Photos and Report: The Global Vigils for the Closure of Guantánamo on International Women’s Day, and Victoria Brittain’s Speech in London


Campaigners at the global vigils for the closure of Guantánamo on March 8, 2023. Clockwise from top left: London, Washington, D.C., New York and Mexico City.

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Thanks to the many campaigners who turned up on Wednesday (March 8) in London, Washington, D.C., New York and Mexico City for four coordinated global vigils calling for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

It was a day of extremes. Those in London for the UK Guantánamo Network’s vigil had to endure an extraordinarily cold, wet day, while in Washington, D.C. it was warm, and in Mexico City, apparently, it was almost unbearably hot.

Campaigners in Parliament Square in London, March 8, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

Campaigners outside the US Capitol on March 8, 2023.
Campaigners outside the New York Public Library in New York, March 8, 2023.
Campaigners in bright sunlight in Mexico City, March 8, 2023.

Monthly vigils — or even weekly vigils — for the closure of Guantánamo were a noticeable feature of the London protest scene for many years, while British prisoners were still held there, although, with the release of Shaker Aamer, the prison’s last British resident, in October 2015, it became impossible to sustain the impetus, and the Trump years, of course, were bleak for protestors, because Trump had tweeted, even before he took office, that “there must be no more releases from Gitmo,” and he was largely true to his word, releasing only one man in his nearly 1,500 days in office.

Last September, however, the UK Guantánamo Network, which came together in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo (in January 2022), and which includes members of various Amnesty International groups, Close Guantánamo, the Guantánamo Justice Campaign and the London Guantánamo Campaign, were persuaded to revive vigils outside Parliament through the enthusiasm of their convenor, Sara Birch, who, when chair of the Lewes Amnesty group, had previously shown a talent for mobilising people in significant numbers for Guantánamo events.

Last month, after global rallies to mark the 21st anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, I thought it would make sense to keep highlighting the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo — particularly in relation to the men still held who have been approved for release — by asking other campaigners around the world to hold coordinated monthly vigils on the same days as the London vigils. Last month we were joined by Witness Against Torture campaigners in Washington, D.C., and with New York and Mexico City on board this month, it seems reasonable to assume that campaigners in other locations will join us next month.

Andy Worthington in London on March 8, 2013 with the poster showing the 18 men still held at Guantánamo despite being approved for release (the number dropped to 17 later that day, when a Saudi prisoner was repatriated).
A campaigner in Washington, D.C. on March 8, 2023 with one of Witness Against Torture’s celebrated placards.
Campaigners in New York on March 8, 2023, including Debra Sweet of the World Can’t Wait, with the ‘Free The Guantánamo 20’ placard they had made for the 21st anniversary of the prison’s opening in January.
Alli McCracken in Mexico City on March 8, 2023, with the poster showing the 18 men approved for release from Guantánamo but still held.
Solidarity from Mexico!

A particular focus of the London vigils are laminated posters showing all the men still held, and for the 21st anniversary of Guantánamo’s opening I added a new angle to the campaign materials — a poster showing the 20 men (at the time) who were approved for release but were still held, and, more recently, an infographic showing how long they have been held since they were told the US no longer wanted to hold them (as of today, shamefully, between 168 days and 4,795 days). Both have been very popular on Twitter, with the original poster having had over 21,000 views, and latest version of the infographic having had over 74,000 views.

Since the anniversary, three of these 20 men have, thankfully, been freed, but I will soon be adjusting the poster and infographic to reflect these changes, as I believe it remains hugely important to keep exerting pressure on the Biden administration to act with some decency and a sense of urgency when it comes to finally freeing these men.

For Wednesday’s vigils, because it was International Women’s Day, the UK Guantánamo Network invited two authors and journalists — Victoria Brittain and Yvonne Ridley — as well as Kate Hudson of CND to speak about the impact of indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial on the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of the men held at Guantánamo. Victoria co-wrote Moazzam Begg’s 2006 memoir ‘Enemy Combatant’, and, of particular relevance on Wednesday, 2013’s ‘Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror’, and after we had huddled round in the cold and the rain to hear her recollections about the female relatives of prisoners, I asked her if I could post her speech below, and was delighted when she said yes, and forwarded it to me. I hope you have time to read it, and that you’ll find it as touching as we did.

Sara Birch, the convenor of the UK Guantánamo Network, with a placard marking International Women’s Day in London on March 8, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
Yvonne Ridley, Kate Hudson of CND and Victoria Brittain at the UK Guantánamo Network’s vigil in London on March 8, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
Yvonne Ridley at the UK Guantánamo Network’s vigil in London on March 8, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
Freezing cold, rain-sodden campaigners in London listening to the speakers for International Women’s Day on March 8, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

The coordinated global vigils, meanwhile, are taking place on the first Wednesday of every month from now on; in other words, Wednesday April 5, Wednesday May 3 and Wednesday June 7, and so on. Do feel free to join us, or to set up your own vigil anywhere around the world, and feel free to get in touch for advice, or to let me know what you’re doing.

Below is Victoria’s speech:

Guantánamo 2023
By Victoria Brittain

Good afternoon and thank you all very much for coming. Thanks in particular to Sara [Birch] and Ray [Silk, of the Guantánamo Justice Campaign] for organising and for keeping the pressure up for all these years of successive governments’ indifference to the UK’s part in the illegal and inhuman saga of Guantánamo prison.

