“Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week: Day Five – Humanizing Torture Victims and Fighting for the Soul of America (+ Videos)


In the five years that I have spent researching Guantánamo and writing about it, my aims have been simple: to close Guantánamo (with the remaining 174 prisoners either released or put forward for federal court trials), to make sure no experimental prison like Guantánamo is ever allowed to exist again, and to hold accountable those who conceived it, and who attempted to justify its existence and its use for arbitrary detention, coercive interrogation and torture.

My project began because I wanted to know the stories of the individuals held in Guantánamo, hidden from the world for so many years, and as I learned these stories through my research (mainly by casting an analytical eye on the Pentagon’s own documents) and began publicizing them, first through my book The Guantánamo Files, and, since May 2007, through my relentless journalism about Guantánamo and related issues, I have, whenever possible, tried to portray the prisoners as human beings, to tell their stories, and to reclaim them from the regime responsible for imprisoning and torturing them, which did not care that its screening process was virtually non-existent, and which has depended for its success on dehumanizing them, both in the prisons and in the message sent out to the world — that they were “the worst of the worst.”

Whether subjected to arbitrary detention, coercive interrogation or torture, a prisoner whose identity and humanity is denied — through being labeled a “detainee” or a “package” or an “enemy combatant,” and through being assigned an Internment Serial Number instead of a name — is far easier to abuse than someone with a name and a family, and with hopes and fears.

Talking torture with Rose Aguilar, Justine Sharrock and Argentinian torture survivor Patricia Isasa

Humanizing the prisoners has been a harder sell in the United States than, say, in the UK, where 14 former Guantánamo prisoners — nine British nationals, and five British residents — have told their stories, and, in some cases, appear regularly in public to talk about their experiences, and I was vividly reminded of the power of personal testimony on Thursday morning — Day Five of “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week — when, as part of a round of media appearances, I was invited onto Rose Aguilar’s “Your Call” show on KALW Public Radio in San Francisco with Justine Sharrock, author of Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things (with whom I had previously appeared at a book reading and a panel discussion on torture), and Patricia Isasa, a survivor of the reign of terror in Argentina from the 1970s until 1983.

When she was just 16 years old, Patricia was seized and tortured, and in profoundly moving testimony she described how she had been determined that her torturers would not destroy her. She also spoke animatedly, and with great authority, about how torture does not produce the truth, and only produces lies.

Patricia also spoke with Rose about how, 30 to 35 years after these atrocities, those responsible for the torture in Argentina are finally being held to account for their crimes against humanity, which gave us all the hope that, although the struggle for justice may take decades, it is possible to imagine a world in which the Bush administration’s torturers are finally brought to account.

Patricia’s testimony also reinforced my notion (sharpened by the week’s events) that the battle to hold America’s torturers to account — which is part of the wider struggle against endless war, the sidelining of the Geneva Conventions, and the acceptance of arbitrary detention without charge or trial at Guantánamo — is nothing less than a battle for the soul of America.

After Patricia spoke, Justine and I discussed our work and our aims with Rose, who was a wonderfully engaged presenter. I was pleased to have the opportunity to explain how important it has been this year to travel throughout the UK showing the documentary “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and myself) with former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes (still, like all the former prisoners, regarded as an “enemy combatant”), and how disappointing it was that plans to bring two cleared prisoners to live on the US mainland were shelved by President Obama last year, in the face of Republican opposition, when their presence in the US would have done more than anything to puncture the prevailing myths about the prison holding “the worst of the worst,” and would also have demonstrated, without a shadow of a doubt, that enormous mistakes were made in rounding up the 779 men held in the prison over the last eight years and nine months.

I’m delighted to report that the whole show is available here as an MP3 (introduction here), and to note that, after the show, Rose asked me to elaborate on some of the points I had made in a further interview that she filmed on a funky little Flip video recorder. This two-part interview, in which I presented a brief synopsis of who the Guantánamo prisoners are, and told a few particularly pertinent stories (of Fayiz al-Kandari, a Kuwaiti aid worker who is still held, and of Adel Hassan Hamad, a Sudanese hospital administrator freed in December 2007) is posted below, via YouTube.

A visit to Peter B. Collins

From KALW, Stephanie Tang and Debra Sweet of the World Can’t Wait, who had done their utmost to keep me busy (and who, with my undying gratitude, had actually shaped many of the week’s events around my presence in the Bay Area) took me sightseeing, to the extent that I saw the Golden Gate Bridge while being driven to my next appointment, in Marin County, with the veteran progressive radio host Peter B. Collins, who produces his own intelligent in-depth podcasts, uninterrupted by ad breaks. Peter and I have spoken many times before (most recently here), but on this occasion we were meeting to work on an important project involving two former Guantánamo prisoners, released in third countries, who were speaking publicly for the first time since they were freed. This insight into the problems facing prisoners released in third countries, including the harrowing story of a man whose serious physical ailments, sustained in Guantánamo, have been inadequately addressed by surgeons, with the result that his life is at risk, is available here — and here as an MP3.

