To the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on the first balmy evening of 2013 for an event laid on by the actor David Morrissey (who I can’t pretend I haven’t recently befriended) and his wife, the writer Esther Freud, to promote the good works of the charity Reprieve.
I’m not really used to these things, but the idea is to assemble a roomful of media and arts folk who find “a social” hard to resist and shamelessly talk up a charity with a view to either financial assistance, or some other payment in kind. I consider myself neither a mover nor a shaker, but the guest list turned out to include one or two affable giants of comedy whom I have the pleasure to know – Al Murray, Sean Hughes – as well as other familiar faces like Simon Mayo, Tracey MacLeod, Dan Maier and James Brown, so the terror of walking into a room on my own was quickly salved.
Also present: Olivia Colman, Polly Harvey, Peter Capaldi, Sam West, Tom Goodman-Hill, Sinead Cusack, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hollander, Mariella Frostrup, Alain de Botton … here are some pics.
Reprieve’s aim is simple enough: to deliver justice and save lives. You shouldn’t really need a charity to cover those two things. But then, neither should you need a charity to prevent cruelty to animals or save the children, but that is the world we live in. Reprieve, founded by unstoppably energetic and courageous human-rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, describes itself as “a vibrant legal action charity … that punches well above its weight.” It only has 28 full-time staff, and yet its lawyers were among the first into Guantánamo Bay, a cause that has come to define the charity. They have acted for 83 prisoners there in total, 66 of whom have now been freed and 21 of whom are being assisted by Reprieve’s Life After Guantánamo (LAG) team.
Reprieve hates the death penalty. It hates drones. It does not believe in killing people, full stop. It also hates secret prisons and rendition, whether ordinary or extraordinary. (You’re getting the feeling that Reprieve has its work cut out in a post 9/11 world, and you’re right to.) The charity’s death penalty team have assisted hundreds of prisoners sentenced to death around the world and it knows how to use the media to the advantage of its various causes.
Let’s not be coy, it attracts a lot of celeb supporters, including the aforementioned, and David and Esther – who hosted the evening from behind the lectern and gave impassioned speeches; they also corralled actor chums to read out shocking statistics – and a number of big-name patrons including Vivienne Westwood, Alan Bennett and Jon Snow – and none of this glad-handing hurts.
It’s a serious business, of course. Clive Stafford Smith’s self-effacing but involving presentation was simply to describe his “average day”, which starts early and ends late, and often criss-crosses continents. Most of the trouble Reprieve seeks out is abroad, for self-evident reasons. We may live in a country whose compassion has been trampled underfoot by market-led politicians, but at least we don’t put prisoners to death. Our American cousins do. Although I learned last night that Pakistan has the most prisoners awaiting death in the world.
You can read more about Reprieve’s work here. It’s ongoing, it’s endless, and their to-do list isn’t going to get shorter any time soon. When the HOPE-defined President Obama reneges on his promise to close Guantánamo Bay, what HOPE is there? Well, it resides with Clive and his team.
Only this week I have been reading about waterboarding in two separate places: in the New Yorker, and a long article (“The Spy Who Said Too Much”) about John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who spoke to the press about the torture used, specifically, on “high-value detainee” at Guantánamo Abu Zubaydah, a suspected Al-Qaeda lieutenant who was waterboarded 83 times, among other nasty “interrogation” techniques, and has never been charged with anything; and in Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars, which I’m still ploughing through and which has reached “the Surge” in 2007, by which time George W Bush was in the process of handing over power to his successor, who, to his credit, banned waterboarding. (If only that was the whole picture.)
I spend my days trying to write funny scripts. It’s what I was doing yesterday, and it’s what I’ll be doing today. But I think very seriously about serious matters, and I’m constantly haunted by the wickedness that men do, whether it’s leaving a nail bomb in a bin in Boston, setting fire to a house your own children are asleep in, or signing off on the torture of individuals from behind a desk. Obama is no angel. Blair was a warmonger. If leaders on the left can’t deliver us from evil, where do we turn?
Well, we turn to people like Clive Stafford Smith, whose selfless campaigning and tireless publicising are as much weapons in his peaceful armoury as his legal fleet-footedness. If I can pass on some of his sentiments, then I won’t have wasted another day on writing jokes.
Have a look at this: