Monday, May 20, 2013

Britain’s Got Compassion: Round-Up of Actions Held in the UK on 17-19 May to mark 100 Days of the Guantánamo Hunger Strike

Report by Aisha Maniar
100 Days…

The current hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay entered its 100th day on Friday 17 May. This went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media in the UK. The mainstream media also often overlooks news that presents the public in a positive light and demonstrates acts of solidarity and kindness.
In response to a global call-out for action launched by the London Guantánamo Campaign to mark this date, groups and individuals from around the world got involved and organised actions in solidarity with the hunger strikers between Friday 17 May and Sunday 19 May. Hactivist group Anonymous were also involved and organised successive trending Twitter storms to raise awareness on each day of the action.
Kicking off with demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday 17th and with actions in the US, Mexico and Spain as well, the United Kingdom played its part with over a dozen solidarity actions across the country over the weekend and many individuals taking part in solidarity fasting actions.

Friday 17 May:
Artist Taxi Driver, London
On Friday 17th, the 100th day of the hunger strike, Mark McGowan, the Artist Taxi Driver made the following video in support: calling for justice for the prisoners, including British resident Shaker Aamer.


Glastonbury vigil for dead prisoners at Guantánamo
In Glastonbury, a vigil was held in the churchyard of St John’s Church, with the full support of the vicar. The organiser, Gillian Booth said that “People here are surprisingly ignorant but were eager to read our little information sheets and to talk about the facts. The local paper sent along a cameraman so there will be more for people to talk about next week.” A local councillor commented on those holding the vigil as “going with the Muslims”. While two people held a vigil throughout the action, other people came and went, protesting “the lack of humanity, the failure of Barack Obama, the


cruelty”. Ms Booth said, “The force feeding info upset a lot of people. Towards the end of the day, some children appeared with their dad and the younger of the two boys, when asked what he knew about Guantanamo, replied ' it's a place where people have been locked up for a long time for doing nothing'. He must have been about seven.” Flowers were laid for each of the men who have died at Guantánamo Bay with a list of their names. A passer-by placed freshly picked bluebells beside them. Ms Booth said, “I heard the birds, felt the air blowing through my hood, and I could have wept for the men inside there at that very moment, cut off from nature, children, laughter, the sky.”



In Kingston, Surrey, Noel Hamel, the chair of Kingston Peace Council, fasted from dawn to dusk in the Muslim tradition in solidarity with the prisoners who have accepted no solid food for 100 days. He took his solidarity action on a tour of local places of worship, including the local mosque, church and synagogue, with a chair and placard informing of the hunger strike and calling for solidarity with British resident hunger striker Shaker Aamer, for whom he has campaigned for many years. Mr Hamel had with him two wonderful banners he has made and often used at London Guantánamo Campaign actions stating “I AM WAITING 11 YEARS FOR SHAKER AAMER” and “GUANTANANOMORE” in dazzling colours. Outside the mosque lots of people took pictures with him. He then moved his vigil to Marks and Spencer in the town centre. Some people stopped to talk and ask questions. Many people are still unaware of the hunger strike altogether. Mr Hamel then took his vigil to the Parish Church; “All religions should be concerned that those of one particular faith have been singled out.” He again attracted a crowd and curiosity before moving on to the synagogue, “I am Jewish. Jews know something about persecution. I already told the Rabbi about Shaker Aamer over coffee at his house. The Synagogue is in a quiet backstreet and has no signs. I sit down and show my placard and banners”, although there also some curious passers-by here. Accompanied by at least one other person, lots of passers-by took pictures during the vigil and asked questions raising awareness about an issue generally ignored by the mainstream media.
Noel Hamel said, "I have been campaigning about Shaker Aamer, from an area near me, for five or six years. Nothing changes but we keep up the protest in as many ways as we can. This has been one of them. I know his wife and children and I promised his fellow charity worker, Moazzam Begg - since released, that I wouldn’t rest till Shaker’s home. I won’t. Unlike the USA I have done something positive for race relations and peace this day."

Wrexham, Wales
In Wales, Wrexham Peace & Justice Forum member Genny Bove fasted for 24 hours. During this time, she displayed a 'CLOSE GUANTANAMO NOW' banner at a busy road junction near the centre of Wrexham. Flyers were handed out to passers by during the morning rush-hour and to shoppers in town afterwards. Many people were unaware of the hunger strike, the force feeding, the urgent calls for the inmates to be freed and the prison camp closed. Hardly anyone knew that  90% of the prisoners haven't been charged with any offence and that the majority are cleared for release. The banner was left up from 8.30am and remained in situ until at least Friday evening, with thousands of vehicles passing during that time as well as pedestrian traffic.  

