Victoria Brittain: 'Obama Lacks Political Will to Release Guantanamo Prisoners'

14 Feb 2014

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When U.S. President, Barack Obama was first inaugurated into office in 2009, he pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. It's 2014 and Guantanamo is still open. Many of its prisoners have been cleared for release by Obama's own intelligence agencies, yet they remain incarcerated. Obama repeatedly makes remarks about closing the prison to no avail. Meanwhile the American Congress is often cited as the obstacle to Obama's pledge on closing Guantanamo. But, British journalist and author, Victoria Brittain, who is in South Africa promoting her book, "Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror", says Obama has the power to release the men from Guantanamo and return them to their families. He simply lacks the will to do so.

Fazila Farouk of SACSIS talks to Brittain about Guantanamo, the apathy surrounding the question of its closure, as well as the impact all this is having on the families of the prisoners, especially, their wives and children -- written about in Brittain's book, "Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror".

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service. I'm Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

When U.S. president, Barack Obama first came into office, he pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay prison at the end of his first year in office. In fact the American president went as far as signing an executive order for the closure of Guantanamo on the 22nd of January 2009.

Well it's 2014, and Guantanamo Bay is still very much open. President Obama repeatedly makes remarks about closing the prison -- most recently in his 2014 State of the Union Address Obama again called for the American congress to close the prison. But despite the remarks of the American president, growing public pressure to close Guantanamo and notwithstanding the fact that the prisoners have been on hunger strikes, the prison remains open and the prisoners, many of them innocent men, remain incarcerated.

Meanwhile there's another story unfolding in the background. This is the story of the terrible cost of the 'War on Terror' on lives of ordinary people. This is the story of the lives of the wives, the children and the parents of the prisoners that are held in Guantanamo -- and we're going to hear a little bit more about them today.

Our guest today is Victoria Brittain.

Victoria Brittain has written a book about the wives of the men imprisoned at Guantanamo. The book is titled Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror. Victoria hails from the UK. She is a journalist and writer who has worked in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. She is a former associate editor of the Guardian newspaper. She was also a well-known activist in the British anti-apartheid movement. And she is here in South Africa to talk about her book.

Welcome to SACSIS Victoria.

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Thank you very much. Thank you.

FAZILA FAROUK:  Now Victoria, before I talk to you about your book specifically, President Obama is probably, the most powerful man on this planet, why is it that, you know, five years into his presidency, despite Guantanamo being a complete blight on the American justice system and despite the fact that keeping those men there, is a violation of their human rights, he has been unable to close the prison or to persuade his congress to do so. What are your views on why you think that is the case?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, I think that its try that Congress has been incredibly obstructive in this issue and they passed laws, which made it extremely complicated to get prisoners out, but the truth is, those laws can be got around and, in fact they've been slightly modified since early this year.

As you said, Obama is the most powerful man in the world. He know, as does everybody who is paying attention that of the 176 men who are in Guantanamo now, more than half of them have already been cleared by his own intelligence services.

And I wonder how he sleeps at night because there's absolutely no doubt that he could move those people. He would just have to have the will to do it, rather than just talking about it. And I think it’s partly to do with the Democrats wanting to advertise themselves as not at all soft on terror. And I think it’s partly to do with the intelligence services currently telling him that there could be terrible consequences, but they can't exactly say what those are.

So we can't accept that its Congress' fault. He could move many of those people now.

FAZILA FAROUK: So when you say, he could move many of those people now, what do you think he could be doing?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, in the last few weeks, half a dozen prisoners have been sent back to various places, including, let me say, places that they has specifically not wanted to go. Notably Algeria in the case of two because they would be tortured.

But just to take the two really easy cases: The case of the 77 Yemenis. Now those Yemenis were cleared long ago. Obama said that nobody could back to Yemen after the Christmas Day underpants bomber. Then during the hunger strike last year, he said of the Yemenis, well that wasn't any longer, a total consideration. So there is…Yemen is of course terribly unstable, but in a way, that's not the issue. The issue is they should be at home because they've been cleared. So all he would have to do is do what the British did for the British people who came back, which is, you send a plane and the men are put on the plane and that's the end of the story.

The second really easy one is the subject of chapter two in my book. A man called Shaker Aamer who is a Saudi, but who has been living in Britain for a long time and has a British wife and five children. The British government has actually asked for Shaker to be sent home and Obama has been personally approached by our prime minister. It hasn't happened.

How can it be that Shaker is one of those who have been cleared a long time ago, in fact twice by all these intelligence agencies and, Obama could simply say to David Cameron, "Okay, send a plane," and he could go back. But he refuses to do it.

And of course, you have to see the hand of the security services in there. There are people who, in the case of Shaker, in particular, are embarrassed by the terrible tortures that he suffered and which he's told his lawyers about and are in the public record.

And also the fact that during one of his torture sessions, when his head was being slammed against a wall, there was a British intelligence official in the room. Whether that is the reason that they don't want him to come back to Britain, I can't know. But I do know that Obama has the power to move these people and he's not using the political will to do it.

