Sunday, 15 March 2009

'Rattling the Cage'

The gallery’s interior was stark: grey, white, black and orange – Guantanamo colours. An orange boiler suit lay spread-eagled on the floor; the walls showed photos of marches, stalls and demonstrations. Along one wall were examples of letters from MPs, ministers, government officials. Another display showed newspaper cuttings from The Argus: a history of the campaign from its beginnings in 2005. This was the ‘Rattling the Cage’ exhibition in Brighton, organised by Louise Purbrick to display the work of local activists, who tirelessly and patiently campaigned for the safe return of Omar Deghayes from Guantanamo Bay – and were ultimately successful.

The letters on one wall were a reminder of how much activism consists of patiently writing letters, over and over again, to be met often with lame, formulaic or dishonest replies from ministers and their minions. The Argus cuttings showed how hope was kept alive even when no one could know for certain if Omar would ever be free again. And a video displayed in one corner showed interviews with diverse activists from the campaign: ‘ordinary’ people who came together four years ago to educate themselves and combine their efforts against a terrible injustice, in which the ‘war on terror’ had affected a local family and put them through years of grief and psychological torture.

It was great to see our friends again in Brighton: Omar, Louise, Martin, Sally, Joy and Caroline. And Omar gave a talk which, as always, left me in admiration of his strength of character at being able to channel the effects of his ordeal into positive action. He spoke of how Guantanamo was the tip of a huge iceberg of rendition and torture; how the Americans use techniques which they learned from their own POW experiences, in World War Two, Korea and Vietnam. Bagram, he said, was like a huge Nazi camp, with barbed wire along concrete walls, and soldiers in towers with guns trained on the prisoners when they were allowed to exercise. He talked about some of the torture, of the sexual humiliations which led to prisoners resisting and thence to being beaten up. Air conditioning and bright lights left on continually for six years, so that the cells were like dazzling fridges with never a moment’s darkness. All this he described with humanity and sometimes even humour; the absurdity and irony of some aspects were not lost on Omar or his audience. And he had an appreciative audience too: understanding, attentive and indignant at the abuses of human rights described. Every time I hear Omar I learn more, and each time I realise how much more there is still to do, even if Obama does bring Gitmo itself to an end before the year is out.

Chatting to Omar, Sally and Joy after the meeting was great; it’s been over a year since Angie and I were with the Save Omar group in their home city. I took some photos of the exhibition, and we signed letters to Jack Straw and Obama, a reminder that the correspondence continues, more than a year since Omar himself returned home. The group now campaigns for the closure of Guantanamo (it hasn’t happened yet!), the safe return of the remaining British residents, and an end to torture, rendition and imprisonment without charge in the ‘war on terror’. This will be the biggest, long-term challenge; Obama recently confirmed that prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq will remain outside the reach of law, and he has made no orders to end rendition: the kidnapping and sending of prisoners to countries that use torture. Often these victims are simply ‘disappeared’.

As we left, Brighton was basking in a glorious spring afternoon. Angie and I walked through the daffodils, then drove along the coast road by a glittering blue expanse of sea. The white cliffs of Saltdean were bathed in late-afternoon sunlight, and as so often it felt hard to imagine such darkness and suffering existing still in those secret prisons, which our own government and intelligence services are proving to be involved in. Perhaps this is partly why so many people ignore the evidence and don’t even think about such injustices; they seem so far away. But Omar’s case shows that the ‘war on terror’ can come very close to home – indeed right into our own homes. And while the liberal newspapers chatter about Binyam Mohamed and whether or not his accusations can be believed, the activists in Brighton, Worthing, Eastbourne and London continue to work patiently and persistently for an end to these brutal assaults on law and liberty in the global war on terror – which is itself an act of terrorism.

‘Rattling the Cage’ is showing at the Phoenix, 10-14 Waterloo Place, Brighton until Saturday 21 March. Opening times 11:00am - 5:00pm, admission is free.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Animal Magic

Last year I learned the hard way what prolonged and intense focusing on war and torture issues could do to my emotions. Spending most of 2008 recovering from severe anxiety made me realise that I’m not the sort of person who can do this for long; I may be able to campaign, but I also need deep relaxation and light relief. And it’s strange to find that one source of pleasure is what interested me most as a small boy. Animals are calming, fascinating and beautiful, and the smaller furry species nearly always bring a smile to my face!

