Cage Prisoners, which uncovered the identities of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, has launched its South African chapter. Janet Smith spoke to patron Yvonne Ridley, a journalist who survived capture by the Taliban
Janet Smith: Cage is a fine example of how a small group of individuals can start to make a difference and become a source of influence. How do you believe that happened?
Yvonne Ridley: Cage was born out of the injustices of Guantanamo, which is a boil on the face of human rights. In those early days, we were a lone voice, but gradually people became convinced that you cannot hold people without charges or trials. Now most world leaders, including the US president, admit it should never have been opened. The fact that it’s still functioning is baffling.
JS: It’s astonishing how much social media has altered our perception about world issues. What avenues do you use on different platforms?
YR: Cage support is drawn from all sections of the British community and there’s a large representation among young people who prefer to engage and exchange ideas on the many social media networks. Ever mindful of this, Cage communicates through many different mediums including Facebook and Twitter.
JS: Why South Africa as a base for Cage?
YR: Sadly, Cage’s work is not going to dry up any time soon as the ill-conceived War on Terror expands and manifests itself in many different ways. Guantanamo was just the beginning, but the reality is there are many secret detention facilities and ghost detainees who are hidden.
One of our areas of concern is Africa and if you’re going to raise the issue of international human rights, it seemed the obvious location was to find a base in South Africa – a country that has emerged from its own dark period to embrace the 21st century.
JS: Do you believe the solidarity movement is growing in this country? Who are your partners on the ground in this new step for the organisation?
YR: Cage Africa, although originally conceived between Cage UK and a group of visionary South African human rights lawyers more than a year ago, is only a few days old. Much of the work will be done by a core team of lawyers and supporters, but already other human rights organisations have expressed an interest in joining forces and partnerships for initiatives.
There’s no exclusivity in fighting injustices and Cage will welcome partnerships on projects wherever appropriate.
JS: Who are your patrons, or, should I say, champions – high-level supporters in this country who would, for example, take Cage into Parliament?
YR: A strategy of engagement from grassroots through to Parliament is being developed. We expect that as our work becomes more established, politicians will come knocking on our door to ask how they can help, which was the experience in Britain.
JS: Was there a receptive political audience here for the organisation?
YR: The president’s office is aware of Cage’s presence in South Africa and we are hopeful of positive, political engagement in the future.
JS: How do you intend taking the message to the people of this country?
YR: We will be launching a series of initiatives over the coming months and through all levels of media and the social networks, as well as the Cage Africa website, people will be able to read about what we are planning.
JS: Rendition and torture, such as Cage uncovered at the highest level in the UK, form a part of the shadowiest areas of Western government. Is activism helping to change minds in the Establishment?
YR: Ordinary people elect politicians and parliamentarians and councillors are reminded of this as elections approach. Voters have long memories, and as powerful people ask them for help, they are reminded of past indiscretions. On this basis alone, we believe activism will help focus the minds of this in the Establishment, especially those who need to be reminded that they are the people’s servants and not the other way around.
JS: How have you been embraced in European countries and other parts of the world?
YR: In recent years, Cage has been involved in several different European-wide initiatives, including a very high-profile one with Amnesty in a bid to find countries willing to accommodate ex-Guantanamo detainees who could not return to their native countries because of genuine fears of persecution.
JS: What is Cage’s position on Africom? And should Africans be concerned about keeping a watch on this key US command on our continent?
YR: About 56 countries collaborated in the notorious US rendition and torture programme, and we know this led to widespread abuse, human rights violations, torture and the emergence of Guantanamo Bay. Therefore, we should be suspicious with any similar ventures, especially when it involves questionable regimes happy to be used as outsource torture centres by the US.
JS: Do you believe there is enough of an awareness among ordinary people as to what has happened at Guantanamo Bay?
YR: Amazingly, there are many people who believe Guantanamo closed years ago, and whenever Cage or other human rights groups use street theatre with performers and activists wearing bright orange boiler suits, they express surprise. Many, including a large number of American people, thought it had closed down, especially when Obama made an election pledge to do so.
JS: What is the current position for the remaining prisoners there? What kinds of legal battles are going on to protect the interests of the prisoners?
YR: All the prisoners have legal representation, but there are constant reports of lawyer intimidation and interference in the judicial process. The military tribunals were set up to deal with a small number of so-called high-value detainees, but the majority (about 140), who have been cleared for release, are still languishing in a legal limbo.
JS: What’s Cage’s view of Obama’s role in failing to close the prison and allow justice to prevail?
YR: We are hugely disappointed that the most powerful man in the world, who called for transparency in the War on Terror and the closure of Guantanamo detention facility, has achieved neither; in fact the War on Terror has accelerated and expanded.
JS: Where is the War on Terror, and how does it intersect with the rather terrifying arrival of Islamic State?
YR: The War on Terror has been used and abused to keep entire populations under political control and in the grip of fear by constantly reminding people of atrocities like 9/11, July 7, the Madrid and Bali bombings. Groups like Islamic State conveniently emerge at a time when some Western governments need to reinforce the fear factory to drive through rushed legislation, further reducing people’s freedoms and liberties.
JS: Was there an awareness in Cage and other organisations, whose members often support the cause of detained Muslims, that Islamic State was burgeoning?
YR: The reality is, had George Bush and Tony Blair not proceeded with their illegal invasion, occupation and war in Iraq, groups like Islamic State would never have emerged. Middle East foreign policy by the US and UK has been a spectacular failure ever since, and the War on Terror has only served to fuel that. It is no coincidence that Islamic State is using powerful symbolism of the Guantanamo orange jumpsuits in which to dress their Western captives. It has now emerged that the journalist James Foley was regularly tortured and waterboarded and that Islamic State have adopted these practices from the infamous CIA handbook on torture.
JS: Your own experience has been a powerful presence for human rights activists. How do you feel about the Taliban today and about Afghanistan?
YR: What happened to me was extremely traumatic and subsequently life-changing, but I never allowed it to cloud my judgement over what I saw as the wrongful invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Meeting the former Taliban ambassador, Mullah Abdul Salim Zaeef, was extremely moving for me.
Thirteen years ago, we were very much on opposing sides and now, in South Africa, at the powerful venue of the Apartheid Museum, we were able to set aside any differences to focus on something we both firmly believe in: justice and equality.
Afghanistan is a great country, and I am convinced that peace and stability can be restored there – once all of the occupiers have gone.
And to the pessimistic, I would point to South Africa and its amazing peace and reconciliation process which enabled the country to move from its dark past into the sunlight.
I know it is an ongoing process and there are still many mountains to climb, but South Africa has shown the world what can be achieved when people are serious about peace.
JS: Can we stop the wars caused by Islamophobia?
YR: I am eternally optimistic, and I know we can win the war against Islamophobia – not by force but through education, empathy and understanding.
Conflict serves no purpose other than to make some powerful people in powerful places even richer and more powerful from the blood of innocents.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.
Yvonne Ridley was a journalist when she was captured by the Taliban in 2001. She converted to Islam after her release.
As a journalist, she wrote for The Sunday Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Observer, The Mirror and the News of the World. She was the chief reporter of the Sunday Express when the paper sent her to Afghanistan after 9/11. She was captured there.
Now a Cage patron, Ridley is also a leading activist for human rights. She has delivered lectures on the War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. She is a member of the Stop the War Coalition and the Respect Party in the UK.
She is also the author of In the Hands of the Taliban and Ticket to Paradise.