I have already written about this work – the last three months spent traveling across Pakistan to meet with and photograph the families of the men who remain trapped in America’s other dark prison – Bagram. 40 pakistan men, some who have been there for over 11 years, have been thrown into this dark hole and are being held illegally, indefinitely and unjustly. These men are the detritus of the great ‘War Against Terror’, the forgotten hundreds who languish in prisons and torture centers across the globe and our thirst for revenge remains unsatiated. Today it is politics and not evidence of crimes, that keeps the men imprisoned there. A Kafkaesque regime of imprisonment based on bounties offered to allies, secret evidence, military tribunal, denial of access to legal representation, and a clear denial of access to common-sense and rational argument, the US legal and judicial practices have become a shameful blot on the nation’s character and reputation. Bagram represents perhaps one of the worst such situations today, and there is great danger that as the Americans prepare to leave Afghanistan, these 40 men will be forever left in a legal and territorial limbo from which their only respite will be death.
Writing about this work earlier I said that:
The intense scrutiny and criticism of the conditions of imprisonment at Guantanamo resulted in the prisoners there being granted a semblance of a legal process – access to a lawyer, trials in domestic courts, occasional but carefully censored visits by the press, and the periodic statement by the authorities desperate to show that the prisoners were being treated ‘well’ and in accordance ‘of the law. Of course, all this is a lie. The series of hunger strikes, and suicides, has offered a shameful and shocking reality check, revealing the lies that the US military has been feeding the servile American press corp about the situation in the prison. The men, aware that there is no hope for a fair trial, and worse, of them being released, are desperate to kill themselves to end their suffering, humiliation and sense of hopelessness. Death is their only release.
All this is taking place in a prison that has come degree of visibility and over-sight. We can only surmise what is happening inside a prison like Bagram where there is absolutely no over-sight or evidence of the treatment, physical and mental condition of the prisoners. No journalists are allowed to go there, and none of the lawyers representing or fighting cases on behalf of the prisoners are allowed to meet with or communicate with the prisoners. The families are given limited, carefully monitored telephone and video access every few months. During these conversations – which can last up to about an hour, each word and statement is carefully monitored and the connection can be immediately severed if anything related to the prisoners health, state of incarceration or reasons for it are discussed.
Bagram is a true ‘black hole’ of American justice and sense of the law. It is a living evidence of the collapse of morality, humanity, and civilized discourse that has become so much of the post 9/11 United States of America. It is also an evidence of the deep racism and bigotry that underpins so much of America’s judicial policies in the wake of the ‘War Against Terror’. The continued imprisonment of these innocent men is evidence of the venality, cowardice and irresponsibility of the Pakistani government that has been an open and overt collaborator in the American war in Afghanistan and the frontiers of Pakistan, and whose intelligence agencies and military establishment sold Pakistani nationals to the Americans claiming they were ‘terror’ suspects.
I am traveling in September with Barrister Sarah Belal to Washington D.C. and New York to speak to as many people as possibe and make an argument for the release of these men. They have not been accused of any crimes, they have never been tried in a court of law. A recent report prepared by Sarah Belal’s legal firm lays out a clear argument for why it is absolutely necessary, and just, to let the men go. It also highlights the many legal and other structures Pakistan already has in place to ensure the monitoring and policing of the returned men. An irrational fear of recidivism compels the Americans to insist on guarantees that are part of the reason why the men remain trapped in a bureaucratic black hole, and continue to suffer the indignities and humiliations of the American gulag.
I don’t expect a warm welcome. It is taking a lot of strength for me to even stand alongside Sarah and place myself in the daylight. I have always preferred to work from behind my images, and avoid any sort of public statements or presentations about or related to my images. I have a particular sense of doubt about the value of exhibitions, and I have avoided them for the last five years at least. But it is the effort and commitment of the lawyers – in Pakistan, USA and the UK, who are fighting for the rights of these forgotten men, that reminds me that there is more at stake here than my ego or paranoia. That in the end if there is anything that gives the mere photographs I have made for this issue then it is the end that you are fighting for. The work is purely supportive – it supports and is being used to create greater awareness of the work that the lawyers are doing, and the fights that they are fighting in the court rooms and in the corridors of opinion. And so I in my small way have joined their fight and made my small contribution to their amazing efforts.
Please join us in D.C on the 12th and in NYC on the 13th if you can. The NYC event will be announced soon and is being sponsored by the Open Society Institute at their main offices near Columbus Circle. The stories you will hear, the lives that you will get to know, have been largely absent from our conscience and our concern. The situation of the men is dire, and the forces determined to hold them in indefinite detention far stronger, and better organized than anything that a handful of lawyers and a photographer can muster. But we are speaking out, and we will continue to do so. We need you to join your voice to ours.