Rendition, War, Torture and Clive Stafford Smith

Clive Stafford Smith is one of life’s necessities. He is a man who we don’t think we need until we need him. He is a man you want standing when, as Pastor Martin Niemoller famously poetically described, everyone has failed to speak out and there is no one else left. If altruists had a protocol for beatification he would be a prime living candidate. Amongst his many achievements he founded and leads the London based charity Reprieve which amongst many things provides legal representation for prisoners on death row, campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, challenges acts of torture and rendition and seeks to defend our human rights. He learnt his trade in the USA and in 1987 appeared in the documentary 14 days in May supporting Edward Earl Johnson in his unsuccessful appeals against being put to death in the Mississippi State Penitentiary gas chamber. Since then apart from setting up Reprieve he has written a number of books including The Orwell Prize shortlisted ‘Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay And The Secret Prisons’. This book is an exceptional investigation in to the, US and consequently their ‘allies’, response following the attack on the now infamous ‘Twin Towers’.

He has for some time been supporting death row prisoners in Pakistan. However, when he is not committing himself to ridding the planet of state sanctioned murderers and torturers he returns to the UK to his home in Symondsbury, near Bridport, which he shares with his wife and son. It was during this time that Clive agreed to be interviewed for Dorset Eye.

Can you tell us something of what Reprieve does and how many people are active in the organisation?

There are 28 full time staff, and – at any given moment – about the same number of volunteers. We focus on three things: death penalty cases (around the world), enforcing legal rights for those in secret prisons run by the US (Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere), and enforcing the legal rights of those facing death without due process at all through illegal US drone wars.

You must have experienced some very positive outcomes not only for you clients but also for society’s soul. Which ones in particular stand out as being your most celebrated successes?

Gosh that is hard to say, and hard to say in limited space. There are so many instances, they are so varied and they often are so improbable. I’ve got a book coming out on some of it this July, but there’ll have to be several more to come!

What arguments do you consider to be the most powerful in challenging capital punishment?

The only one that is, to me, worth mentioning is that it is so utterly pointless. When I have watched someone die late at night (it is always midnight or thereabouts, since we are basically ashamed of it all), I have invariably come out of the execution chamber, looked up at the stars, and wondered how on earth what I had just witnessed made the world a better place. The long slow death of innocence

Can I ask you the same question in relation to torture?

Again, it’s utterly pointless and barbaric. I really do wonder what gets into people that they think they achieve anything sensible by it –and that is long before one gets to the sheer indecency of it.

How many of your clients have been executed and how would you describe the effect it has upon you and the rest of the team supporting him?

I’ve lost six of my clients. To be sure there is an impact. Indeed, I know I suffer from an increasingly mild case of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from the execution of Nicky Ingram in 1995, since I had known Nicky for a long time – indeed, he and I were both born in Cambridge, a few years apart, and had a real connection. But the important point is that we (the lawyers) are not the victims, and it is wrong to focus on the impact on us. There are many who suffer a whole lot more from the process, whether they be the person executed, his family, or the victims’ relatives who have been promised the false catharsis of an execution.

In the early days, it was not really a team, as we had so few resources. In some of the later cases, there was a small group of us. It’s a lot easier that way, as there is at least someone else to whom one can talk, who has some sense of what it was really all about.

In ‘Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay And The Secret Prisons’ it includes a chapter on the torture experienced by an Ethiopian man, named Binyam Mohamed who had been picked up by Pakistani officials, whilst in northern Pakistan and then handed over to American operatives. In it Binyam describes how he was threatened with transportation from Pakistan to Jordan if he did not comply (i.e. admit guilt and be willing to provide incriminating evidence against leading al-Qaeda members) to enable the Jordanians to do what US and Pakistani officials stated they were unable to do. In your dealings with the inmates at Guantanamo and from information received how widespread do you believe rendition to have been since 2001?

Well, every single person in Guantánamo was rendered (i.e., taken from one country to another against his will, and without legal process) and abused once he arrived there. Indeed, most of them had been rendered from Pakistan in the first place. On top of that, an estimated 25,000 or more people have been held in secret prisons. It does not, perhaps, make much difference to the torture victim whether he was rendered before torture or not.

On Desert Island Discs, in 2004, you identified what I thought was a truly fascinating perspective in which you compared your approach, as a lawyer, with that of a family in which a member has done something wrong. Instead of rushing to judgement and contacting the authorities we try to find out the cause and find a solution because we love them. Can you explain why you consider this to be the best method for supporting your clients?

It’s not really a new idea. If we treated everyone as we would treat those we love then the world would be a much better place. The question one must answer, really, is the reverse: how can anyone suggest that we should not treat people the way we would like those we love to be treated? We tend to use the pretext of “objectivity” as a justification for not behaving well (i.e., a judge must be “objective”, and could not sit on the case of someone who he loved because somehow that would make him behave improperly). I don’t really get that perspective at all.

Who have been your shining lights in the world of human rights enhancement and why?

I don’t really have that many people who I would put in that category who you would know. They have all (and there are many) been people who I have encountered along the way, people who would be labelled the ‘little people’ – the defendants, the victims, the witnesses, and so forth.

What can we do to help you and Reprieve to further your work and continue your successes?

We’re a charity and always in relatively dire need of funding, so if there is anyone out there who would like to donate, that’s www.reprieve.org.uk. And we always need voluntary help from all kinds of people. I do think we should have a branch in Bridport some day – because the Bridport Dagger is the euphemism for the hangman’s noose, I have long hoped that someone would one day donate an old rope factory in Bridport that we could turn into a human rights centre…

Finally, why did you choose to settle in West Dorset and which part of it are your favourites?

Ah you seem to be one of the unfortunate people who missed the fact that Symondsbury is actually the centre of the universe… I came here because my wife is from Askerswell, and it is a wonderful place.

Clive Stafford Smith on Desert Island Discs 2004

Editors comment:

Towards the end of ‘Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons Clive asks why the British and American governments decide that dissolving human rights is the best way of protecting a society from further violence. Alongside this we have to ask why so many people seek to support a government that makes this argument. Surely an ideal society does not devoid itself from human rights? It would contain ‘equality between citizens, no war, no violence, justice for resolving disputes and so forth’ (p276). Even if Utopia is truly not possible Stafford Smith suggests that it should be our Pole Star guiding us in to the future. So why do we vote for governments that impose democracy at the end of a gun barrel? Why do we demand that the legal rights of men with beards should differ from serial killers who are clean shaven? It seems that appealing to hate and fear is a much more attractive future than those listed above if we are to believe many of the politicians, media and voters. The ignorance of the misguided is summed up by Tony Blair’s swansong speech to Labour Party Conference in September 2006 ‘This is a struggle that will last a generation and more. But this I believe passionately: we will not win until we shake ourselves of the wretched capitulation to the propaganda of the enemy, that somehow we are the ones responsible…’ (p272). As Stafford Smith and others point out the greatest recruiting mechanism for supposed terrorists is usually the policies of the very governments they are fighting. Whether it is Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Vietnam… flouting laws, bombing innocents, rendition and torture, illegal imprisonment, illegal occupations, hypocrisy… this is no way to win and sustain the hearts and minds. If you want to avoid a broken neck then you shake a person by the hand and embrace them warmly. Kicking them in the crotch is not an advised method. Unless of course you want them to try and break your neck and diplomacy was not on the agenda. 

To finish with Clive Stafford Smiths question, ‘how can so many intelligent people get it so wrong?’

The Editors