially, the founding document of the human rights movement — on December 10, 1948.

To mark the occasion, and, I think, to highlight American and British hypocrisy regarding Article 5 (“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”) and Article 9 (“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”), the journalist and playwright Victoria Brittain has written an article for the Guardian about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who has, like almost everyone seized in the “War on Terror,” been “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and remains held at Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release by a military review board in 2007, and despite the fact that he has never been charged with any offense.

This is a situation shared by the majority of the remaining 174 prisoners, which can clearly be described as “arbitrary arrest” followed by nine long years of abusive treatment (including torture), illegal interrogations, and an indifference on the part of the US authorities to any form of due process. I believe that this also contravenes Article 10 of the UDHR (“Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him”) and Article 11(1) (“Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence”), on the basis that Shaker, and all the other prisoners, have not been held as prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Conventions, and remain consigned to a legal twilight zone, which remains in force despite the fact that, two and a half years ago, the Supreme Court granted the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights. Of the 174 men still held, just 57 have had their habas petitions ruled on by a US court, and although 38 of these were won by the prisoners, just 25 of those men have been released.

In recent weeks, I have written extensively about Shaker’s case, particularly in my articles, As the UK Government Announces Compensation for Ex-Guantánamo Prisoners, Is the Return of Shaker Aamer Part of the Deal? and The UK Government’s Guantánamo Guilt, and the Urgent Need for Shaker Aamer’s Return, and I hope that, as well as reading Victoria’s article, readers will also — if possible — come to “A Day for Shaker Aamer” in Battersea tomorrow, and/or write to foreign secretary Wiliam Hague, their MPs, and Daniel Fried, President Obama’s Special Envoy on Guantánamo ((although I would cut the section mentioning that the US government can, if it wishes, “charge him promptly and give him a fair trial”), to demand his immediate return to his British wife and family. Readers can also encourage their MPs to sign an Early Day Motion submitted by Caroline Lucas, our only Green MP, and can order free pre-printed postcards from the indefatigable activist Maryam Hassan (of the Justice for Aafia Coalition) to send to Wiiliam Hague and to Shaker himself in Guantánamo.

Ken Clarke’s Guantánamo credibility test
By Victoria Brittain, The Guardian, December 10, 2010

Ken Clarke, as lord chancellor and justice secretary, is facing a significant test of credibility within a long and successful career — at the bar, in politics and in business — in the current power struggle with the United States over the return from Guantánamo Bay of British resident Shaker Aamer to his family in London.

Clarke, as he informed parliament, did what the Labour government signally failed to do in personally meeting the former Guantánamo Bay prisoners, both British citizens and residents, after the claimants requested a ministerial meeting during the negotiations over their recent settlement. Hearing from every one of the men how the return of Aamer to his wife and children mattered to them more than any financial settlement, and what the loss of shared years of a child’s life meant to them, changed the tone. Clarke appears to be the first minister to have taken in the enormity of the wrong done to these men and to have been affected by what they had to say.

In the last nine years, personal letters to prime ministers Blair and Brown, and even to Sarah Brown, handed in by delegations to Downing Street, including Aamer’s daughter, and earlier by other prisoners’ children, never met a human response. It requires an unusually independent and confident politician to offer such a response. The justice secretary, famous for his stalwart refusal to take his party’s line against joining the European Union, is certainly one such person. It is now known in fact, from the US end, that the previous British government made only sporadic and token efforts to get Aamer home to his family, although they claimed in recent years that they were doing all they could.

Aamer is not just another unknown prisoner. He was the spokesman and negotiator for the other prisoners with the US authorities in [a major] hunger strike [in the summer of 2005]. After the US side broke the agreement he went on other hunger strikes, was in solitary confinement for years, and was witness to the dark episode of the mysterious deaths of Salah Ahmed al-Salami of Yemen, and Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani of Saudi Arabia in Guantánamo in June 2006. US claims that they were suicides were discredited both by autopsies when the bodies were returned home, and by a long investigation by Harper’s Magazine based on interviews with a [number of former] guard[s].

There is no mystery about why the Americans have been so reluctant to see him free to speak of what he knows. Even as the negotiations were going on with the former prisoners in London, a telephone call, lasting two hours, was arranged by the US for Aamer from Guantánamo — not with his wife and children in London who have not spoken to him in nearly a decade, but with a brother in Saudi Arabia. If he were to be returned there he would likely disappear indefinitely into a “rehabilitation programme”, his British family would probably never see him again, and he would be highly unlikely to talk publicly about what he knows.

The new coalition government moved the issue high up its agenda, so that Aamer’s future recently dominated discussions between the foreign minister, William Hague, and Hillary Clinton. The momentum for this change had come from the former Guantánamo prisoners in the UK, who insisted that convincing evidence of real government pressure for Aamer’s return to Britain was key to any settlement with the British government. The details of the settlement made with the 16 men, who included several residents as well as the British citizens, remain confidential. However, for the men, the most important aspect of this case is the wrongful detention the US and Britain subjected so many Muslim men to as part of the “war on terror”. Ongoing contacts, not the subject of any confidentiality, now indicate a new level of government effort by Britain on behalf of Aamer.

