Sunday, 7 March 2010

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo

A film by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, available on DVD from

This powerful documentary is a film of talking heads - yet it’s absolutely gripping. Following the stories of four Guantanamo detainees, and featuring interviews with ex-detainees Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes, the legal director of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, and American lawyer for the detainees, Tom Wilner, it’s a damning expose of the Bush administration’s torture and detention policies in the War on Terror, and at the same time an uplifting account of how humanity can survive intact following dreadful and prolonged enforced suffering.

The film covers all the issues, including ‘extraordinary rendition’, torture and the bizarre and confusing legal mess created by the administration in order to justify its policies and sidestep international law. One example given was their redefinition of the word torture. Everyone knows what torture means: it’s the deliberate infliction of suffering on an individual. But the administration redefined it to mean the infliction of pain ‘equivalent to’ that of major organ failure or even death. Even here the definition is ambiguous: what does ‘equivalent to’ mean in this context? According to this definition, presumably breaking someone’s nose or fingers is not torture. Waterboarding (‘controlled drowning’) is not torture. Chaining someone up by their wrists in a cold, pitch dark room and playing heavy metal music at deafening volumes for a month is not torture. Slitting a man’s penis with a razor blade is not torture. Subjecting someone to the screams of a woman and children and telling him that it’s his wife and children who are being raped and tortured is not torture. But we all know it is. And all of these ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques have been practised on detainees, either by Americans or by proxy in other countries. Through the use of doublespeak, misinformation and transparent attempts to suggest some sort of legal basis for torture, the administration tried to normalise it and make it acceptable.

All of these practices seem to be so self-evidently inhumane, that after watching the film I found myself wondering how it is that so many ordinary, good people justify them. Many people do, both in Britain and the US. Statements such as ‘there’s no smoke without fire’, and ‘torture must be OK if it saves lives’, seem recurrent. The latter argument, promoted by TV shows such as ‘24’, is not supported either by common sense or by serious studies; because people under torture will tend to say anything to make the pain stop, the practice if anything tends to confuse and complicate intelligence. And there’s often smoke without fire; otherwise there’d be no need for courts to determine someone’s guilt or innocence, and there’d never be any miscarriages of justice. Miscarriages are all the more likely, of course, in an unfair system which operates outside the rule of law. Hence of the 700 or so people imprisoned at Guantanamo, over 500 have since been released, in an implied admission that there was virtually no evidence against them (many were not even charged with an offence) or that they are certainly, or very probably, innocent.

Misconceptions are encouraged by fearmongering and propaganda from politicians and the media. They include the assumption that terrorists are somehow different from other murderers, and therefore that suspected terrorists can be treated differently from all other suspected criminals. The fear of Muslims that arose after 9/11 makes them an easy target; perhaps, in a certain sense, Muslims are the new Jews. And I suspect, though I cannot prove, that this scapegoating may be a cover for an endemic racism which otherwise could not be expressed in mainstream society. But also crucially, I think it reflects an ignorance of international law. The UN Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions and other international laws and treaties all exist to protect all of us, without exception, from these kinds of abuses. The people who authorise or practise these abuses are themselves criminals, and could in theory be tried at the International Criminal Court. It’s this emphasis on the rule of law, and the Bush administration’s twisting of it, that Nash and Worthington’s film presents so well – an emphasis which is present even in the film’s title.

Seeing the extent to which the rule of law has been trashed, and the standard of ‘justice’ employed as a return to the 11th Century (pre-Magna Carta), is depressing and upsetting indeed. But the film also presents hope for humanity. Clive Stafford Smith speaks in the film of how the detainees, when he first met them, had lost their faith in humanity and it was important for him to build a sense of trust with them. Yet despite everything they have been through, Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes are both humorous and humane individuals who appear to hold no personal grudges against those who guarded them in Guantanamo and are passionate campaigners for justice. Omar, who I have met personally several times, is both passionately determined and at the same time one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known. It’s both sad and touching when, towards the end of the film, he speaks of his son Suleiman whom he hasn’t seen since he was a baby, and says that of all the things that were done to him in Guantanamo, the taking away of his opportunity to see the first years of his son’s life is the biggest loss of all. It’s a poignant and very human note to end the film on.

The War on Terror, and the struggle against its multitude of injustices, includes both the worst and the best of humanity. By showing us, above all, the humanity of these so-miscalled ‘worst of the worst’, ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo’ does an important service indeed.

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