FAZILA FAROUK: Let's move on to your book though. I must say I read sections of it and I think it’s really beautifully written. You've managed to take the political and make it personal and I think, you know, you've done that very poignantly and in a very sensitive manner. And I think, you know, just focusing on a handful of women and their stories has been a very powerful way to write about this issue.

But I wanted to hear from you how you got involved with these women, you know, where did you meet them, how did you meet them, why these women in particular?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: All great questions - I became invoked with them after I was asked to some interviews on a play called, "Guantanamo, Honour Bound to Defend Freedom", which was very early on in the Guantanamo years, 2003.

Nobody really knew who these people were and a theatre director thought of doing a verbatim play, which would have the families of these people, all from Britain, talking about what had happened to their sons or what they knew. And the answer everything was, they didn't know anything at that point. But they were very poignant, the stories, and they showed me that the Donald Rumsfeld narrative of the worst of the worst and highly trained killers who could kill you with their bare hands was probably not quite right.

But one particular family whose lawyers put her name forward. She was a Palestinian woman with five kids and she was living in London not very far from where I live -- and they put her forward to be part of the play, but she declined.

So, by the time we finished the play, I had discovered a lot more about Guantanamo and how illegal it all was, and the really horrible collusion between the British and the Americans in taking these men from various places. And her husband had been taken from Gambia of all places where he'd gone from London to Gambia to set up a peanut oil factory with a group of other friends - all Arabs.

So anyway, I wrote her a letter and said you know I completely understand why she didn't want to talk, but the play was complete and I hoped it might open a few eyes and maybe help to release her husband -- and I apologised for what Britain had done to her family.

And the following day she phoned me with really terrible English at that time - her English is really good now - and asked me to come and see her. And because I've been to Palestine so much, I found her very easy and her home seemed very familiar. And I found an incredibly lonely person who was being really shunned, even by the Muslim community, because of the tag of terrorism around her husband and nobody knew anything about Jameel, is his name, at that time.

So we became good friends, but it was in a very domestic context and it was completely not as a journalist. I had no intention of doing anything like that. And I would go there and play with the kids and talk to her about some of her bureaucratic problems, you know, British schools or hospitals or whatever. And in the course of becoming friends with her, she introduced me to other women who either had husbands in Guantanamo or more often had husbands either under house arrest in Britain, which was something I had never hear of or held in prison without trial and suspected of having some link with Al Qaeda, but with no charges against them. And again, I didn't know we did that in Britain.

So I began to know these different women, but only in this very domestic setting and I never asked any questions. I just waited for people to tell me stories…and gradually some of them became really good friends.

And some of the men who were…one of the men who came back from Guantanamo to Britain is called Moazzam Begg and he wrote a memoir called Enemy Combatant, and he asked me to help him with the writing of it and we spent eight months together doing that - which I learnt a great deal about Guantanamo and the general completely outrageous behaviour in the War on Terror.

But because he had a lot of status in the Muslim community, a lot of the men who were either under partial house arrest or were in prison wanted to come and meet him, and because of the stupid rules around what they could do, they could never arrange to meet him. They weren't allowed to do that. But they could meet him by chance. So they started meeting him by chance at my house. And several of them said to me, I wish you'd visit my wife, she's so lonely. And so that was how I made a new group of women friends who were having a different experience, but one actually just as acute in terms of loneliness and uncertainty, and will it ever end…and you know, what's my husband going to be like after…you know, these kind of questions. So it was on that kind of family level that we became friends.

FAZILA FAROUK: You know what struck me in reading the book is that this is a story about love and loyalty for a lot of the women. Can you tell us a little bit of what its like to walk in their shoes on a day-to-day basis.

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: You're absolutely right, it is about love and loyalty and especially loyalty. From day to day, well I'll talk a little bit about Sabah, my Palestinian friend.

She runs an absolutely typical Palestinian immaculate home. Kids homework always on time. Kids incredibly neat. And during Eid, she would have all the children dressed in new Eid clothes and reading the Koran and would take photographs of them to send to her husband, despite the fact that she'd never had a letter from him and she had no idea whether any of these letters would ever arrive there. But at the back of her mind, the whole time was total preoccupation about how she could support her husband through the trial and her imagination of knowing what kind of trials he was going through in Guantanamo was like torture to her.

And sometimes she told me that she would go to the park with the children and put them in the playground and then she would sit on a bench and cry where they couldn't see her and at night…

One time I remember she phoned me and I went around and she made us stand outside because she wanted to cry and she was afraid that they would hear that they would hear her and come down. So, as well as the love and the loyalty, there's this amazing stoicism. She never even told her mother what she was going through and I would hear her on the phone to her mother saying, "Oh I’m sure it won't be long and I'm sure his conditions are fine…No it's nothing like Abu Ghraib."

When the Abu Ghraib pictures came through, you can imagine what these women felt like and asked me, "Is it like that for them?"

And of course I would always say, "No, it can't possibly be."

And I didn't know, but I had suspicions that there was some of this kind of thing.

So, her day-to-day life, at one level was incredibly normal, you know - all the school routine and everything, cooking wonderful food, and all of that. But under it, she was hiding in her heart the incredible pain that she felt about her husband.