Once David Cameron’s government announced simultaneously the intention to negotiate a settlement, and to hold a public inquiry, two consequences flowed. The harsh realities of civil litigation meant that those who were eligible for legal aid would have that withdrawn by the Legal Services Commission, the possibility of continuing a protracted case with the option of a court hearing being thus ended.

The men nevertheless got significant parts of what the civil proceedings were intended to achieve. The demand for a public inquiry was a vital aspect of a number of the men’s claims under the Human Rights Act — Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna kidnapped by the US in the Gambia with the connivance of the UK, for instance. The government announcement of a judge-led public inquiry was made simultaneously with its intention to negotiate. We do not know how much will be in public. While the whole shameful story of Guantánamo may never be told, the coalition government is still party to the fight to keep secret material out of the courts, and keeping Aamer from talking has been an integral part of the US-UK history of the hidden account. What we do know is that the former prisoners’ evidence will be critical to the UK inquiry and that one key witness for Judge Gibson will be Aamer, who can testify to the presence of British intelligence agents at his own ill-treatment.

The battle with the US over Aamer’s return highlights a hugely sensitive area: the Obama administration’s failure to close the camp; the failure to persuade its allies to help; the massive fallout of broken families across many countries as a result of so many innocent men being held and tortured; and for those released with no stain on their character, the glaring lack of any public acknowledgment or apology for the great wrongs done by the US, and condoned by allies like Britain. The UK government’s settlement tacitly admits the credibility of the men’s claims. The outstanding part, this last man’s return, needs a further sustained push from Clarke and his cabinet colleagues if these men — and the millions watching — are not to feel that they have been cheated again.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

On Human Rights Day, Public Figures Call for Worldwide Ban on Solitary Confinement and Prisoner Isolation

Public figures, intellectuals, former prisoners and human rights activists have today, Friday 10 December, issued a statement calling for an international ban on long-term solitary confinement and prisoner isolation.

Supporters of the statement include US academic Noam Chomsky, US author and poet Alice Walker, former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg, former prisoners Paddy Hill and Gerry Conlon (wrongly convicted over IRA bombings in England), former Beirut hostage Terry Waite, lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, barrister Michael Mansfield QC, Emeritus Professor David Brown (University of New South Wales, Australia) and Richard Haley (Chair, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities).

10 December is International Human Rights Day and marks the anniversary of the proclamation in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The “Stop Isolation” statement says that enforced long-term isolation in all circumstances breaches Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The statement has been published on a new website, “Stop Isolation,” which aims to encourage international collaboration to put an end to long-term solitary confinement.

Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith said:

“Solitary confinement is one of the techniques used to ‘break’ prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.  Sadly I can testify that it has the sickening, desired impact, and has caused serious mental health problems for the people I represent.  We  should put these ugly human experiments behind us.”

David Brown (Emeritus Professor, University of NSW) said:

“Solitary confinement and other forms of isolation have been a feature of Australian prison systems since colonisation, whether as part of ‘secondary punishment’ or supposedly ‘reformatory’ regimes. Current use is starkest in high security and ‘supermax’ units … The historical lesson to be learnt from the various mutations of high security regimes utilising solitary confinement is that whether the aim is punishment or reform, the consequences include long term physical and mental damage, increased violence and brutalisation. In a perverse cycle such regimes produce madness, rage and violence through isolation and then cite this very madness, rage and violence as reasons such regimes are necessary. It is time to heed the historical lessons and break this cycle by ending isolation in favour of fostering social relationships and promoting  prisoners’ discursive citizenship and human rights.”

Richard Haley (Chair, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities) said:

“Solitary confinement is one of the elephants in the sitting room of international human rights law. It is so widespread in United States — where tens ot thousands of prisoners are held in isolation — that human rights defenders have sometimes been reluctant to say plainly that long-term isolation is always a human rights violation. The fate of prisoners across the world concerns us all because, as the Declaration of Human Rights reminds us, we are all members of the human family. And also because citizens of Europe may have to face years of solitary confinement if they are extradited to the United States. It’s time to outlaw solitary confinement and outlaw the transfer of prisoners to places where they would be at risk of solitary confinement.”

End Prisoner Isolation — The Full Statement

Jails around the world hold prisoners who have endured years of solitary confinement or other forms of isolation. The enforced long-term isolation of any person is a cruel and inhuman violation of their inalienable rights and needs as members of the human family. The long-term isolation of prisoners has to stop.