Saturday 18 May:
Although the 101st day of the hunger strike, as it was the weekend, many more actions took place on Saturday.

John Goss fasted for two days and held a solitary vigil for four hours in the City Centre during which he managed to raise a small amount of money for Reprieve which represents British residents Shaker Aamer and Ahmed Belbacha, who are both on hunger strike.  

The local Amnesty group in Brighton organised an orange-jumpsuit vigil outside the Amnesty shop on Sydney Street. Petitions were signed to Foreign Minister William Hague, David Cameron and Barack Obama.
Commenting on the action, Maude Casey from Brighton said: "It was the most extraordinary action i've ever done in the sense that when people spotted us, they actually crossed over the street to sign the petition and to find out about Shaker and the hunger strike. So it is worth keeping up the pressure and the actions and making links."

A planned public action with orange jumpsuits to raise awareness at the East End of the popular Prince's Street had to be cut short from 11-1pm and then transferred to the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre for the rest of the afternoon. Organised by Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre, Amnesty Scotland were also involved and supplied the orange jumpsuits.



In Harrogate, Yorkshire, the local Amnesty group joined by a local Quaker held a vigil with orange jumpsuits and a banner from 11-4pm at the Cenotaph in the town centre. Leaflets were handed out and at 3.45pm, two of the solidarity activists went to the local Waitrose supermarket where local MP Andrew Jones had a drop-in surgery and presented him with one of their leaflets (excerpts from Amnesty International Report on Guantánamo Bay and the hunger strike, May 2013): “During the day we got a great deal of positive feedback and one woman even bought us some biscuits! Only two critical comments (both from men) and these were courteous.”


collecting signatures on letters in Lewes

The local Amnesty group organised a demonstration at 11-1pm to call for the closure of Guantanamo and the immediate release and to return to the UK of British resident Shaker Aamer (detained in Guantanamo for over 11 years without charge or trial). Two hundred letters were signed to President Obama and David Cameron and 300 leaflets were handed out to members of the public. Around two dozen people joined this action. The group were delighted that MP Norman Baker joined the activists to give his full support to the campaign to close Guantanamo and release and return Shaker Aamer to the UK.  Mr Baker, who is a Liberal Democrat minister, recently accompanied 27 Lewes Priory School students from their school’s Amnesty group to meet Alistair Burt MP, Foreign Office Minister, to call for Shaker Aamer’s immediate release and return to UK on 22 April.

starving for justice outside the US Embassy, London
Around 80 people joined a demonstration outside the US Embassy in London in the afternoon. As part of the demonstration, the London Guantánamo Campaign staged a murder scene with eight volunteers in orange jumpsuits and black hoods lying on the ground outside the Embassy. Chalk outlines were drawn around them as at a murder scene to implicate the US government in the deaths of 8 men at Guantánamo Bay, out of the nine known to have died, in suspicious circumstances, which the US called “suicide” in the case of seven of them. All of these men had previously taken part in sustained hunger strikes. The LGC holds the US government responsible for their deaths and any deaths that may result in the short- or long-term from the current hunger strike. A “crime scene” cordon was drawn around the dead bodies. A ninth chalk outline was drawn with a question mark in it to ask who will be next to die as a result of the US response to the hunger strike?
Houston, I think we've got a problem
A mock force feeding scene was also briefly staged. Also protesting outside the US Embassy were the wife and daughter of Shawki Ahmed Omar, a Palestinian-American who is currently on hunger strike in Iraq. Arrested by US forces in Iraq in 2004, where he had moved with his family before the start of the Iraq War, he was tortured by his own military before being handed over to the Iraqi army who also tortured him and forced him to confess to false charges as a result. Mr Omar maintains his innocence and has received no assistance from his own government and even filed a Supreme Court case. He has been on hunger strike for the past few months to protest his innocence and demand support. His 7-year old daughter Zeinab bravely addressed the demonstration and asked the US Embassy to release her dad. This little girl brought home to the protesters the effects hunger strikes and arbitrary detention can have on the families and communities of hunger strikers too.
We were also joined by speakers from Veterans for Peace UK, Facilitate Global, London Catholic Workers, the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, Men’s Payday Network and the assistance of a number of London Amnesty groups. A minute’s silence was held at the end and poems were read by prisoners and their children as well as by Talha Ahsan, a British national extradited to pre-trial solitary confinement in the US last October. A statement of support from Caroline Lucas MP (see below) was also read out.

