Last Saturday I witnessed a joyful reunion at the house of my London lawyer. For those of you who don’t know who Gareth Peirce is, she is the UK’s most famous criminal defence lawyer, having successfully defended unpopular clients and detainees since the late 1970s. Her past and present clients range from the IRA, Al-Qaeda and ETA members, to Guantanamo detainees, MI5 whistleblowers and victims of rendition, torture and drone attacks.
The actress Emma Thompson played Gareth in the seven-Academy-Award nominated 1993 movie “In the Name of the Father,” which tells the story of four Irish men falsely convicted of the 1974 IRA Guildford pub bombings and how Gareth discovered the missing evidence that exonerated them.
Tip: if you ever meet Gareth, never mention the movie to her. She hasn’t seen it and she hates any reference to it because she does not like the way it portrays her as a hero.
Gareth and her firm of passionate lawyers, paralegals and support staff represented me for the eight years that I spent detained without trial in the UK. She continued to support me after I was extradited to the US in 2012 and came to visit me in the Supermax prison there several times, at her own personal expense.
Gareth has a tradition that she regularly holds lunches at her house to celebrate the release or return of her clients. Saturday was one such lunch that I was honoured to be invited to, along with a dozen or so of her clients, lawyers, barristers, activists and all the family members.
All the clients had one thing in common: they had been detained for years without trial both in the UK and abroad. I spent several years in prison living alongside some of these men. Several former Guantanamo detainees were there, including Shaker Aamer and Moazzam Begg. But the stars were a group of six Algerian detainees who won their case a few weeks ago.
By way of background, as a knee jerk response to 9/11, the UK enacted a law that allowed some foreign nationals to be detained in prison indefinitely without trial. Eleven detainees spent three years in high security prisons before the courts found their detention to be unlawful and they were released, but not for long.
After the 7/7 bombings, these men and others, were re-arrested and detained in prison without trial, this time on the grounds that they had to be deported to their countries of origin because they were a threat to national security. The most well-known of these detainees was Abu Qatadah – he was not at Saturday’s lunch because he lives in Jordan after being deported and cleared of all terrorism charges against him.
Thus in 2005 began a litigation battle that would last the next eleven years. The best way to describe it is like a tennis match. It would take three years for the men to take their case from the lower “SIAC” court to the Supreme Court, where they would win, only for the Supreme Court to send the case back to SIAC for reconsideration. Then it would take another three years to reach the Supreme Court, then back to SIAC again. And so on.
Meanwhile, the men remained either in prison or strict “control orders”, i.e. house arrest. I need to reiterate that the UK authorities never charged these men with a criminal offence. To illustrate the life these men and their families lived for many years, I will relate to you a story about a washing machine.
I apologise if I have got the exact details wrong but you can read the whole story in the book “Shadow Lives” by Victoria Brittain, who was also at Gareth’s house on Saturday.
One of the detainees, a wheelchair-bound disabled man, was living in a flat with his wife and young children. One day their washing machine broke so they rang a plumbing company to send someone to fix it. Only, they needed to have the name and date of birth of the plumber in advance so the Home Office could approve him to enter the house. If anyone unapproved entered the house, the detainee would be in breach of his conditions and be returned to prison.
They needed to have the name and date of birth of the plumber in advance so the Home Office could approve him to enter the house. Otherwise they would all go to prison.
The problem was that the plumbing company did not know in advance which plumber would be available on the day to attend to the job.
Eventually, the couple had to pay double by going to a local plumber who could be approved, unbeknown to him, to enter the house. No plumber would knowingly attend the house of a terror suspect if he knew he had to be approved by the Home Office to attend the address. The plumber arrived, and found that the washing machine could not be fixed. So the couple decided to buy a new one.
The friendly delivery man arrived to deliver the washing machine to the couple. The detainee sat there in the hallway in his wheelchair as his wife opened the door. “Where would you like this washing machine, madam?” the delivery man asked.
“It’s OK, you can leave it outside, my husband will bring it in,” the wife replied.
“You mean that man in the wheelchair?” the delivery man asked, as the couple’s young children were playing in the hallway. “There’s no extra charge, I promise you. I can put the washing machine wherever you want.”
“It’s OK, we will manage,” the wife smiled, not wanting to scare off the delivery man by telling him that he could be arrested if he entered the house.
And so the confused delivery man left the washing machine on the porch and went. Somehow the disabled detainee and his wife managed to drag the washing machine up the porch and into their kitchen.
Anyway, the sorry 11-year old saga ended a couple of weeks ago when, yet again, the detainees won their case. But this time, the Home Office, to its credit, decided not to appeal and all conditions on the men were lifted. On Saturday I observed as these six Algerian men met each other for the first time in 15 years. The disabled detainee was there, with his wheelchair, but without his washing machine.
Before I left at the end of the day, I told one of the lawyers present that I really enjoyed myself. “It was the shame the sun didn’t come out,” she commented on the dismal rainy weather.
I replied to her, “Who said the sun didn’t come out? Didn’t you see the sunshine on the faces of these men as they met each other for the first time in 15 years?”
Didn’t you see the sunshine on the faces of these men as they met each other for the first time in 15 years?
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