Women on the Front Line: Keeping Torture at Bay

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Victoria Brittain speaks to Matt Foot about the issues behind her new play Guantanamo.

What made you want to write a play about Guantanamo Bay and what does the title, Guantanamo: 'Honour Bound to Defend Freedom', mean?

I simply wanted to do it as soon as the director, Nick Kent, offered it to me. It is such an outrageous situation just in terms of the obvious illegality of the whole thing. Anything that could draw attention to what was happening, I thought, would be a contribution.It's the title that they had written up outside Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo. You know, like in Auschwitz they had 'Work makes men free'.

After two years a number of people have now been released to different countries. Why do you think that has happened now?

The legal opinion of Clive Stafford Smith and Gareth Peirce would say that it is largely linked to legal processes. The legality of the Guantanamo prisoners' detention is now being questioned by the US Supreme Court, and the ones who have got joined to this, or have been threatened to be joined to this case, have been released. Also the campaign for their release has been absolutely essential to showing both the Americans and the British that they can't get away with this.

In writing the play, was it difficult bearing in mind that new information was coming out all the time, and people were being released? Did this affect what you have already written in terms of the torture and about what goes on in Guantanamo?

Actually it confirmed some of the things that Jamal, one of the prisoners, told us. The one thing that did alter the picture, however, was that we were commissioned to do the play before anybody was released. So when the five British Guantanamo prisoners were released we suddenly thought, have we still got a play, or will they have said so much that everybody will know everything? In fact this didn't turn out to be the case at all.

One of the important things for the families and the detainees is that they have been misrepresented in the press, in particular the hatred of the Sun and some of the other tabloids. This has had a terrible effect on the boys' futures and their families. They have also suffered an increase in racism and anti-Muslim xenophobia.

What do you think about the similarities between the stories of torture coming from Iraq and those from Guantanamo?

The main thing is that the Americans are obsessed with getting information. This means they use sophisticated torture methods normally associated with Latin American dictatorships or apartheid South Africa. Here they knew the only good information or correct information was what you got in the first couple of days of detaining someone. So to keep people for two years, and to keep interrogating and re-interrogating them, is just a complete mockery of the system.

What do you think of the role of the British government?

The British government was much more involved than they want to own up to. Jamal's case is a very good example. He was detained by the Taliban. When the Taliban fell, the Red Cross came into the prison and said everyone can go home.

However, Jamal decided to go to Kabul. He spoke to the British embassy for months and they promised they would get him to Kandahar and then repatriate him. Yet the Americans then took him and started interrogating him in their base. Also there were MI5 people in that base interrogating other people, yet they didn't come and talk to Jamal. So, as this case illustrates, we know that the British government knew what was happening to him.

They asked him about where he worshipped and what prominent Muslims did he know in Britain. They were trying to get names of Muslims, it was completely random, and they were prepared to keep the boy for two years knowing there was nothing to know.

Some of the five released back to Britain spent time at Paddington Green police station - why was that?

The two solicitors, Gareth Peirce and Greg Powell, both said there was no attempt to ask them anything. Just to let them go would have been the same as admitting that they had been held for two years for no reason. This just embittered them more, because it made them feel the authorities were trying to show them as dangerous.

The plight of those at Guantanamo has been compared with those detained here at Belmarsh under the terrorism legislation. What do you think of the comparison?

It's the same business of using dodgy information against people who have no way of refuting it. It's extraordinary that the authorities think they can get away with it and that we won't protest. The sad thing is that there haven't been more protests about Belmarsh. In a way I am more pessimistic about Belmarsh than about Guantanamo because I think the international row about Guantanamo means these people are going to be released.

What do you think will happen to the people who are left in Guantanamo Bay now?

I think the pressure on the Americans not to go ahead with these military commissions is very strong, and let's see what this Supreme Court ruling comes up with. I think it is going to be a long haul to get them out but, on the other hand, they haven't got away with it as they calculated they would.

There is no doubt that the British government could get the British people out immediately if they wanted to. If you remember when Bush came last year, we all thought that the one thing that could have defused the anger against him would be to let those nine British people go. Yet this didn't happen. It just shows how this government doesn't care about individuals and doesn't care about justice.


Guantanamo: 'Honour Bound to Defend Freedom' by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo is at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, from 20 May to 12 June.
Victoria Brittain is standing for Respect in the June election. She was interviewed by Matt Foot, a solicitor who has worked on one of the Guantanamo cases.