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Play exposes the horror at Guantánamo Bay
Civil rights in peril

Review by Peter Lamphere and Dao X. Tran | November 5, 2004 | Page 9

Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, written by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo from spoken evidence.

IMAGINE THAT you go on a spiritual journey to Pakistan, or travel with your brother to start a business in Gambia, or go abroad to open a school--only to be picked up by the authorities, questioned, never charged and detained indefinitely in a U.S. military base in Guantánamo, Cuba.

What seems like a nightmare actually happened to more than 560 people in the aftermath of 9/11 and the U.S. government's "war on terror." Their stories are told in Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, a documentary play currently at New York City's Bleecker Street Theater.

Assembled from transcripts and interviews, Guantánamo, which first ran in London earlier this year, looks at the plight of British detainees at the prison camp for "suspected terrorists." The play arrived in New York just as the war crimes trials for the detainees in Guantánamo Bay began--nearly three years after many of them were sent there.

The greatest strength of the production is the way it emphasizes the limbo that the detainees are in. The characters never leave the stage, even for intermissions. Watching them wash, pray and exercise in their orange jumpsuits, the audience gets a sense of how despair gradually seeps in. The detainees' letters to their families that are read in the play move from optimism about an imminent release to desperation and mental deterioration. The play does this with patience, humor and outrage.

In an early scene, one detainee, Bisher, mocks the Pentagon claims that Guantánamo is like being held in a "beachside resort." His brother, who reveals his father had been imprisoned and tortured by the Baathist regime in Iraq, draws the stark symmetry between Saddam, Bush and Blair.

The evidence of the inhumane treatment of detainees, including torture, presented in Guantánamo is overwhelming--and has since been corroborated by officials and low-level military personnel at the camp.

In a recent New York Times article, testimony describes camp guards "making uncooperative prisoners strip to their underwear, having them sit in a chair while shackled hand and foot to a bolt in the floor and forcing them to endure strobe lights and screamingly loud rap and rock music while the air conditioning was turned up to maximum levels...Such sessions could last up to 14 hours with breaks." And the guards [would] "replace the prayer oil given to the inmates in little bottles with a caustic pine-smelling floor cleaner."

But, as the play reveals, these horrors don't go unchallenged--some detainees in the camps organize hunger strikes and refuse to cooperate. At the show that we attended, American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero described visiting the camps to observe the trials and talking to low-level soldiers who thanked him for being there to "protect people's rights."

Guantánamo is an important reminder of what happens when civil rights are imperiled and a powerful indictment of the powers that created it. If it plays in your city, don't miss it.

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