It has taken nearly four decades but the relatives of the 'Bloody Sunday' victims finally received an apology from British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Shortly after this, Cameron announced the launch of an inquiry into Britain's role in the torture and rendition of terrorism suspects – us. But will the government really admit culpability?
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of addressing an audience of several hundred people alongside the most well-known of the 'Guildford Four', Gerry Conlon. Having been born and brought up in Birmingham I was well acquainted with the case of the Birmingham Six and had known something about Gerry’s case before I was imprisoned in Guantanamo mainly through the powerful portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry in ‘In the Name of the Father’.
Shortly after my return from Guantanamo I read Gerry's autobiographical account, ‘Proved Innocent’, which detailed his imprisonment and abuse at the hands of authorities from an even more personal perspective than the film.
Joining us on stage was the person who had in a sense brought Gerry and me together. I had met Gareth Pierce for the first time in 1998 when I sought legal advice from her on behalf of a man who was to suffer over a decade of torture, abuse and arbitrary detention in the prisons of the Gulf, North Africa, the UK and Spain – all without charge and several years before the launch of the 'war on terror'.
Gareth had explained to me back then that it was going to get worse with an ominous foretelling of things to come: "It was the Irish first Moazzam but it’s the Muslims next, you can be sure of that."
I had begun to understand the undeniable parallels between the experiences of the Irish and Muslim communities from then on but I don't think anyone was prepared for the speed or level at which Muslims would become the new 'suspect community'.
Bloody Sunday happened when I was just four years old. I had grown up hearing about it like most children my age, knowing it was something bad but oblivious of the intricate details. I was to learn those many decades later, partly due to the unforgettably graphic portrayals of that day’s events through films like ‘Sunday’ but, more so after meeting relatives of the dead and survivors of the massacre.
I first came to Derry in January 2007 on the invitation of members of the Bloody Sunday Trust. I was to be honoured by the people of Derry in a way, which I still find hard to express. I was to open the Museum of Free Derry, which was built in the very location where a number of deaths and injuries had occurred that day due to gunfire by British soldiers. I delivered a speech that evening in front of people I only knew of from the television screen: Bernadette McAliskey, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Eamonn McCann, relatives of the victims (including Mr McElhinney, the oldest surviving parent who lost his son on Bloody Sunday), former Republican prisoners and members of the public. Although Gareth, my lawyer, was present too I was terrified. What could I tell these people who had seen it all? State sanctioned murder, collective punishment, detention without trial, kangaroo courts, torture, physical and psychological abuse, discrimination, media vilification and more – my own experience was relatively tame.
All I could say was that I felt a sense of solidarity with the people here through commonality of experience of a kind which filled me with a sense of respect and foreboding simultaneously: respect for a community and people who struggled so bravely to get justice against all odds, and foreboding of the fear that my own community may not live up to similar challenges we face. Detaining people without trial ultimately, in my view, contributed heavily to the Bloody Sunday massacre. That fateful Sunday over 25,000 people were marching, as part of the civil rights movement, against internment – a measure, albeit in a different setting, many Muslims have come to know only too well.
Since the advent of the ‘war on terror’ we have seen the ‘unconstitutional’ internment of Muslim men, increased pre-trial detention, control orders (amounting to a state of house arrest), new extradition and deportation agreements with countries known to practice torture or where fair trials are unlikely to be received, new legislation that has seen young girls convicted for writing poetry and the prosecution of publishers under the ‘Glorification of Terrorism Act’ for books written eight centuries ago. It’s as if the world has gone mad.
On a daily basis we see vilification of all things Muslim, from mosque minarets to the dress code of women. We have seen the far-right change its declared mantra from being an openly racist one to an openly anti-Islamic one. We have seen British prisons fill up with Muslim men – and women – convicted of terrorism which since the 2000 Terrorism Act includes supporting resistance against foreign occupation.
I have made numerous trips to Belfast to meet with various members of the community, particularly former prisoners, in order to search for a way forward. When I meet some of the Muslim men detained in the high-security units in British prisons, once used to incarcerate Irish Republican prisoners or indeed, people like Gerry Conlon, I offer some kind of hope to these men, based on what I’ve learned, from my discussions in Belfast and Derry. But even in prison they are not left alone: they are accused of ‘radicalising’ other prisoners by calling on them to adapt Islamic principles and clean living. Something I read in Gerry’s book really stuck out in that regard. You could easily take the word ‘Irish’ from the extract below and replace it with the word ‘Muslim’ for an accurate view of how things are today:
“… I was not IRA and never became IRA, [but] I want to explain why these men had such a strong and lasting effect on me.
… The first is that the Irish were constantly singled out by the screws, and by the whole prison system, as a special group deserving special treatment
The Irish were subjected to very particular forms of discrimination, especially in relation to visits. The Irish were constantly hassled and harassed and confronted and challenged to assert their identity as Irish. It was paradoxical, because one of the reasons the screws did it was through fear of terrorist-type offenders, fear that they would mix with other prisoners and infect them in some way. Until now there hadn't been significant numbers of republican Irish in English gaols. In Wakefield I began to see how scared the system was of them and how it tried to contain them by isolating them from other inmates. The more important result was that their solidarity with each other was increased.
The situation would have forced solidarity on any group, even if it hadn't already existed naturally and, in fact, there were quite a few Category A Irish who were not convicted of IRA offenses… but who became, like me, part of the Irish group in prison.
The last reason is most difficult to explain, especially if you are talking to people whose ideas about the IRA come from the English tabloids. Republican prisoners are different from other prisoners, because they are not there for personal gain and they are not freaks. That sets them apart from everyone else. They are generally very disciplined. They don't involve themselves in the pettiness of much of prison life, such as setting up complicated attacks on the nonces, and grudge attacks on screws or other prisoners. They also look after their own. If, for some reason, somebody gets in a sum of money, the first thing he does is buy food for the Irish table. If anyone begins to become depressed – as I did very often – they would try to help you, talk you through it, coax you out of it.
… So the attitude of the Irish – sticking together at all costs, taking no shit from anybody but not looking for trouble either – meant that they were a strong influence for good over me, offering the protection and the sense of belonging which I so badly needed. They were like an extended family. That will sound strange only to those who have the 'IRA monsters' stereotype in their heads.”
In June this year, David Cameron issued a formal, state apology for the “unjustified and unjustifiable” killing of the 14 people killed on Bloody Sunday. This was after the findings of the Saville Inquiry which took 12 years to compile at a cost of almost £191m. The relatives had waited for almost 40 years. Has justice been done? It’s hard to justify such an expense if the only outcome is going to be ‘sorry’. They could have apologised a long time ago and compensated the families with all the money spent instead. Yet it was a momentous day for the families, who had struggled through decades of uncertainty trying to uncover the truth. The government of the day, however, escaped culpability.
Several weeks later, Cameron spoke of another inquiry. This time it was an investigation into the activities of the British intelligence services who the former Guantanamo prisoners, including me, accuse of complicity in our rendition, false imprisonment and torture. There is talk that lessons have been learned about time and expense from the Saville Inquiry and that those mistakes will not be repeated. The Baha Musa inquiry shows how investigations into one man's death can open the doors to numerous other, and equally brutal, cases. And, the case of Rangzieb Ahmed clearly demonstrates how the British government has been prepared to overlook allegations into torture – even when a person's fingernails have been pulled out – to help secure a conviction.
If inquiries are going to have any real impact surely it’s when people who have murdered, ordered murder and tortured, or ordered it done, tacitly approved it or actively benefited from seeing it done – and then lied to the world about their actions – are held to account. Only then can there be a real sense of justice.
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