Last Friday, Angie and I went to Drusilla’s Park, between Eastbourne and Lewes. I don’t like to see animals confined, but these were in relatively spacious and relaxed surroundings and were mostly small creatures, including meerkats, marmosets, mongooses, lemurs, otters and two wonderful if extremely sleepy (because nocturnal) fennec foxes. I was getting as close as I could, and snapping away happily with my camera. The highlight had to be the ring-tailed lemurs, which lived in an open space the public could walk through; we could have touched them if we’d been allowed to. With their long, banded black-and-white tails and startling orange eyes they were stunning, endearing creatures, and it was a beautiful sunny day to see them, with the green curves of Windover Hill (my favourite place close to home) overlooking the scene. One lemur leaped at eye level between Angie and me, from one side of the path to the other, while others sat basking on their bottoms in the sun, grooming each other and blinking in the light. It was hard to leave them; to think I’d never seen them before and they were only a few miles from our house!

A couple of years ago I’d have been in pain after wandering on my feet all afternoon, but that condition is so much better these days as well. I got home with Angie tired but happy, and wishing we could keep a mongoose or a fennec fox as a pet! Maybe one day we’ll finally get a cat, but I’ve been promising that to myself for years…

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Truth Must Out

At a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1984, the text of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted. It came into force on 26 June 1987. The Convention requires states to take effective measures to prevent torture within their borders, and forbids states to return people to their home country if there is reason to believe they will be tortured. As of December 2008, 146 nations are parties to the treaty, and another ten countries have signed but not ratified it.

Thanks to the Convention, torture is illegal essentially anywhere, all over the world. It is a crime to commit torture, and it is a crime to render a person to a country where they are likely be tortured. There is no ambiguity about this: all of the nations which ratified the treaty are prohibited from any involvement in torture whatsoever, whether or not the torture is actually committed by members of that country.

The unspeakable torments suffered by Binyam Mohamed, the British resident recently released from Guantanamo Bay after seven years of captivity, happened in Pakistan, Morocco and in the CIA-run ‘dark prison’ in Kabul, Afghanistan. They continued in Guantanamo itself, if perhaps in a less medieval fashion. Binyam’s rendition took place with the knowledge of British intelligence, which means that at the very least they knew he was likely to be tortured, and his movements have been confirmed by documents seen by his lawyers. None of Binyam’s claims have been contradicted by evidence, and many of them have been supported. And Binyam is clear that he was not only visited by MI5 agents who knew he was being tortured, but that the questions he was asked during interrogation had come from the British. This has now been confirmed by documents leaked to the national press which contain the actual questions that MI5 requested the CIA to ask Binyam, whether or not the agents themselves knew where he was actually being held at the time.

All this is bad enough: it means that MI5 agents committed a serious international crime. The full truth has to come out, and those responsible must be brought to justice. But the foreign secretary David Miliband claims that the UK government abhors torture. The British haven’t condoned torture for many years, and this remains the official position. This didn’t stop Miliband from telling the High Court that releasing documents detailing Binyam’s torture would harm security agreements between Britain and the US, and indeed even soliciting Obama’s government for an assurance that this was still the case; in other words, Obama had previously given no hint that he would continue the previous administration’s threats against a close ally. Why did Miliband do this? If the government had truly been unaware of MI5’s illegal complicity with – indeed, collusion in – torture, then that would be embarrassing at least. If he was trying to protect the intelligence service’s reputation, then he must have known that the truth would out somehow in any case. At worst, it could mean that he was trying to cover a more terrible truth: that MI5 operated in this way with the full knowledge of the government. In that case, the government itself would be colluding in torture. Why would I not be surprised?

And it is this very fact, that the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, claims to have evidence of. Mr Murray, now a writer and human rights activist, has asked to appear as a witness at a meeting of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. He says he has minuted evidence from an FCO meeting he attended in 2003, at which it was stated that intelligence gained from torture was acceptable policy. This had been agreed following discussion with then foreign secretary Jack Straw, who was sent a copy of the minutes. Mr Murray appeared as a witness in person before both the European Parliament and European Council's enquiries into extraordinary rendition, where he presented this evidence. The evidence was described by the European Council's Rapporteur, Senator Dick Marty, as 'compelling and valuable'.
The JCHR will decide on 10 March whether or not to hear Mr Murray’s evidence. If they decide not to, then the truth will have to out some other way, and the JCHR will surely be pretty ineffectual; what’s the point of having such a committee if it refuses to hear such important evidence?

The evidence may come out, or it may not. The government may have had absolutely no idea that British intelligence were colluding in tortures that the Spanish inquisition would have been proud of – in which case, pretty stupid bloody kind of government! This is the government that fixed intelligence in order to take part in a war of aggression against Iraq: a war based on lies which led directly to the deaths of over a million people, and the maiming, orphaning and displacement of millions more. The New Labour government (and Jack Straw was instrumental in that monumental dishonesty too) long ago lost any moral authority to govern, with its members mired ever deeper in corruption from the relatively minor to the truly epic. Does Tony Blair even know how to tell the truth anymore, or indeed what it is? Who would I be more inclined to believe, Jack Straw or Craig Murray? It’s a no-brainer.