FAZILA FAROUK:  Can you tell me a little bit about the children that you've met - the impact of this absence of their fathers in their lives. What's that been like for them?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Very, very hard. Incredibly hard. And I'll speak a little bit about a little boy called Faris, whose birthday is actually this week. He was born on Valentines Day, which also happened to be the day his dad was taken to Guantanamo Bay. So he's never seen his dad.

FAZILA FAROUK: And his did is?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: His dad is Shaker Aamer, the one that I said Obama could bring back tomorrow. And Faris doesn't really know what is a dad. He hasn't got the concept because he's never had one.

And there was one painful little moment, I remember, when some friends from the mosque came to clear up their garden - and it was hard work because it had really gone to a very, very messy state, and this guy, he stayed all day and did that.

And his mom told me afterwards that Faris said…to her afterwards, "Is that my dad? Is that why he's dong it?"

And when I brought him presents and things, he would say to me, "Did my dad send them?"

And I didn't think it was a good idea to say yes. I said, "I bet he wishes he could send them, but because he hasn't got any stamps, he's not gong to be sending anything." And kind of left it like that.

And there's another child, Sabah's oldest boy who was seven when this happened - seven. And he felt himself like the father of the family and he actually wrote letters to Prince Charles and to…its in the book, the letter he wrote to Tony Blair, saying you know, "Can you help my dad and me?"

And he described how every night in his bed, he would cry, but incredibly quietly so that his mom wouldn't hear. So this theme of everybody in the family protecting every body else from the pain is very strong even with the children.

But as the children grew older and more was known about Guantanamo, there was a lot of cases of bullying. A lot of cases of the children being told in the playground, "You know your dad's a terrorist, don't you? You know he'll never come home, don't you? I wish he was dead."

That kind of thing. And particularly, the boys, I think, unsurprisingly, built up an immense amount of anger.  And I often would see the moms articulate how revenge is bad. "We don't do that." and "It's not all America who’s done this. It's not all of Britain."

And I remember one time sitting with this particular child - he was a bit older. And he suddenly said, "You know I hate everybody in Britain. I hate British people."

I said, "Oh, how about me, I'm British."

He said, "No, you're not."

And I think it gives you an idea of how difficult it was for them to process who was responsible for what was going on in their lives.

FAZILA FAROUK: I wanted to know from you what you thought the international community could do to bring some pressure to bear on President Obama and the American Congress to close Guantanamo Bay and return these men to their families.

VICTORIA BRITTAIN:  Of course the international community could do something, if we mean by that, people in power.

You know if governments denounced what's going on and denounced the hunger strikes. And you know that force-feeding in a hunger strike is against internationally recognised medical ethics. In Britain people who went on hunger strike during the Irish troubles, people tried and tried to persuade them to come off the hunger strike, but they died in the end because we didn't do force feeding.

So there's a letter in the book, actually from Shaker, in which he describes a much earlier hunger strike and how he just wishes to be left to die and not be force fed, which is an incredibly painful process, as everybody who's suffered it has testified.

I mean I would like there to be some governments with a kind of, you know, moral standing behind them who take the kind of line that Bishop Tutu has taken. To come out publicly and say, this is an outrage, it can't go on. It has to be closed.

But there haven't been any governments like that. There have been the Kuwaitis who still have two men in Guantanamo. They have a very high-level civil society pressure campaign and they have…a lot of them are very well off sophisticate people. They've paid for the best lawyers in America. They've paid for series of court cases after court cases. And I know that that they've tried to get the Kuwait government to publicly come out, but it hasn't happened.

And other governments like the Afghans and the Pakistanis made deals with the Americans to get most of their people back. But nobody has come out to denounce it in the way that it should be. And both in my own country where there are a lot of small demonstrations, but constant. A lot about Guantanamo in general and about Shaker in particular.

And in America - I did a book tour in America earlier - last year, just when the hunger strike was at its height, and I was always really humbled by these people that you would meet in small towns, in Massachusetts, who bothered to get themselves orange suits and come out and demonstrate outside their local government offices.

Lots of women. I don't know if people here know about Code Pink, which is a very militant women's group. I mean, Code Pink -- throughout the hunger strike there were Code Pink members who went on hunger strike in sympathy. They stood outside the White House. People got arrested outside the White House from Code Pink.

And there has been a lot of civil society pressure. But what there hasn't been is either at the governmental level or really high-level people like Bishop Tutu -- there haven't been enough of them.

I also regret very much that the Red Cross, which as you know has a tradition of not speaking out. That's part of their rules. But I know that when people were in Robben Island here and went on hunger strike and told the Red Cross, "Don't bother to visit us. You know exactly what our conditions are. We're not interested in dealing with you." They went scuttling to the apartheid government and the conditions changed.

Now in Guantanamo, in the early days, one of the Red Cross people - men - did speak out, but he then left the Red Cross. And I think its a tremendous shame that the Red Cross has not come out on the issue of forced feeding, on people being held in solitary, which is of course, also against international law.

And on the very fact that people are being held there that everybody knows are innocent.

FAZILA FAROUK: Victoria Brittain, thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Thank you for having me.

FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at SACSIS, and remember if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at our website at

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