NSA Menwith Hill
outside NSA Menwith Hill
Outside the US army base at NSA Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, veteran peace campaigner Lindis Percy from the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB) held a 24-hour fast on 18-19 May “in support of the hunger strikers in Guantanamo, or in fact ALL detainees: charge and bring to court, release all those cleared for release - OBAMA - YOU HAVE THE POWER TO CLOSE GUANTANAMO RIGHT NOW.” The vigil kicked off at 7am to a wet start courtesy of the pouring rain and the British weather. It stopped raining by 1pm and the Ministry of Defence Police (MDP), protecting US interests in the UK, kindly allowed Ms Percy’s hood and gloves to dry on their radiators. She was joined throughout the day by a succession of people who came to show their solidarity; “I stood in front of cars coming in and out of the base holding an upside down US flag with the words: OBAMA CLOSE GTMO and had a serious of laminated notices to hold throughout the day and evening. One American woman drove in, was stopped, she objected, dealt with by MDP (right to peacefully protest, she can stop you for a little while). We have had a huge struggle to get to this point with the MDP - in fact took 8 years of nastiness by the MDP at the Tuesday evening demonstration each week) - endless spurious arrests, prison, ASBO tried in 2005 when there were 41 charges in front of District Judge by the time it came to court- they didn't get their application! NOW total about turn and they now uphold the right to peacefully protest and really help us!! (Things can chance with persistence!). The woman driver ended by saying "...well I don't like what she is wearing"!!! I had some good conversations with the MDP throughout the 24 hours. It got very cold and when the traffic stopped at about 11 pm I retired to my car and fitfully nodded off in the night....well worth doing friends and thank you to those who initiated this weekend of international, national and local action and took some sort of action.....we have to keep Guantanamo in the spotlight, however.”



In Oxford, peace activist Maya Evans from Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK fasted in solidarity with Guantanamo hunger strikers as part of the weekend of action. Maya was joined by other activists in Oxford who demanded an end to the unjust incarceration of individuals who have been subjected to torture and imprisonment without trial. Ms Evans reports, “Guantanamo solidarity activists gathered outside the old prison in Oxford to remember British citizen Shaker Aamer who is part of the 166 Guantanamo hunger strikers.” In 2010 Maya Evans, won a "partial victory" in a high court challenge against Britain's policy of transferring captured Taliban suspects to the Afghan authorities, involving the kind of evidence the government is seeking to keep secret in the new Justice and Security Act.

Aoife Kyna Devanney, Bradford
Peace activist from Bradford, Yorkshire, Aoife Kyna Devanney, held a solo fast and vigil action on Friday and Saturday and took her peace vigil to the second league play-offs at Wembley Stadium on Saturday. In her own words:
vigil at Wembley Stadium
vigil at Wembley Stadium

“My first day was on Friday, I completed a 24hr fast and wore my orange boiler suit and hood all day. I went to the bank, Tesco supermarket, the doctor’s and the petrol station.  I was able to raise some awareness and created some really positive discussions; there are many people who feel as strongly as we do about closing down this horrid place.
On Saturday, my football team Bradford City were playing at Wembley in the league 2 play-off. I travelled down on the train in my orange boiler suit and talked to many people most of whom were Bradford City fans, they were very supportive also.
I walked through Kings Cross and the underground station. I was asked to take my "political attire" off in the tube station but refused, the Station Master came out and I questioned him and told him I was travelling on the underground in my outfit and there was nothing he could do. He tried to tell me people might be offended; just as we were speaking, a group of women passed by who were on a hen party. The bride was holding an inflated 4ft penis. How ridiculous, but the Station Master didn't ask the women to leave.

vigil at Wembley Stadium

As my photos show, I did travel and enjoyed the journey. When I got to Wembley, I didn't leave it to chance I put my coat over my suit, as soon as we got to our seats I made my way towards the pitch, took off my coat put on my hood and had my photo taken. I felt very nervous and was expecting some abuse but, people were really supportive. One man from Egypt, (there is a picture of us both), he thanked me for what I was trying to do, we had a wonderful conversation, all his friends were inquisitive too, and we explained what we were doing and why, they were incredibly supportive.  I was filled with love and respect for the Bradford City fans as they were wonderful and we won which was a bonus.
 I was apprehensive about how people would behave toward me, I only had one negative comment from a man in the tube station who tried to push me over by purposely bumping into me, but I did not respond but walked peacefully away.
I feel so strongly about this and would and will do this again. I want to thank you for everything you are doing.
We love the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and want them to know that we love them and we care deeply about what the American government are doing to them.”