Guantánamo has ruined countless lives and continues to do so. It can never be forgotten as a symbol of the horrifying illegal activities — kidnapping, torture, war, which America’s powerful embraced. The UK was complicit. A young generation who did not live the hysterical days of the war on terror 20 years ago, must know everything about Guantánamo.

Today, International Women’s Day, I want to celebrate some of the most extraordinary women who it has been my privilege to know here in Britain. I met them because they are the wives, mothers and daughters of men who disappeared into Guantánamo from January 2002. I started visiting some of their homes, mostly Arab, in the UK in 2004. I wrote a book about some of them in 2013, only because they asked me to, saying, “why do you only write about our husbands?”

I found first frightening levels of grief, terror, incomprehension that their men could have been seized by Americans from places as different as Gambia, Bosnia, Pakistan, and there was absolutely no information about why and no recourse. A void. Helplessness. An ordeal no one could have prepared for. And a loneliness when friends stayed away, frightened of the taint of terrorism.

But from the start, as one woman led me to another, I also found in these welcoming households great dignity, strength, generosity, hope, family unity, joy, perseverance, and above all deep religious faith.

These women learned to negotiate the hurdles of British bureaucracy — the local Council, the DWP, schools, hospitals, despite in some cases poor English and in all a previous life when their husbands dealt with that outside world. They also had to bring up children, with the complexities of negotiating an alien culture outside the house, worsened with school bullying when their fathers’ names came out in a uniformly hostile media which branded them “terrorists.”

Later they would have husbands who came back from Guantánamo and were not the men they had known, and the women were the key for a family which had to find their way with new relationships.

In these homes every aspect of their own culture was nourished despite the endless underlying difficulties and separation from families far away: spotless kitchens, all home cooked food, homework done, ribbons in carefully brushed hair, in the Eid holidays little boys in white clothes and caps, sitting in a row on the sofa with fingers tracing verses of the Koran as they read aloud — a photograph taken to send to Dad (even if he may never see it).

My very dearest friend, who always smiled, told me about her dreams of a husband who did not smile any more, and of nights when she would step outside the small house as the children slept, so that she could cry.

Today she is a woman who went to college, as did her daughters, and whose children are now parents. Still smiling.

I want to celebrate also another Guantánamo heroine, the lawyer for most of the men from the UK, Gareth Peirce. She and her formidable team fought the authorities day, night, weekends, for years, initially for information about her clients, then in both the American courts and the British courts for their release. It was a very tough marathon, in which she was always the face of hope for the families.

One more great woman to mention today in this connection is the actor Vanessa Redgrave. She supported every campaign against Guantánamo from the start.

The most important legacy of Guantánamo and its lawlessness is that there has been no accountability for the inhumanity of the regimes devised. Presidents, the military, the Congress are all guilty of their part, and always will be. The lawyers who twisted the law to make torture allowed, the psychologists who devised the torture programmes are known and have been named in endless books and reports. But not shamed and punished, as they deserve.

Particular Guantánamo horrors remain hidden. For instance, the grim obfuscated circumstances in which the young Saudi, Yasser al Zahrani and two others were officially described as suicides “conducting assymetrical warfare” actually died. I want to express solidarity with his mother today, and the mothers and wives of the other two. Law has failed them, we will not forget them.

Let me end with another failure of law, and a word of solidarity for International Women’s Day. Shamima Begum was a British child, trafficked to ISIS in Syria, probably with the aid of a Canadian Intelligence operative. A big mistake of a London teenager has left her stateless as the Home Secretary invoked national security in the court in which her lawyer, Gareth Peirce, challenged the revocation of her passport. This is an absurd misuse of serious words.

Shamima has suffered the trauma of war and starvation under ISIS and the unimaginable pain of losing three children in rapid succession. She is living in limbo in a violent camp in Syria. This is inhuman and shames us if we do not speak out.

Please keep speaking up for the closure of Guantánamo. This is a political and moral demand. We cannot rely on the US law which has tied itself in knots for 20 years, spending millions of dollars in a devised court inside a US prison camp planted on another country’s land.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, featuring photos of, and my report about the coordinated global vigils for the closure of Guantanamo that took place on March 8, 2023 in London, Washington, D.C. New York and Mexico City.

    As it was also International Women’s Day, Victoria Brittain, Yvonne Ridley and Kate Hudson of CND spoke at the London vigil, and this article also includes the text of the powerful and poignant speech made by Victoria Brittain.

    Thanks to everyone who took part. Next month let’s make it bigger! More people! More locations! The next vigil is on Wednesday April 5, then the first Wednesday of the month thereafter (Wednesday May 3, Wednesday June 7, and so on).

    Let’s make sure the Biden administration knows that we’re not resting until the 17 men still held who have been approved for release are freed!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Thank you, Andy, for being the glue that makes us stay together worldwide. From Mexico, our commitment is very strong to this cause and we will continue doing the monthly vigils as long as Guantánamo is open. Hope more cities and countries join.
    Let’s close Guantánamo together.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia, for your wonderfully supportive words! The photos all together look really great, don’t they? Global solidarity!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Andy, they’re awesome!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    🙂 Natalia!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    Thank you everyone who was on the ground and able to represent those of us scattered to the four corners of the war-ravaged planet.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kevin, and thanks also for that link, to remind people of quite how disgracefully polluting the war industry is.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Fotos y reporte: Las vigilias globales para el cierre de Guantánamo en el Día Internacional de la Mujer y el discurso de Victoria Brittain en Londres’:

  9. Long Overdue – The Talking Dog says...

    […] this point, I expect the monthly vigils to continue until morale improves. We all must just continue to do what we […]

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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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