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An Interview With Andy Worthington About Guantánamo, “Outside the Law” and New Media
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02/01/2010

 




Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo
Recently, Amelia King, an independent journalist and community activist based in Brighton, asked me for an interview by phone. Amelia recently created her own website and is beginning to publish online as a way of exploring her interest in human rights issues and sharing ideas through interviews and research, and the following interview was originally published there.


Amelia King: How did you become involved in making the documentary “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”?


Andy Worthington: After I wrote my book, The Guantánamo Files, it became apparent from conversations I had that the key themes in the book might translate well into film. I have a good friend Polly Nash, who is a filmmaker and who secured some funding from the London College of Communication, where she works. We then set about writing a structure for a film that would tell the story of the Bush administration’s flight from the law.


We focused on the human stories of those who got caught up in the cruel and incompetent system of rounding up people who had nothing to do with terrorism.  We approached a number of people who were well informed about these issues, including Tom Wilner and Clive Stafford Smith. Tom is an American lawyer who was very involved in the Guantánamo cases from the beginning and was deeply involved in the 2004 US Supreme Court case that secured habeas corpus rights for the prisoners. Clive is the director of Reprieve, here in the UK. It was also clearly important for us to speak to some of the former prisoners.


Amelia King: Which specific stories does the documentary tell?


Andy Worthington: We decided to tell the broad story but within that, we would focus on certain people’s stories. Their stories covered all the bases with what had happened in the War on Terror. We focused on Binyam Mohamed, who was subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, Omar Deghayes, another British man who was seized in Pakistan, and on Shaker Aamer, who is a British resident still held in Guantánamo. We also spoke to Moazzam Begg, who is a good friend of Shaker. Moazzam has generally been asked about his story so it seemed like a good opportunity to focus on the story of his friend — which is an extraordinary story. The US government has no evidence of wrongdoing against Shaker apart from the fact that he has advocated for the human rights of prisoners while in Guantánamo, and this has made them think he is some kind of al-Qaeda big shot.


Amelia King: Can you tell me a bit about what the film-making process involved?


Andy Worthington: We took over a year on and off to record the various interviews which form the basis of the film. A key component was an interview we did with Omar Deghayes after his release in December 2007. We interviewed him about a year after that and he spoke at length and very openly about his experiences. In many ways, I think that he provides the heart of the film. As well as the interviews, I play a part in providing a lot of the explanation of the background.


We did the film on a low budget and kept it quite simple. We hoped that we would tell the story most effectively by just having a handful of people, who are engaging and knowledgeable, to talk through the story. From the feedback we got from the launch night showing, I think we managed to achieve that.


Amelia King: How is the film going to be made available?


Andy Worthington: We are not quite sure at the moment because we are in discussion with various broadcasters and distributors to see whether any avenues might open up to an audience that way. Increasingly, there are different ways in which you can get films out to people. One important development is the growth of distribution networks for activists. We are in discussion with a few human rights groups on that basis.


We are planning a certain amount of screenings in the UK where a number of us featured in the film will take part, and in November I undertook a short tour of the film in America. I’m under no illusions that Guantánamo and the abuses of the “War on Terror” are things which are attention grabbers, and I’ve learnt that a lot of people don’t even want to go near these kinds of subjects, so we will see how it goes. It is a little bit early to say, but after the reception the film had at the launch and in the US, I would hope that if we can get showings at major towns and cities, we would be able to draw people in. The film is also available to buy on DVD through the website of the production company, Spectacle.


Amelia King: How has your work been received in the UK compared to America?


Andy Worthington: In the UK I have a fairly good following but it is much more of a peripheral issue.  In the early days of Guantánamo and the “War on Terror,” substantial support built up for the British men who were imprisoned without charge and trial. The Bush administration indulged in a set-up which meant legal ways of addressing issues became an incredibly long and drawn-out process, so the more immediate way of getting people released was through diplomatic pressure. I think the release of the British nationals in 2004 and 2005 was influenced by the media interest and pressure from human rights groups. For example, in Brighton, there was a big campaign to release Omar Deghayes, and I know Moazzam Begg’s dad was actively campaigning to get his son released too. The question of British involvement on an official level in securing prisoner releases stopped when the British nationals came back but of course that left a number of British residents still in Guantánamo.