Wirksworth, Derbyshire
Wirksworth, Derbyshire
Wirkswirth, Derbyshire
In the afternoon, the Amnesty International Wirksworth and District group met in the town centre, having all foregone lunch in solidarity with the hunger strikers, wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods. Meeting by Crook Beam in town, a solidarity vigil was held and many of the townsfolk and tourists passed by and showed considerable interest and sympathy with the situation.

As well as sending a strong message of solidarity to the hunger strikers in Guantánamo Bay from the people of the British Isles that we stand in solidarity with them and their families in their plight for justice, and the US government, that the rest of the world is not turning a blind eye to the injustices and illegalities it engages in on a daily basis, it is also a powerful message to the British government. The government and the mainstream media enjoy painting the people of Britain in a negative light to hide the inhumanity of their own actions. There was little media presence at these actions over the weekend, yet without a budget, PR consultants, events managers and celebrity involvement – indeed, all the actions were organised by individuals or grass roots voluntary organisations, there was almost no support from larger anti-war or human rights organisations – ordinary people managed to organise a dozen events in 3 days and show their solidarity. In eleven and a half years, the government has not managed to secure the release of one man, Shaker Aamer, in spite of the “special relationship” with the USA and has recently introduced the Justice and Security Act 2013 to hide its involvement in torture and rendition worldwide. What the British public could do in three weeks, the British government cannot do in over a decade. There was no celebrity endorsement and there will be no Oscars for best performance in the “murder scene” outside the US Embassy in London; it was simply a demonstration – both in the UK and elsewhere – of compassion and human solidarity, which is priceless. We extend our thanks to Caroline Lucas MP and Norman Baker MP for their support and all the individuals and organisations involved in actions over the weekend.
Actions outside the US also drive home the point that this is a global problem. All the 166 prisoners are foreign nationals and their own countries must do more to secure their release.
As the main organiser of most of the actions held by the London Guantánamo Campaign, I have long advocated that politicians worldwide washed their hands of this issue and the remaining prisoners years ago, and the responsibility now lies on civil society and people who still have a moral compass to act and bring pressure to bear on their governments to do their job. The media has long abdicated its responsibility to report the news as well and it is up to individuals to inform themselves of the true situation.
The campaign to close Guantánamo and secure the safe release of the prisoners continues. We held the first demonstration anywhere in support of the hunger strikers in London on 17 March and this was our sixth solidarity action. It is amazing the US has allowed the situation to continue for so long. We will continue to take action and show our solidarity, as we have done for the past 7 years.
Veterans for Peace UK will also be setting up a regular solidarity fasting action. Please check the website for details.

You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @shutguantanamo

 Statement of support by Caroline Lucas MP (Green: Brighton Pavilion) read out at the demonstration in London:
"It is deeply worrying that Shaker Aamer, a legal permanent resident of the UK, with a wife and four children living in London, remains incarcerated in  Guantanamo Bay. This despite the fact that he has never having been charged with any offence and was officially cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo in June 2007. During his 11 years of detention Shaker has been tortured by US agents – for example, by having his head repeatedly banged against a wall – and has witnessed the torture of another UK resident.  He has spent more than 1000 nights in a windowless isolation cell and when first detained was starved, kept awake for 9 days straight and chained into positions that made the slightest movement unbearable.
His treatment and the existence of Guantanamo Bay is a clear reminder that some of the worst consequences of the ‘War On Terror’ remain with us today.
The ongoing torture that is the hopelessness of indefinite detention has resulted in Shaker embarking on a desperate hunger strike that has so far lasted 100 days. The impact of 11 years of detention, of mistreatment and now this hunger strike mean that his health is increasingly fragile. There is a very real chance that unless he is released as matter of urgency, that Shaker will die in Guantanamo. It is now more critical than ever that we keep up pressure on the US and on the British Government as the only way to secure justice and freedom for Shaker."

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