Racism in the Big Brother house is of course important. It is admirable that 20,000 people have complained about the alleged bullying, that the Indian Government has expressed concern, and that Labour MP Keith Vaz has raised the issue in the House of Commons. We can only hope that the £300,000 appearance fee Shilpa Shetty has received goes some way to cushioning the hard times she has endured.
Big Brother is an illusion. The contestants could click their fingers, and the nightmare will end. This is not so for the housemates at Guantànamo Bay, who wake each morning to a genuine Orwellian nightmare. They have no plush chairs in the diary room in which to relax. Their only solace is the blissful ignorance of sleep, or a final release through suicide.
“It is not ‘suicide’ anymore,” says Clive Stafford-Smith. “It is called ‘manipulative injurious behaviour’ now. That way, the politicians and military men can claim that there are no suicide attempts at Guantanamo.”
Stafford-Smith is speaking at the offices of Clifford Chance at Canary Wharf, on behalf of the Mary Ward Legal Centre. The title of his talk is Secret Prisons and Ghost Prisoners, about the 14,000 people detained without lawyers or a trial in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. There is apparently a certain chauvinism in the military, and it is assumed that women are not militant. Stafford-Smith only knows of three female detainees, but there may be more. Most of those imprisoned remain unidentified, beyond the reach of the media, legal aid, and the rule of law. Guantànamo is the tip of a sinister iceberg.
Clive Stafford-Smith is an irreverent, genial sort of chap. Dressed in a slack grey sweat-shirt amid a bunch of jacketed lawyers, he saunters up to the lectern to give his speech, and begins making jokes at everyone’s expense. “We are all enemy combatants,” he says, and we laugh, until he explains that the United States definition of the term ‘enemy combatant’ can and does include failure to report to the CIA criticism of US policy. But the sense of humour must remain, he says, in part because both the moral reasoning, and the legal language behind the detentions are so absurd. Yet the irony of the situation at Guantànamo Bay seems lost on those who work there. Apparently there is a sign at the entrance to the centre, which reads ‘Honour Bound to Defend Freedom’. The guards repeat it to each other earnestly as they pass by.
The actual statistics tell a shocking story. Not one of the 773 people who have spent time there has ever received a formal trial. Not one. Of the 390 men who have since been released, not one was freed as the result of a court ruling. Instead they have been released due to the political pressure generated by human rights campaigners, citing the lack of evidence against the prisoners. Of the 383 prisoners who remain caged, only half have had access to a lawyer.
Military Tribunals – “Kangaroo Courts” Stafford-Smith calls them – have been set up by the US Government, but they operate by their own rules and have no oversight, no precedent to consider, and no rules about what evidence is admissible. Indeed, three military lawyers assigned to prosecute in these tribunals have refused to do so, stating in writing that they had been told the judgements were already decided in their favour.
Clive Stafford-Smith has visited the ‘facility’ at Guantànamo Bay sixteen times. He likens the prison to Colditz Castle, the wartime prison camp. His message is simple and disturbing: The very methods employed by the US Government there positively encourage miscarriages of justice and wrongful detention. It is little known than most of the inmates were not caught directly by US forces, but by local Afghanis and Iraqis attracted by the US$5000 reward for captured terrorists. This money would affect a change in lifestyle equivalent to a windfall of £220,000 in the UK. Nevertheless, the word of these bounty hunters is treated as gospel, and the prisoners are detained without charge until evidence against them can be found. Detainees are interrogated and even tortured until they corroborate the story of those who turned them in. In one case, a 14-year-old boy named Mohammed Gharani was incorrectly assumed to be an Al Qaeda financier because the word for ‘salad’ in his Saudi Arabic dialect was similar to the word for ‘money’ in the Yemeni dialect. Those who held him had over-estimated his age by more than ten years.
And yet releasing him still proved a difficult task for the authorities. How are so many soldiers and government officials complicit in a system that undoubtedly fuels hatred of the American government? Stafford-Smith’s theory is that the abuses flourish due to a culture of paranoia that persists throughout the administration. The soldiers and civil-servants see themselves as modern “James Bond” characters, who serve their country without question, assuming that someone higher up has their eye on the bigger picture. A few human rights abuses here, a few corners cut there, might be necessary if ‘freedom’ and the American Way is to prevail.
In a way, we expect this of any prison system. A few ‘false-positives’, where an innocent man is imprisoned, is considered par for the course. Collateral damage, perhaps. For many people in the USA and the UK, this is how the camp at Guantànamo Bay is viewed. Yes, there may be some human rights violations, and yes, a few innocent men have been locked up. But ultimately, it is assumed that the vast majority of inmates are guilty of something, and we should not weep for their right to due process. When the US declares that the denizens of Guantànamo Bay are terrorists, it is usually given the benefit of the doubt. Even hardened anti-war protesters rarely question this truism.
Only, it is no longer a few cut corners, or a few minor ruffling of one or two humans’ rights. The precise fact that the detentions are unscrutinised has meant that locking up the innocent has become the norm, rather than the exception. Indeed, says Clive Stafford-Smith, the fact that so few inmates have come to trial. During the Q&A session, I ask him if he thinks there are any genuine terrorists at the camp. He says there were probably about two or three to begin with. Now there are probably about fourteen, he thinks. The rest have very tenuous evidence against them. Even if some had fought for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in 2001/02, that does not mean they were Al Qaeda operatives, or that they were a genuine threat to western interests. At least, says Clive, they weren’t a threat then. After five years rotting at Guantànamo Bay, they may have an altogether more hostile view of the United States than they did when they were first detained!
The detention, the hypocrisy, the torture, the occasional extraordinary rendition, the lies and the deceit. All these things have conspired to turn these men and their families, into threats. It is a whale of an irony, one that might have been dreamed up by Joseph Heller.
Only, Heller did not dream it up at all. Instead, it was conceived and implemented by the 43rd President of the United States, George W Bush, aided and abetted by Prime Minister Tony Blair. Whatever the overall aims of these two men, their authorship of the situation in Guantànamo Bay is not in question. We can only hope that the relentless campaigns against the situation will score more successes. We hope that by constantly scrutinising all administrations complicit in the detention of over 14,000 people, we might be able to win some justice for those detained in camps from Guantànamo Bay to Diego Garcia. Without this justice, humanity cannot win a thing.