Art in Dorset showing the plight of Guantanomo Bay detainees
PUBLISHED: 10:40 06 March 2018 | UPDATED: 10:46 06 March 2018
Human rights lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith has brought the plight of detainees at Guantanomo Bay into the art rooms of local schools
Clive Stafford Smith may not know everyone in Symondsbury, the pretty village tucked beneath the pine-topped Colmers Hill just north of Bridport, but most people seem to know him.
Whether it’s because he is just about our most respected human rights lawyer – he’s the man you see on TV, demolishing governmental excuses for the USA’s Guantanamo Bay detention facility, declaiming the use of torture, and saving people on America’s Death Row – or because his home is fiendishly hard to locate is anyone’s guess.
But after stopping three times to ask villagers if they know ‘where Clive lives’, it’s evident that they are used to lost journalists, ex US lifers, former SWAT team cops and assorted helpers, interns, and ‘death penalty world’ buddies seeking out his Dorset cottage.
And no wonder. Clive Stafford Smith has truly led a life less ordinary.
It’s 30 years since he first appeared on our screens, in the award-winning Fourteen Days In May. This documentary followed his heart-breaking and ultimately futile attempt to save Edward Earl Johnson, a man that many legal observers now believe to have been innocent, from the gas chamber – the execution method of choice in the state of Mississippi.
The acclaimed film catapulted Stafford Smith into the public eye and he’s remained there ever since, calling governments, governors and all our consciences to account for the causes he campaigns for. He was awarded the OBE in the 2000 New Years’ Honours list ‘for humanitarian services in the legal field’.
He has used this publicity well, both in the USA and here, in Dorset, where he is involved in ‘Liberating Art From Guantanamo Bay’, an art initiative in local schools.
“It’s a project I’m rather proud of,” he says cramming toast and jam into his mouth. (He’s just finished a six-day hunger strike in support of some of his Guantanamo clients who are 26 days into their hunger strike for freedom.)
The reason he’s proud is because Dorset schools including the Woodroffe School in Lyme Regis and Sir John Colfox Academy in Bridport have taken up the challenge to produce artwork based entirely on descriptions of the paintings produced by the inmates there.
“The authorities decided to let the prisoners do artwork at Guantanamo and they let me see it although, because of the censor, you couldn’t take some of the paintings out. These were the ones they found most embarrassing, about American torture. Then I had this idea,” says Stafford Smith.
To take account of the censorship he wrote detailed descriptions of each picture he saw. Because, he claimed, “there’s no linkage between anyone there” the descriptions were able to leave. And he has now shared these with others.
“We have a number of famous artists reproducing the pictures of the torture these guys underwent, using these descriptions, and we’ve also taken it into local schools,” he adds. Students were told about the alleged torture by Stafford Smith. “I do a PowerPoint presentation and give them the descriptions and the background, and then they interpret it however they want to.”
These include ‘strappado’ the hanging of a man by his wrists, which Stafford Smith’s client, Ahmed Rabbani, “a taxi driver from Karachi” claims he underwent in the so-called ‘Dark Prison’ before arriving at Guantanamo. Rabbani, he says, is a victim of mistaken identity for a well-known terrorist. He has been held in custody without charge or trial since 2002.
When he’s not standing up for justice in Guantanamo, Stafford Smith is campaigning against what he calls ‘America’s assassinations programmes’, its drone-strike and alleged ‘kill-list’ policy – which the US government describes as counter-terrorism.
Which brings us, naturally, to President Trump.
“I have total sympathy for those suffering under his jackboot but having a hate figure in the White House makes it so much easier,” he says. “When Obama was in the White House no one would believe that ‘Mr Constitutional Law Professor’ would do anything wrong but actually, Obama’s foreign policy was worse than Bush.”
Stafford Smith also believes that British prisoners should have the vote, while wryly admitting most would probably vote Conservative. He gets on with his local MP, Oliver Letwin, “although I profoundly disagree with his politics, and I personally wouldn’t send anyone to prison”
His British-based charity campaigning against the death penalty, Reprieve, is at pains to explain that this is his personal belief and not their official policy.
Although he has saved many lives, and won over 300 death row appeals Stafford Smith has accompanied six of his clients to the US death chamber. In 1995 he watched 31-year-old Nicky Ingram, a British citizen, die in the electric chair. The barbarity of this procedure cannot be denied. In his last meeting with his mother, who was from Cambridge, the condemned man wore a baseball hat so she wouldn’t have to see his head shaved for the metal electrode cap that conducts the 2,000-volt shock through his skull (some prisoners have been observed with flames emanating from theirs during the process).
