By Andy Worthington / AndyWorthington.Co.Uk
Thanks to the many campaigners who turned up on Wednesday (March 8) in London, Washington, D.C., New York and Mexico City for four coordinated global vigils calling for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.
It was a day of extremes. Those in London for the UK Guantánamo Network’s vigil had to endure an extraordinarily cold, wet day, while in Washington, D.C. it was warm, and in Mexico City, apparently, it was almost unbearably hot.
Monthly vigils — or even weekly vigils — for the closure of Guantánamo were a noticeable feature of the London protest scene for many years, while British prisoners were still held there, although, with the release of Shaker Aamer, the prison’s last British resident, in October 2015, it became impossible to sustain the impetus, and the Trump years, of course, were bleak for protestors, because Trump had tweeted, even before he took office, that “there must be no more releases from Gitmo,” and he was largely true to his word, releasing only one man in his nearly 1,500 days in office.
Last September, however, the UK Guantánamo Network, which came together in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo (in January 2022), and which includes members of various Amnesty International groups, Close Guantánamo, the Guantánamo Justice Campaign and the London Guantánamo Campaign, were persuaded to revive vigils outside Parliament through the enthusiasm of their convenor, Sara Birch, who, when chair of the Lewes Amnesty group, had previously shown a talent for mobilising people in significant numbers for Guantánamo events.
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Last month, after global rallies to mark the 21st anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, I thought it would make sense to keep highlighting the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo — particularly in relation to the men still held who have been approved for release — by asking other campaigners around the world to hold coordinated monthly vigils on the same days as the London vigils. Last month we were joined by Witness Against Torture campaigners in Washington, D.C., and with New York and Mexico City on board this month, it seems reasonable to assume that campaigners in other locations will join us next month.
A particular focus of the London vigils are laminated posters showing all the men still held, and for the 21st anniversary of Guantánamo’s opening I added a new angle to the campaign materials — a poster showing the 20 men (at the time) who were approved for release but were still held, and, more recently, an infographic showing how long they have been held since they were told the US no longer wanted to hold them (as of today, shamefully, between 168 days and 4,795 days). Both have been very popular on Twitter, with the original poster having had over 21,000 views, and latest version of the infographic having had over 74,000 views.
Since the anniversary, three of these 20 men have, thankfully, been freed, but I will soon be adjusting the poster and infographic to reflect these changes, as I believe it remains hugely important to keep exerting pressure on the Biden administration to act with some decency and a sense of urgency when it comes to finally freeing these men.
For Wednesday’s vigils, because it was International Women’s Day, the UK Guantánamo Network invited two authors and journalists — Victoria Brittain and Yvonne Ridley — as well as Kate Hudson of CND to speak about the impact of indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial on the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of the men held at Guantánamo. Victoria co-wrote Moazzam Begg’s 2006 memoir ‘Enemy Combatant’, and, of particular relevance on Wednesday, 2013’s ‘Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror’, and after we had huddled round in the cold and the rain to hear her recollections about the female relatives of prisoners, I asked her if I could post her speech below, and was delighted when she said yes, and forwarded it to me. I hope you have time to read it, and that you’ll find it as touching as we did.
The coordinated global vigils, meanwhile, are taking place on the first Wednesday of every month from now on; in other words, Wednesday April 5, Wednesday May 3 and Wednesday June 7, and so on. Do feel free to join us, or to set up your own vigil anywhere around the world, and feel free to get in touch for advice, or to let me know what you’re doing.
Below is Victoria Brittain’s speech:
By Victoria Brittain
Good afternoon and thank you all very much for coming. Thanks in particular to Sara [Birch] and Ray [Silk, of the Guantánamo Justice Campaign] for organising and for keeping the pressure up for all these years of successive governments’ indifference to the UK’s part in the illegal and inhuman saga of Guantánamo prison.
