So it’s three days since I arrived in New York, at the start of a ten-day promotional tour (also taking in Washington D.C. and the Bay Area in California) to show my new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed with filmmaker Polly Nash) and to discuss Guantánamo with activists, lawyers, and anyone else who realizes that the prison hasn’t actually shut down, and that President Obama will be hard-pressed to meet his deadline of January 22, 2010 for its closure.
I’m also pleased to report that my talk at Revolution Books was followed by a lively discussion, which touched on other outstanding issues of concern: the situation at Bagram in Afghanistan (which I wrote about most recently in two articles here and here), and the question of how the Bush administration’s torturers can be called to account for their crimes when President Obama remains determined to look forwards rather than backwards to the “dark side” that still tarnishes America’s reputation, and that still involves 215 men being held at Guantánamo without charge or trial.
After the screening on Thursday — attended by, amongst others, lawyers, filmmakers and representatives of NYU, CCR and the ACLU — Karen Greenberg, the Center on Law and Security’s Director, who organized the event, moderated a post-screening Q&A, in which questions were asked about the difficulty of getting the message across to a wider audience, and at Friday’s screening I was delighted that my specially invited guest, Tina Foster of the International Justice Network, was able to take time out from her busy schedule to come along and talk about Bagram, and her pioneering litigation on behalf of men held in what is regularly — and appropriately — being referred to as “Obama’s Guantánamo.”
Even though I thought I was well-informed about how Bagram remains “Outside the Law,” Tina opened my eyes to the extent to which Bagram is still being used an illegal interrogation center in the unilateral rewriting of the Geneva Conventions that was pioneered by the Bush administration and that clearly has continued under Obama.
In the Q&A after the screening, moderated by Debra Sweet, the Director of The World Can’t Wait, I also had the opportunity not only to reiterate my complaints about the Obama administration’s lack of courage when it comes to overturning its predecessor’s failed policies, but also to refine one of the current themes that has been shaping itself since my arrival: the importance of mobilizing the public to convince lawmakers that, unless they overturn their unprincipled ban on accepting cleared prisoners into the United States, dozens of these men — and maybe many more — will remain imprisoned, potentially for the rest of their lives.
One of the reasons for my visit at this particular time was a recognition that, with just two and half months until the date for Guantánamo’s supposed closure, and a year on from Obama’s election victory, these issues are of grave concern. Recently, the administration secured a victory in the Senate, by convincing lawmakers to allow prisoners to be brought to the US mainland to face trials (after mutinies throughout the year, involving both Democrats and Republicans, who were both infected by the unprincipled fearmongering rhetoric of Dick Cheney and other architects of the “War on Terror”).
It also appears that absurd calls for a new national security court have been silenced by a decision, taken by the administration and Congress,to revive the Military Commission “terror trials” at Guantánamo, although this is only a victory for the lesser of two evils, as the Commissions, however much they are modified, remain a second-tier judicial system that can never attain the legitimacy of federal court trials.
Moreover, all these plans fail to address what are perhaps the most burning questions of all. As noted above, the first of these is: what will happen to those prisoners in Guantánamo who cannot be returned to their home countries because of fears that they will be tortured, but for whom no other country has been found that will accept them? And the second, which I also had the opportunity to discuss on Friday evening, is: when will the administration release the Yemenis cleared for release by both the Bush administration’s military review boards and its own interagency Task Force, instead of hiding behind unjustifiable demands that they must first pass through a US-approved rehabilitation program?
Make no mistake: without a solution to this problem we may well be discussing this in a year’s time, or in two year’s time, or on the eve of the next Presidential election. European countries have been stepping forward to accept the odd cleared prisoner, but dozens remain — from countries including Algeria, China, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia — and it seems increasingly inconceivable that Europe will take them all. President Obama already faces one particularly thorny problem — a Uighur prisoner (from China’s Xinjiang province), who is mentally ill as a result of his long imprisonment.
Last week, the Pacific nation of Palau took six of the last 13 Uighurs in Guantánamo, who were cleared of all involvement with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban by the Bush administration, by the Obama adminsitration and by the US courts, but the government of Palau refused to take this poor man, Arkin Mahmud, and his brother (who is also in Guantánamo, and who had been offered a new home) decided to stay with him instead.
If President Obama had been prepared to seize the initiative — and the moral high ground — earlier this year, the Uighurs would have been brought to the United States, as District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered last October, when he reviewed their unchallenged habeas corpus petitions, and concluded, correctly, that holding innocent men in Guantánamo was unconstitutional.