An interview with Cindy Sheehan

While we were with Peter B. Collins, facilitating his interview, Debra and I did a phone interview with the celebrated antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, whose relentless, frontline campaigning, in response to the death of her son Casey in Iraq in 2004, is legendary. I’m honored that Cindy, who I met for the first time at “The Giant John Yoo Debate” last Tuesday, and who had kindly put me up on Wednesday evening, during my peripatetic travels around the Bay Area, described me as the “famous independent journalist Andy Worthington,” and stated that Debra and I are “very knowledgeable and very distressed by our country’s continued embrace of torture” and “deliver a LOT of good insights!” and I’m thrilled to report that the entire show, “Tortuous Logic — Tortured Law,” which was initially broadcast on Sunday, is available here as an MP3.

More torture talk with Dennis Bernstein, Marjorie Cohn and Ray McGovern

From Peter B.’s, Stephanie and Debra then drove me back to Berkeley for another show with Dennis Bernstein on “Flashpoints” on Pacifica Radio’s flagship KPFA channel (available here as an MP3, and also see here for my first appearance last Monday), where I had the very great pleasure of finally meeting in person two long-term correspondents (via email), whose work I have admired for many years — peace activist and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, and Marjorie Cohn, author and former President of the National Lawyers Guild — for a punchy, hour-long show, in which Marjorie spelled out how the Bush administration had broken the law regarding torture, Ray delivered some powerful anecdotes and stories, and I made sure that listeners understood that Guantánamo was part of the equation.

The Forum on Torture and the Law, Torture and Human Rights

After Dennis’s show, with Ray, Marjorie, Stephanie and Debra, I traveled back to Boalt Hall, where “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week finally occupied the building where John Yoo works, when he is not mysteriously unavailable or hiding out from those seeking his dismissal and prosecution, for the first of four events on his home turf. The “Forum on Torture and the Law, Torture and Human Rights” was moderated by Ray, and featured Marjorie, Debra and myself, along with Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. By now punch-drunk from my punishing itinerary, I nevertheless managed to summon up a last burst of energy to join the debate, as Marjorie once more laid out the case for prosecution, and Shahid and Debra weighed in, and after a lively discussion (available here), I even managed to maintain my composure when, during our closing remarks, I had to follow Shahid, who decided to deliver a powerful rap about torture as some sort of lyrical gauntlet.

It was a powerful evening, and with our presence firmly established in Boalt Hall, a precursor to a full-scale invasion of anti-torture experts and activists on Day Six, culminating in the first West Coast performance of “Reckoning with Torture — An Evening of Conscience,” a compilation of memos and testimonies from the “War on Terror,” initially conceived by the ACLU and American PEN Center, and previously performed in New York and Washington D.C.

But first, I finally got some sleep …

POSTSCRIPT: Here’s the “Reckoning with Torture” video, via YouTube!

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.

5 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week: Day Five – Humanizing Torture Victims and Fighting for the Soul of America (+ Videos) | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, Andy Worthington. Andy Worthington said: “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week: Day 5 – Humanizing Torture Victims & Fighting for the Soul of America (+ Videos) http://bit.ly/bdWrSi […]

  2. Norwegian Shooter says...

    Simply amazing. Thank you. I hope the mutual engagement of the activists such as yourself provide each other with rewards to enjoy your accomplishments and the energy to continue your work.

    I’m curious if the Center for Victims of Torture, in my hometown, was included in Berkeley or is on the radar of anti-torture activists.

  3. Tortuous logic – Tortured law with Debra Sweet and Andy Worthington interviewed by Cindy Sheehan « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week: Day Five – Humanizing Torture Victims and Fighting for the… […]

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Mui J. Steph wrote:

    Interesting. I think that might be another reason why Bush/Cheney and now Obama don’t want prisoners to enter US proper. Gosh forbid their victims should appear human and sway public opinion as the families of the victims in Argentina eventually did.

  5. Cynthia Papermaster says...

    Andy, if you have his email could you pass this along? I’m replying to #2, Norwegian Shooter’s question re. Berkeley Says No To Torture Week and whether organizers know of the group Center for Victims of Torture. Now I know of the CVT, and thank you. I’m organizing the campaign to get the Berkeley City Council to pass a resolution to ask Congress to lift the ban on settling cleared detainees in the United States, and to welcome one or two cleared detainees to settle in Berkeley. If you know folks at the CVT, could you please ask them to contact me? Are they only in Minnesota or do they have California chapters? Our draft resolution goes to the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission tonight for their recommendation to the City Council, which I hope votes to pass the resolution before the end of the year.
    Thank you.
    Cynthia Papernaster, Berkeley, cynthia_papermaster@yahoo.com

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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