Over in America, I have an audience that is more engaged in these issues because their government was the driver of it all. Now the new administration is attempting — sometimes with success and sometimes not, sometimes with great bravery and sometimes with cowardice — to address the problems that remain. It is in so many ways an American issue but over in the UK I think the question is really about British complicity in what the Bush administration got up to.


Amelia King: Can you tell me a bit more about the British residents?


Andy Worthington: The first British resident to be released was Bisher al-Rawi, who was originally from Iraq, but had lived in this country for a very long time. He did not have a British passport as his family wanted to leave some avenue open to Iraq as they had been forced to abandon their home through persecution by Saddam Hussein. It was only an imminent confrontation in court that finally provoked the Government to act on behalf of Bisher al-Rawi as a British resident.


In fact, the pattern of release of the British residents has always involved some potential showdown in court where the government feared what might be aired.  This is a big issue that is not covered enough; the complicity of the British intelligence services in the kidnapping and rendition of British men to Guantánamo, be they citizens or residents.


Amelia King: Binyam Mohamed has taken his case to the British courts. What is happening with his case?


Andy Worthington: Binyam Mohamed’s case has been going on for over a year and a half. A judicial review took place last summer after his lawyers had persuaded the High Court that they needed to review his case. He was facing a trial in Guantánamo, which potentially carried the death penalty. He alleged that he had been subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture by the Americans and to some extent the British had been complicit in this. His lawyers needed documents in the possession of the British government to be made available to help fight his court case.


This opened the most extraordinary can of worms about the Americans’ policies, their involvement in torture and about British complicity. Now there is a struggle between the judges trying to get this information out and the Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, trying to suppress it. He is doing this on the basis of national security and particularly threatening that it would cause damage to the intelligence-sharing relationship between the UK and the US. I think what we are actually talking about is that it would be embarrassing for this material to be released, but more than that is the fact that it involves complicity in war crimes and nobody wants to talk about that [also see here and here for the latest on a court case launched on behalf of Shaker Aamer].


Amelia King: What should there be more focus on in the UK?


Andy Worthington: I think we should focus more on what the British government is still doing by looking at the counter-terrorism policies that involve some kind of complicity in the torture of prisoners and reliance on intelligence that may have been contaminated by the use of torture, and as an extension of that, how people have been deprived of their liberty in the UK, with control orders and people facing deportation on the basis of secret evidence which all stems from this network of very dubious intelligence, some of which was extracted through torture or duress.


A very serious problem with contaminated evidence from torture is that Western countries are relying on it, sharing it amongst themselves and using it to assess the threat posed by those regarded as being terrorist suspects. The fundamental underlying problem is not only that torture is unreliable, which makes the intelligence unreliable, but that it is of course illegal.


Amelia King: Dealing with politically sensitive issues, have you come across barriers to your investigations?


Andy Worthington: No, I haven’t really. The whole way I’ve been able to do my work is because the American system has checks and balances. The American government was obliged to release hundreds of thousands of documents relating to what they actually got up to and so information was publicly available. In the UK, there is a certain amount of publicly available information but I don’t think we have such a transparent system.


The fundamental principles of free speech, which we have in both countries, are not to be underestimated. For anyone who is involved in questioning governments at the highest level about their potentially illegal activities, it’s clearly a minefield in some kind of way, but we genuinely do have the freedom to ask questions of our governments.


Amelia King: What has been the most memorable conversation you’ve had during your investigations?


Andy Worthington: I am constantly impressed by a lot of the lawyers I’ve met, not just civilian lawyers, but also the military lawyers as well. The Military Commissions was the system that was established to put the prisoners regarded as serious terrorist suspects on trial, a horribly flawed system designed to hide evidence of torture and secure convictions. Many military defense attorneys reacted by campaigning vigorously to end the use of the Commissions and risked their careers to do so, as did a number of prosecutors. There is something about these men and women in uniform, speaking out because of their allegiance to the Law and the Constitution and not to the whims of a President, which is particularly powerful. I have been genuinely impressed by these people whose strong conviction is that the Law is the foundation of the United States, and that it was wrecked deliberately and flagrantly by the Bush administration. This shocked them to the core of their being.