So what’s to be done? Well, the Supreme Court has accepted an appeal from the Uighurs regarding the appeals court’s government-endorsed refusal to let them settle in the United States when no other home could be found for them, and, although the administration may try to shift five of the remaining seven Uighurs before the Supreme Court reaches a decision (probably in June next year), it seems unlikely that it will be able to do anything for Arkin Mahmud (and his faithful brother). The Washington Post has already proposed crafting legislation to allow Mamhud to be brought to the US for treatment (accompanied by his brother), but in truth, although this is a bold start, it is apparent that the door will need to be opened to more prisoners who cannot be repatriated and who no one else is prepared to take.
On this subject, the town of Amherst, Massachusetts recently took the lead, passing a resolution to accept two cleared prisoners, Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian, and Ravil Mingazov, a Russian, and to persuade Congress to let them do so. This is a timely and significant development, but for it to progress any further, more people need to help persuade the Senate to behave rationally, and to back down on its refusal to accept any cleared prisoners onto the US mainland.
This may well be a hard sell, but in bringing the stories of these cleared prisoners to light, Nancy Talanian, who pushed for the Amherst resolution through her work on the “No More Guantánamos” website, which encourages groups around the country to offer to rehouse cleared prisoners, has done what needs to be done, encouraging Americans to examine the men’s stories — and to see through the lies masquerading as evidence, produced largely through the torture, coercion or bribery of other prisoners, or through the torture or coercion of the prisoners themselves — and to pursue the only path that will bring this grotesque injustice to an end, by pushing for the release of cleared prisoners into the care of communities across the country.
Much more needs doing — for example, concerted efforts to persuade lawmakers, on an individual basis, to look beyond the false rhetoric of the “War on Terror” that has caused such collective panic on the Hill — but this is a fine initiative, and I’m delighted not only that it appears to have started a conversation amongst Americans about a story that is America’s own, but also that Nancy came to New York on Friday evening to discuss these developments, after the screening of “Outside the Law.”
This has been a great start to my tour, and the rest of my itinerary is as follows:
Saturday November 7, 4:30-6:30 pm: An Afternoon with Andy Worthington, hosted by The World Can’t Wait.
The Art Club, 100 Reade Street, Tribeca, New York.
Selections from “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo” and a chance to meet Andy Worthington, and to benefit the work of The World Can’t Wait in stopping the US torture state.
Contact: Debra Sweet, Director, The World Can’t Wait (or phone: 866-973-4463).
This event is sponsored by The World Can’t Wait and Have Art Will Travel.
Sunday November 8, 5.30 to 9 pm: Film screening – Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo. With introductory talk and post-screening Q&A. The Auld Shebeen Irish Pub, 3971 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax, VA, 22030.
Contact: Bart Frazier.
“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a new documentary film, directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington (and inspired by Andy’s book, The Guantánamo Files). The film tells the story of Guantánamo (and includes sections on extraordinary rendition and secret prisons) with a particular focus on how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).
The film is based around interviews with former prisoners (Moazzam Begg and, in his first major interview, Omar Deghayes, who was released in December 2007), lawyers for the prisoners (Clive Stafford Smith in the UK and Tom Wilner in the US), and journalist and author Andy Worthington, and also includes appearances from Guantánamo’s former Muslim chaplain James Yee, Shakeel Begg, a London-based Imam, and the British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.
Focusing on the stories of three particular prisoners — Shaker Aamer (who is still held), Binyam Mohamed (who was released in February 2009) and Omar Deghayes — “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” provides a powerful rebuke to those who believe that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” and that the Bush administration was justified in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by holding men neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects with habeas corpus rights, but as “illegal enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.
For worldwide inquiries about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Andy Worthington or Polly Nash.
“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” is a Spectacle Production (74 minutes, 2009).
Polly Nash is a lecturer at the London College Of Communication (LCC), part of the University of the Arts, London, and has worked in film and TV for 20 years. Core funding for the film was provided by LCC.
Spectacle is an independent television production company specializing in documentary, community-led investigative journalism and participatory media. Spectacle programs have been broadcast across Europe, Australia and Canada and have won international awards. Visit their website here.
For excerpts and extras, follow the links on the Spectacle website. A short trailer is available here, and please visit this page for photos and reviews of the UK launch on October 21, 2009.
World Can't Wait is a national movement formed to halt and reverse the terrible program of war, repression and theocracy that was initiated by the Bush / Cheney regime and the on- going crimes that continue to this day.