“Nicky was my friend,” he says, describing how he had been born in the same East Anglian hospital as 58-year-old Stafford Smith, although a few years later. “I particulary hate it when I am representing someone younger than me who is going to get killed.”
The toll that witnessing these executions has taken on him, especially when he believes the client to have been innocent, is evident. “The only reason I can watch people getting executed is because I was taught to totally disassociate myself and repress my emotions,” he says, explaining that this happened after he was despatched to boarding school at the age of eight, and cried for the best part of a month. Repressing your emotions, he says, works when you’re watching people being executed. “But it’s not very helpful in real life.”
What is helpful is the love of his family; wife, Emily (who is toiling in the office but emerges to press upon us delicious chocolates), his son, Wilf, tucked up on the sofa in front of the fire, and the exceptionally bonkers Flynn, the Irish Setter: “He’s named after a police officer who had the courage to testify for one of my clients,” says Stafford Smith affectionately ruffling Flynn’s furry head.
He adores walking Flynn round the fields and hills of West Dorset, including iconic Colmers Hill, with its little tuft of trees. “It’s little known fact that Symondsbury is actually the centre of the universe,” he smiles. “Galileo said the earth revolves round the sun but obviously that’s not true because this particular spot is the steady centre of all things.”
They came to Symondsbury because Emily is from the area and Stafford Smith now adores the place; from the windswept Jurassic Coast to the bustling arty town of Bridport.
“I love it there, it’s an iconic little place,” he says. The town was once at the heart of a thriving rope making industry and was known for the infamous ‘Bridport Dagger’, the nickname for the hangman’s noose made from Bridport rope.
The irony of Stafford Smith, a leading campaigner against the death penalty, ending up in a town which did so much to assist the executioner is not lost on him.
But he has a plan.
“One of my dreams is that some wealthy person is going to give me the old rope-making factory so that I can turn it into a human rights centre and expiate the guilt of Bridport’s rope-making for the hangman forever,” he says.
For Clive Stafford Smith hope springs eternal, as it always must.
The story of Ahmed Rabbani
Ahmed Rabbani (ISN 1461) was, without doubt, no more than a taxi driver in Karachi, but he was sold to the U.S. in 2002. He did not arrive in Guantanamo Bay for two years whereupon he described to his Reprieve lawyer his suffering in the notorious ‘Dark Prison’ in Kabul, as Clive explains: “He had been subjected to a number of medieval tortures, combined with some 21st century forms of abuse. One, for example, involved hanging the victim by his wrists, so that his feet can just touch the ground - the Spanish Inquisition called this strappado, and recognised the excruciating pain caused by the slow dislocation of the shoulder joints.”
‘Strappado’ by ISN 1461
Clive was allowed to describe the art he saw in Guantanamo, which he then shared with others back in the UK, including art students at Sir John Colfox Academy. Here is Clive’s description of the art work by Ahmed Rabbani:
“There is a pit, perhaps 20 feet deep, holding the prisoner. There is a grill at the top, with fluorescent lights casting a shadow down on him. A single twisted rope runs down from the center of the grill to the iron bar, suspended over the prisoner’s head. His wrists are shackled by handcuffs, spread-eagled, on the iron bar, so he can just stand on his toes to reach it. The prisoner has on a light blue t-shirt, and long, straggly black hair. All around the pit, and its square of light, is darkness.
“This is Ahmed Rabbani’s memory of one the worst experiences he had in the Dark Prison (sometimes called the Salt Pit). It was an old Russian-era detention centre in Kabul, which earned its name because prisoners were held in total darkness for most of the time. One of the main torture methods used was noise, and it was known for the loud music that was blasted 24 hours a day (the play list included Barney the Purple Dinosaur repeated over and over, as well as Born in the USA). This prison was run by the Americans, but had Afghan guards for much of the time. The prisoners would be kept in freezing temperatures in winter, and broiling heat in summer. Ahmed spent 545 days in CIA detention. He was held in this pit for seven days as best he can estimate, although since there was no daylight, and only occasionally any light at all, this is only a guess. During that time, he endured extreme temperature, and noise. It was, he was told, designed to “break” him.”