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Habeas corpus still manquee

By Heidi Kingstone - posted Monday, 11 March 2013

At the same time as I was given Shadow Lives [The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror] by Victoria Brittain to review, I was in the process of reading the Man Booker prizewinning novel Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

Brittain's book is about the current lives of women in the UK and US whose husbands or fathers have been interned in Guantanamo Bay, lost in a legal quagmire of Kafkaesque proportions, the result of the war on terror. They are victims of a brutal and heavy-handed legal system.

Mantel's book is about the terrifying machinations of Henry VIII's 16th century royal court, where torture and beheadings were routine and trumped up charges common.


Brittain's men are mostly innocent, lost in the 'legal black hole' of Guantanamo Bay, targeted by military and intelligence services 'who go it all wrong', to quote her, men caught in the fishing net in the wake of 9/11.

As she says, out of 166 detainees at Guantanamo, 156 have not been charged, 87 have been cleared and have been ready for release, some for up to five years. "This is a miscarriage of justice on an epic scale," she said on Tuesday at her book launch, held at the Commonwealth Institute in London. These are not the 7/7 bombers, she added, a reference to the men who killed and maimed hundreds of civilians on London's public transport system.

Brittain spent 10 years talking to these women, befriending them, hearing their stories. The devastation, the loneliness, their sense of powerlessness and alienation in the face of a wall of impenetrable bureaucracy doesn't bear thinking about.

In many cases the men and their lawyers did not know what was said against them, or by whom. They were incarcerated for years without trial in inhuman conditions or subject to draconian Control Orders issued by the British Home Office, often on the flimsy evidence of unreliable witnesses. "Men were held beyond the reach of US law, without habeas corpus, in conditions that were flagrant violations of international law."

Brittain questions how we got so 'coarsened' to 'the enormity of the injustices perpetrated' over a decade and 'airbrushed out of mainstream America's and Britain's consciousness', how we have flouted the rule of law and breached fundamental human rights. In this way it invokes parallels to Bring up the Bodies, where people were beheaded or sent to the Tower on the whim of the king.

Brittain is a well-respected left of centre British journalist, and as further proof, Shadow Lives has a foreward by Booker prizewinning author John Berger and an afterward by feminist, writer and historian Marina Warner.


I know I should like the book, I wanted to, and I tried, but I found it hard to digest. The women are all portrayed as saintly, heroic, brave, courageous, pious and dignified, including the six Palestinian women to whom the book is dedicated. And, god knows, they have had to live a life in limbo and still live with consequences that include breakdowns, other mental illnesses, and divorce.

For Zinnira the nightmare began after many happily married years to Shaker Aamer, who had come to the UK from Medina. One day he decided to move the family to Afghanistan to help build a pure Islamic state.

That year he was captured by a bounty hunter, handed over to the Americans, and ended up in Guantanamo. Her husband had simply disappeared. When he was finally on a plane and ready to be reunited with his family in 2007, after being cleared for release, he was taken off, and the nightmare began again.

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This is a review of Shadow Lives:The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror by Victoria Brittain.

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About the Author

Heidi Kingstone is a Canadian freelance journalist living in the United Kingdom.

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