Orange is not the only suit

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Guantánamo Bay is a prison. They might call it a “detention camp”, or a “facility”, but it’s a prison, in Cuba, where people are held, and have been held since January 2002, during the panic after 9/11. It exists outside of US legal jurisdiction. The plan, under “war president” George W. Bush, was for it to operate outside of the tiresome Geneva Conventions, which held until 2006, when the Supreme Court ruined everything by conceding rights to certain protections under Article 3 (which offers “persons not taking active part in hostilities” immunity from various “outrages upon personal dignity” and “judicial guarantees … recognized as indispensable by civilised peoples”).

Amnesty International named Guantánamo a “gulag.” In January 2009, President Barack Obama promised to shut the ghoulish, lawless place down “within the year.” Historians will note that this promise was not fulfilled. Admittedly, this is mainly because a Republican congress blocked it, as it has successfully blocked anything approaching a commonsense debate or ruling since Obama was sworn in.

At a press conference in Washington this week, surely politically engorged by now in his second term, Obama said it was “not sustainable” to keep Guantánamo open. Never mind that it’s an international embarrassment, an insult to all of our freedoms, and a permanent stain on the United States’ standing in the world, that’s not enough of a sell. He had to resort to scare tactics (which is ironic, considering how much fear of fear itself lies at the heart of Guantánamo’s “open for business” status), warning that the gulag’s continued existence was a “recruitment tool” for extremists. So its effect on extremists who are not in the prison is the best reason for releasing those largely unconvicted, uncharged prisoners who are in it.

There are around 160 detainees still inside, rocking the orange jumpsuit of 21st century iconography. Many are now on hunger strike and of those 100 or so, 21 are being force fed. The main effort there currently is to keep its inmates alive. After ten years of institutionalised, unpoliced torture and outrages upon human dignity, it seems like small beer that the prisoners’ protest began over allegations that guards mistreated Qur’ans, rather than human beings, although torture comes in many and various forms, including psychological, emotional, religious and material.

Never mind that the so-called “terror suspects”  have not been charged with anything, half of them have been cleared for release. (Only five – five – have gone to trial.) So why are they all still there? It is an outrage. Obama has once again promised to shut it down. Why should we believe him? (And I speak as a non-American who totally bought into the “HOPE” he peddled in 2008.) “I am going to get my team to review everything that is currently being done in Guantánamo,” he said in that press conference, which is a bit like someone you’ve complained to on the phone telling you they will “escalate the issue” and give you a “ticket number”. There’s not much he can promise, I guess, other than to act “administratively” (the government is an administration), but how about acting “physically”? Just going down there and opening the gates, with a few helicopters waiting?

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You may same I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. “I don’t want these individuals to die,” Obama said. Good. Guards are said to have attempted to “break the resolve” of the hunger strikers by moving them to single cells, for ease of monitoring. So they’re in solitary? That’s nice. Some of them have been there for the full 11 years, while the world turned without them, and their families started to forget what they looked like.

The Boston “terror attack” – a horrible tragedy whose attendant local and national panic led to some uneasy flag-waving triumphalism when one of the alleged perpetrators was dead, the other unable to speak in hospital – has put “terror suspects” back in the spotlight. But nobody’s rounding up Chechnyan immigrants and sending them in hoods to Cuba past the big sign reading, “You are now leaving US legal jurisdiction, have a nice stay!” So some progress has been made since the dark, dismal days of Bush.

But still Obama will need to win congressional support In order to close Guantánamo and release its inmates. He may not be able to pull it off, but if he doesn’t, it will be a stain on his presidency too. It’s easy for Americans, he said, to “demagogue the issue.” He’s an eloquent, persuasive president, liberal on the whole if not in totality, but if he can’t condemn this unsafe building, who the hell ever will?

According to the Guardian, which penned a stirring leader on the subject today (“An Indelible Stain”), the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “The president can order the secretary of defense to start certifying for transfer detainees who have been cleared, which is more than half the Guantánamo population.” The video of the press conference is here. I say: get to it.

Reprieve, the charity that makes this kind of thing its calling, provides an excellent Guantánamo timeline here.

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A few sentences

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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