Scientific evidence shows that prisoners held in long-term isolation commonly suffer severe damage to their mental health. It should be self-evident that whether a prisoner manifests such damage or not, the suffering that he or she endures is torturous, cruel and inhuman. Few of us can properly imagine what such a prisoner goes through.

In the USA hundreds of prisoners are held in extreme isolation in the “supermax” prison known as Administrative Maximum, Florence, Colorado (“ADX Florence”), a federal prison. Tens of thousands more prisoners are held in extreme isolation in “supermax” State prisons and in special units at other facilities within the Federal and State prison systems. Many of these prisoners have been held in isolation for years; some have suffered isolation for decades.

Isolation in US prisons commonly involves solitary confinement with minimal human contact of any kind, even with prison staff. Prisoners are typically held in their cells for 23 hours a day. Exercise is typically taken in an isolated space outside the cell. Isolation can also mean the confinement of two prisoners in a single isolation cell — a situation potentially even worse than solitary confinement.

Prisoners in other jurisdictions around the world also suffer prolonged solitary confinement. A report published in October 2008 by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture named China, Denmark, Georgia, Indonesia, Jordan, Mongolia, Nigeria, Paraguay as well as the United States as giving cause for concern. In the same year, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern over prolonged isolation in “supermax” facilities in Australia. In 2009 the Committee expressed concern over the use of solitary confinement in Israeli prisons.

We believe that prolonged, enforced isolation is unjustifiable in any circumstances. It is unjustifiable whether it is imposed as a punishment, or to coerce information or a change of behaviour from the prisoner, or for any other purpose. It is unjustifiable whether it is imposed before trial or after conviction. It is unjustifiable whether of not it is imposed through legal process.

Long-term isolation is the antithesis of norms that have come to be accepted in much of Europe and in many other parts of the world. The drift away from these norms must be resisted.

Where, exceptionally, a prisoner cannot safely or beneficially be afforded the kinds of social interaction normal within humanely-run prisons, exceptional and effective steps must be taken to provide the prisoner with human contact that is clearly adequate in the interests of his or her human and psychological well-being.

We believe that enforced long-term isolation in all circumstances breaches Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

We call upon the countries of the world to enact legislation that prohibits long-term prisoner isolation, and prohibits the transfer of prisoners to countries where they would be at risk of such treatment.

Dungeons should not be tolerated in the 21st century.

Supporters (all in a personal capacity)

Clive Stafford-Smith (lawyer and director of Reprieve)
Frances Webber (barrister, London, UK)
Moazzam Begg (former Guantánamo prisoner, director of Cagepriosners, UK)
Noam Chomsky (Institute Professor & Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, MIT, USA) Alice Walker (author, USA)
Lord Anthony Gifford QC (barrister, Jamaica and UK)
Michael Mansfield QC (barrister, UK)
Daniel Machover (Chair of Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights)
Frank Barat (Coordinator Russell Tribunal on Palestine)
Bill Bowring (barrister and Professor of Law, Birkbeck, University of London, UK)
Aamer Anwar (criminal defence lawyer, Glasgow, UK)
David Brown (Emeritus Professor, University of NSW, Sydney Australia)
Terry Waite CBE (former Beirut hostage, UK)
Omar Deghayes (former Guantánamo prisoner, UK)
Paddy Hill (Birmingham Six, UK)
Gerry Conlon (Guildford Four, UK)
Ronnie Kasrils (writer, activist and former government minister, South Africa)
Mairead Corrigan Maguire (Nobel Peace laureate 1976, Northern Ireland)
Cynthia McKinney, former member of the US Congress and 2008 presidential candidate, Green Party, USA)
John McManus (Miscarriages of Justice Organisation Scotland, UK)
Richard Haley (Scotand Against Criminalising Communities, UK)
Julia Davidson (Scotand Against Criminalising Communities, UK)
Desmond Fernandes (Genocide and prisoner isolation scholar, London, UK )
Estella Schmid (Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, UK)
Saleh Mamon (Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, UK)
Les Levidow (Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, UK)
Maryam Hassan (Justice for Aafia Coalition)
Pushkar Raj (General Secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, India)
Sharon Shalev (Solitary Confinement.org)
Jeffrey Ian Ross (Associate Professor, University of Baltimore, USA)
Hans Toch (Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University at Albany, State University of NY, USA)
Andy Worthington (journalist and author, UK)
Tam Dean Burn (cultural worker, Scotland, UK)
R. Hugh Drummond (Edinburgh, UK)
Adnan Siddiqui (a director of Cageprisoners, UK)
Arzu Merali (Islamic Human Rights Commission, UK)

For further information, please contact:

Richard Haley: 07936 432519 or by email.
Clive Stafford Smith: 020 7353 4640.
David Brown: by email.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, 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.
Email Andy Worthington

CD: Love and War

Love and War by The Four Fathers

The Guantánamo Files book cover

The Guantánamo Files

The Battle of the Beanfield book cover

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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