Issue 284 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stack on the back

Hostage to misfortune

The Guantanamo detainees are as much hostages as Terry Waite was, argues Pat Stack

Lock them up

Hostage tragedy, hostage farce. That was the only way to describe the antics of the last few weeks.

Despite the appalling treatment that has been dished out by the US towards the hostages at Guantanamo Bay, the British tabloids have been happy to carry any old hogwash the US State Department may throw at them about those recently released British citizens. They were all Taliban and Al Qaida according to the Sun, relying directly on US information issued in retaliation for those hostages describing the horrors of the camp.

Beatings, deprivation and many forms of torture were backed up by ritual humiliation and a complete denial of legal due process, whether civilian or according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. So despite David Blunkett's delayed and half-hearted admission that those released did not pose a threat to security, the Sun was able to slander them based on alleged confessions obtained in the most brutal, uncivilised and illegal way by their captors.

I refer to them as hostages because those of us of a certain age will remember clearly the outrage expressed by politicians, press and those in high places when Hezbollah held hostages in Lebanon. A number of hostages were taken, the most high profile being Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan. They endured torture, humiliation, deprivation and a fear for their fate. It is doubtful if anyone in the country didn't keenly feel for their plight, or sympathise with their loved ones. Famously McCarthy's girlfriend Jill Morrell led a campaign to get him freed which hit the headlines and kept his plight from being forgotten.

I mention this because one of the three, Brian Keenan, recently wrote an article in the Guardian in which he utterly condemned the US's use of Guantanamo Bay, likening the behaviour of US jailers to those of his kidnappers. It was a very powerful piece and a damning condemnation of the US's behaviour, and British government acquiescence.

It is difficult to know which is more shaming--the behaviour of the US or the nasty, vindictive and alarmingly provocative response of the tabloids to these men's release. They must know that in reporting the release in this way they are adding to Islamophobia in general and the safety of these individuals in particular.

Then again, should we expect any better from papers that, given half the chance, would expose the killers of Jamie Bulger to very great peril and seem hell-bent on destroying Maxine Carr's life?

So we already have tragedy, compounded by potential tragedy, but what of farce?

At the time of McCarthy's release I remember writing a piece welcoming him home, but warning him of the very many innocent hostages in British jails. The Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and many others sprang to mind. So what a horrible irony that while all the Guantanamo stuff was hitting the headlines, a little-publicised piece came out about compensation to those held in prison for years despite their innocence.

Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six was a very ordinary man (by his own admission) when he was fitted up for the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. There is nothing ordinary about him now. Since his release he has campaigned nonstop for all those (and he says there are more now than ever) held in prison despite being innocent of the crimes for which they've been convicted.

Anyway, it turns out that despite having the living daylights kicked out of him, having evidence against him forged, and evidence in his favour suppressed, despite the complete breakdown of his family life, and spending 16 years in prison, his compensation comes to less than £1 million.

Incredible, if you think about it, but made even worse by the fact that Hill's class background is a determining factor in the amount he was awarded. The compensation is not based on mental and physical torture, deprivation of freedom or anything like that, but on 'loss of earnings' based on 'earning potential'.

Now let us leave aside the immorality of the fact that a rich bloke fitted up would presumably get millions, but a poor bloke fitted up gets a relative pittance. How do you determine these potential earnings? Capitalism, after all, is meant to be a fluid system allowing for social mobility. Hill is clearly an extraordinary man--who is to say he wouldn't have discovered his talent and earned a fortune?

How, for instance, do you judge that someone apparently successful wouldn't fall from grace, or a worker in an apparently stable job wouldn't suddenly lose it after a Gordon Brown whim in a budget speech? God help any small country that might inadvertently lock up an innocent Premiership footballer (there must be one or two out there)--presumably their compensation could wipe out the country's GDP.

No doubt about it, it's an immoral way of doing things. But wait, because insult is added to insult added to injury. For Hill also had a sizeable amount deducted from his award for... the cost of his upkeep in prison!

I kid you not--they are charging him for the prison food he was forced to eat for all those years. Incredible. I wonder if they have a sort of Egon Ronay star system for prisons where the charge of upkeep is based on the cost of keeping you imprisoned. If they do it must be a very strange marking system, because surely the nastier and more high security the prison, the greater the cost. The less you liked it the more you have to pay!

I don't know whether Hezbollah have spotted this behaviour. If so McCarthy, Waite and Keenan can no doubt expect a bill any day now. Maybe the families of the Irish hunger strikers should go looking for a rebate for the period their relatives were fasting. Sick? Of course, but so is the whole shameful charade--from Guantanamo Bay to the British justice system. So much for civilising values.

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