The lawyers — both civilian and military — have been to Guantánamo and met the prisoners and are the only outsiders, apart from the Red Cross representatives, who are not allowed to speak publicly, who have been able to establish relationships with some of these men. I’ve been very moved by these relationships that have built up, because they add that very human element to a system which is designed to dehumanize and “disappear” people. So they are in a particularly unique position of being the only mediators between the outside world and the men in the prison. They tell the world not only about the abuses that have been done to US and international law, but also about the abuses that have been done to these people, and reveal to the world that we are talking about human beings here.


Amelia King: Recently your blog was listed in the Technorati Top 100 World Politics Blogs. Why do you think that blog culture has become important?


Andy Worthington: I think blogs have become important because often the kind of detailed information that a certain number of people would like to see is simply not covered by the mainstream media. If a newspaper publishes a news story relating to Guantánamo, it will probably be about 1,000 words. It may well give you a good outline but if you want more detail they are not going to provide that to you. Generally, I would say that there is a shortage of investigative journalists and serious features, so bloggers have stepped in to fill these gaps to include more detailed coverage of what is in the news and stories that are just not being covered.


I think what I have been doing for the last two and half years of blogging is a combination of both. Some of it is addressing things which are just not raised at all, and some of it amplifies stories in the news to provide more detailed information to those who are looking for it.


Amelia King: And how have you established your blog?


Andy Worthington: The way the Internet works is that it rewards dedication, perseverance and specialization by picking up on consistent themes. So what happened with my writing, and how it got into the Technorati listing, is in part down to having a web presence that became well recognized by search engines.  I also use Twitter and Facebook. I prefer Facebook because it allows more conversational possibilities but as a writer online I think they are both useful tools for putting the word out. The other interesting part of this is that the Internet essentially rewards co-operation, so that if you share your work it all adds to your online presence.


Amelia King: Your work is available for free online. How do you finance yourself?


Andy Worthington: That’s a key point. We are somewhere between the old media and the new media and funding is a problem that everyone is looking at. I do a lot of writing for free, and I’ve chosen to do that because I have a lot to say, but also I think it is true that the more you do the more you get noticed through the Internet.  So in this way the new media encourages people to be busy.


I am still slightly shocked that entrepreneurs haven’t picked up on the possibilities provided by the new media, now that you can run a newspaper or magazine without premises or printing presses. The time is really ripe for some new online newspapers and magazines to tap into the independent writers that are already online.


Amelia King: How could the potential for independent writers to earn money online be realized?


Andy Worthington: Generally, the people I work for who pay do so by having subscribers or people who donate to them. People who enjoy what they read on the Internet will pay a certain amount of money, maybe on a regular basis or as a one-off donation, to help pay for the running costs. A lot of the US sites that have been going for a long time pay for their running costs this way. Some will hold a fundraiser every few months and raise, say, $70,000-$100,000, which pays for the maintenance of their network and a small staff of people. Unfortunately, it has not necessarily reached out far enough to pay the writers, but there are some sites that are beginning to make sure writers get paid and I think we are going to see more of that. The question is how the business model will change and whether donations will become more a part of things. Obviously it’s difficult, with the recession, to ask people to put their hands in their pockets and give money for something they are already getting for free.


Online publications can easily attract tens of thousands of readers. You can get the readership that a lot of the political magazines have very easily on the Internet without any of the associated costs. Securing advertising to fund that ought to be the way forward. I’m just waiting for people to figure that out.


Amelia King: What are your plans for upcoming projects?


Andy Worthington: I’m generally pretty happy acting as a commentator on political events in my particular field and I have support from a number of places that makes it viable for me to do that. I do really hope to get this film out and that it might provide possibilities to do more TV or film work. I would love to write another book but they are the most difficult things to sustain financially. You really need to be subsidized while writing a book. Like most writers, I am not getting a big fat check up front and so sometimes it involves trying something different, such as obtaining funding from foundations.


I’ll keep plugging away at all these different fronts, really. I think they are all exciting media and whichever one you choose, as a creator, you now have many more opportunities to get your work out there than in the pre-Internet age.  Clearly, it is an extremely competitive world, but the possibilities for being motivated as a creator and getting the word out have never been greater.