Somehow, as I keep saying, the truth will have to out. If it doesn’t then we have a serious problem. But even if it does, will the guilty actually be brought to justice? Every one of the architects of the Iraq invasion has so far got away with it, although there may be countries they’d rather not visit, as technically they could be arrested and brought before the International Criminal Court. My own fear is that the media will simply lose interest, as they did previously over the issue of extraordinary rendition (why not just call it kidnap and torture?) If that happens, then the government will be able to move the discussion on to another agenda. It’s happened before, many times, even after the release into the public domain of extraordinary, incriminating evidence (such as the 2002 ‘Downing Street memo’). Miliband, Brown, Straw and Blair may be breathing deeply, reassuring themselves that in another few weeks the mainstream media will be silent on the issue, having taken up with another one. No one will be listening to Binyam Mohamed and Clive Stafford Smith anymore, let alone Craig Murray.

Let’s hope that this time…

What helps the government no end, meanwhile, is that many of the British public seem to show a poor understanding of human rights. If you read some of the online comments on articles about Binyam, it’s enough to produce despair. Nasty, stupid comments these, surely more at home on a BNP website, or the Ku Klux Klan. But what underlies them all is a view that seems to be widely held, amongst many reasonable people. And summed up in five words: THERE’S NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE.

Even this proposition is a bit dumb, easily refuted by a moment’s thought. There’s often smoke without fire, from bullies’ gossip in a school playground to gross miscarriages of justice. If there wasn’t, no innocent person would ever have been imprisoned or indeed executed by the state. And we know that that’s happened many times, even in our own democracy. If it can happen in Britain, with its hundreds of years of developing law and all its safeguards, how much more likely is it in the United States ‘war on terror’, which abandoned civilised law when it dropped habeas corpus? (I shouldn’t single them out; we’ve abandoned it as well, through the imposition of control orders). Or in countries which hang men up by their wrists and take scalpels to their genitals? Another no brainer.

Binyam Mohamed is only one. Once in a blue moon someone is released from Gitmo, and whilst recovering from the horrendous ordeal of torture and imprisonment without charge, is able to tell their story to anyone who’ll hear. But there are many thousands of people who have still to be released, who have never been charged with any crime and in many cases have simply disappeared, completely outside the reach of law. Even those in the US prison at Bagram, Afghanistan – which many ex-detainees describe as far worse than Guantanamo – have no legal rights under American law; this was reaffirmed recently by the Obama administration. People are kidnapped and rendered routinely to countries which, despite ratifying and signing the UN Convention Against Torture, still practice torture all the time. Of all those rendered by the British, is Binyam Mohamed really the only one to have suffered so greatly?

Binyam is innocent. It’s quite simple. All the confessions he made were under the most unbearable and prolonged anguish; if someone tortured me for one minute, I’d say anything. All charges against him were dropped by the US military, who would never have released him if they’d had evidence against him. All people are innocent unless proven guilty; that’s habeas corpus. Sooner or later, this country needs to accept the truth: that innocent people have been rendered for torture by UK intelligence services, and that this country has colluded with the United States in serious human rights abuses in the name of the ‘war on terror’ – not to mention wars of aggression. If we don’t realise this and hold those responsible to account, then our democracy has been deeply, perhaps ineradicably, eroded and trashed, and any future government will decide it can get away with anything.

Even if Binyam, and thousands of people like him, were guilty of terrorist offences, torture would still be indefensible. In an episode of ‘24’, torturing one individual may release information that saves the nation from a devastating attack. But in reality, torture involves the setting up of a system of torture, including the training of torturers. In whatever country it takes place, it becomes endemic, a part of official or unofficial policy. Innocent people, or people arrested even for minor crimes, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, end up being tortured. A nation that uses torture becomes a police state, ‘democratic’ or otherwise.

And if this were not true, and by some miracle only the guilty were tortured, would we still want that? Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, truthfully says that a bar on torture and imprisonment without charge is what truly separates democracies from tyrannies and terrorists. Look at countries that still chop people’s hands off for stealing, or boil prisoners to death in oil (yes, it happens). Look at those who killed thousands of people in the twin towers in 2001. Do we really, really want to become like them?

If we do, then those who would use any barbarity as part of the ‘war on terror’ have got it made. We’ll be doing most of the work for them.