Guantánamo has ruined countless lives and continues to do so. It can never be forgotten as a symbol of the horrifying illegal activities — kidnapping, torture, war, which America’s powerful embraced. The UK was complicit. A young generation who did not live the hysterical days of the war on terror 20 years ago, must know everything about Guantánamo.
Today, International Women’s Day, I want to celebrate some of the most extraordinary women who it has been my privilege to know here in Britain. I met them because they are the wives, mothers and daughters of men who disappeared into Guantánamo from January 2002. I started visiting some of their homes, mostly Arab, in the UK in 2004. I wrote a book about some of them in 2013, only because they asked me to, saying, “why do you only write about our husbands?”
I found first frightening levels of grief, terror, incomprehension that their men could have been seized by Americans from places as different as Gambia, Bosnia, Pakistan, and there was absolutely no information about why and no recourse. A void. Helplessness. An ordeal no one could have prepared for. And a loneliness when friends stayed away, frightened of the taint of terrorism.
But from the start, as one woman led me to another, I also found in these welcoming households great dignity, strength, generosity, hope, family unity, joy, perseverance, and above all deep religious faith.
These women learned to negotiate the hurdles of British bureaucracy — the local Council, the DWP, schools, hospitals, despite in some cases poor English and in all a previous life when their husbands dealt with that outside world. They also had to bring up children, with the complexities of negotiating an alien culture outside the house, worsened with school bullying when their fathers’ names came out in a uniformly hostile media which branded them “terrorists.”
Later they would have husbands who came back from Guantánamo and were not the men they had known, and the women were the key for a family which had to find their way with new relationships.
In these homes every aspect of their own culture was nourished despite the endless underlying difficulties and separation from families far away: spotless kitchens, all home cooked food, homework done, ribbons in carefully brushed hair, in the Eid holidays little boys in white clothes and caps, sitting in a row on the sofa with fingers tracing verses of the Koran as they read aloud — a photograph taken to send to Dad (even if he may never see it).
My very dearest friend, who always smiled, told me about her dreams of a husband who did not smile any more, and of nights when she would step outside the small house as the children slept, so that she could cry.
Today she is a woman who went to college, as did her daughters, and whose children are now parents. Still smiling.
I want to celebrate also another Guantánamo heroine, the lawyer for most of the men from the UK, Gareth Peirce. She and her formidable team fought the authorities day, night, weekends, for years, initially for information about her clients, then in both the American courts and the British courts for their release. It was a very tough marathon, in which she was always the face of hope for the families.
One more great woman to mention today in this connection is the actor Vanessa Redgrave. She supported every campaign against Guantánamo from the start.
The most important legacy of Guantánamo and its lawlessness is that there has been no accountability for the inhumanity of the regimes devised. Presidents, the military, the Congress are all guilty of their part, and always will be. The lawyers who twisted the law to make torture allowed, the psychologists who devised the torture programmes are known and have been named in endless books and reports. But not shamed and punished, as they deserve.
Particular Guantánamo horrors remain hidden. For instance, the grim obfuscated circumstances in which the young Saudi, Yasser al Zahrani and two others were officially described as suicides “conducting assymetrical warfare” actually died. I want to express solidarity with his mother today, and the mothers and wives of the other two. Law has failed them, we will not forget them.
Let me end with another failure of law, and a word of solidarity for International Women’s Day. Shamima Begum was a British child, trafficked to ISIS in Syria, probably with the aid of a Canadian Intelligence operative. A big mistake of a London teenager has left her stateless as the Home Secretary invoked national security in the court in which her lawyer, Gareth Peirce, challenged the revocation of her passport. This is an absurd misuse of serious words.
Shamima has suffered the trauma of war and starvation under ISIS and the unimaginable pain of losing three children in rapid succession. She is living in limbo in a violent camp in Syria. This is inhuman and shames us if we do not speak out.
Please keep speaking up for the closure of Guantánamo. This is a political and moral demand. We cannot rely on the US law which has tied itself in knots for 20 years, spending millions of dollars in a devised court inside a US prison camp planted on another country’s land.