By Aisha Maniar
Through its portrayal of the ordeal of former prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi, current Hollywood film The Mauritanian is a reminder that almost two decades on, the US-run Guantánamo Bay prison camp is still very much open for business. Forty prisoners remain today, one less than on the day Donald Trump became US president in 2017, from a peak of around 800 prisoners, including children.
More than half of the remaining prisoners have never been charged or tried. While torture evidence was rejected in Ould Slahi’s case, leading to its dismissal, it forms the basis of the evidence against the twelve prisoners who still have active cases in the military commission system.
The vast majority of prisoners have now been released, largely by George Bush Jr, yet freedom remains an elusive concept for many, as the US and domestic authorities continue to restrict freedom of movement, by preventing the issue of passports or imposing other restrictions. Others face discrimination, harassment by the authorities, poverty, lack of rehabilitation, separation from their families and isolation in countries where they do not speak the language and have no connections. Some have reported that life after Guantánamo has been worse than incarceration there.
While the “bad dudes” held at Guantánamo myth prevails, there has been less than a handful of (torture-based) convictions, and the overwhelming majority of prisoners (at least 86%) were sold to the US military in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a bounty and were not engaged in combat. On the other hand, not a single US official has been charged or tried for their involvement in the torture and abuse of the prisoners. Instead, the architects of the CIA’s torture programme gave evidence at the military tribunal against its victims.
Outside of the US, while Germany was applauded for taking action against Syrian state torture under the principle of universal jurisdiction earlier this year, the French Supreme Court denied this same principle to two French former Guantánamo prisoners, to take action against US military officials for acts of torture and degrading treatment.
Films like The Mauritanian and 2019’s The Report offer an important opportunity for discussion around issues like torture and legal and security responses around the globe in the post-9/11 environment. This is hindered by the lazy mainstream media falling back on narrow clichés in their reporting, such as the idea that Guantánamo is exclusively a US concern.
Currently, the UK authorities are subject to a legal claim by one current prisoner in relation to the extent of their knowledge of his torture by the US as well as a potential claim by a second prisoner initiated in March. The United Kingdom reached an out-of-court settlement with former UK prisoners, but has failed to investigate or adequately disclose the extent of its knowledge and involvement in Guantánamo.
Furthermore, claims that Guantánamo is an anomaly, as it was once called by Tony Blair, is a denial of the US’s neo-imperial ambitions under the so-called war on terror, the colonial history of practices such as torture and arbitrary detention and their integral contemporary role in the US’s prison industrial complex. Instead, the past two decades, with the rise of super prisons, falling standards of criminal evidence, and the growth of solitary confinement, a form of torture, worldwide, demonstrate that Guantánamo Bay is more than a place that needs to be closed down: the very system that underpins it needs to go.
Joe Biden has taken positive measures already with respect to Guantánamo, including a review into it and removing sanctions Trump placed on the International Criminal Court, but without public pressure, including on colluding states, there is no real incentive for the US to change policy. Public apathy and ignorance have kept Guantánamo running for the past two decades.
Activism against Guantánamo is not dependent on Hollywood’s support. At the London Guantánamo Campaign, we have held regular monthly demonstrations outside the US Embassy since 2007. These have been online since April 2020 and we hope to resume soon, in solidarity with the remaining prisoners. The Guantánamo Justice Campaign also, until lockdown in 2020, held regular protests near Parliament, urging action and an independent inquiry by the British government. Some local Amnesty groups, such as the Lewes group, are also active on the issue.
Guantánamo will not close as a result of Hollywood films but it will take your efforts to make a change. Closing Guantánamo is not simply a question of one detention facility but the values and principles that we claim guide us as an international community committed to the rule of law.
Aisha Maniar is a human rights activist who works with the London Guantánamo Campaign.
Image: Author: Val Brown, London Guantánamo Campaign
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