Last Monday, Moazzam Begg (former Guantánamo prisoner and the director of the NGO Cageprisoners) and I flew out to Poland to take part in a week-long tour of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (which I co-directed with filmmaker Polly Nash) to raise awareness of the plight of the remaining 172 prisoners in Guantánamo (effectively abandoned by the Obama administration, and now largely held as political prisoners), and to ask the Polish people to encourage their government to help close Guantánamo by offering new homes to one or two of the 31 men cleared for release by the Obama administration, but still held because they face the risk of torture or other ill-treatment in their home countries, and to join 15 other countries (including Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia) in doing so.
In addition — and perhaps most crucially — Moazzam and I were looking forward to having the opportunity to discuss the existence, in the early years of the “War on Terror,” of a secret CIA torture prison at Stare Kiejkuty, near Szymany, where a number of “high-value detainees,” including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, were held, as part of a network of secret prisons that also included facilities in Thailand, Romania, Lithuania and Morocco.
This aspect of the tour is of particular relevance right now because one of the men held in Stare Kiejkuty was Abu Zubaydah, a man who, it turned out, was not a significant terrorist at all, but was, instead, the mentally damaged gatekeeper for a training camp in Afghanistan that was closed down by the Taliban in 2000 because its leader, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, refused to allow it to be taken over by Osama bin Laden. Just two weeks ago, Abu Zubaydah was granted “victim” status by the Polish Prosecutor in an ongoing investigation into the complicity of the Polish government — under former Prime Minister Leszek Miller and former President Aleksander Kwasniewski — in the establishment of the secret prison. This followed the granting of “victim” status to another “high-value detainee,” Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — allegedly the mastermind of the atack on the USS Cole in 2000 — last October.
Moazzam and I were met at the airport in Kraków by Anna Minkiewicz, a friend and supporter who, heroically and almost single-handedly, organized the tour and translated and sub-titled the film, which, in Polish, is “Poza Prawem: Echa z Guantánamo,” although she could not have done so without some heroic assistance on the subtitles, from Polly, here in the UK, and without the dedicated support in Poland of Przemysław Wielgosz, the chief editor of the Polish edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, who supplied all the contacts for the tour’s local media partners — a great group of people who not only made us welcome everywhere we went, but also arranged most of the publicity. Despite communicating by email for many years (since Anna first contacted me out of the blue with the kind of detailed and engaging email that is all too rare), we had never met, and I was looking forward to spending a week together, and also to spending a few days with Moazzam, who was only able to stay for the first two screenings in Warszawa and Łódź.
After settling in for the evening, in wonderful high-ceilinged rooms in a well-preserved building overlooking the Main Market Square (one of the largest in Europe), Anna took us, past some excellent architecture (including St. Mary’s Basilica and the Sukiennice — or Cloth Hall), to a charming little restaurant, where we happily spent a few hours in a free-wheeling discussion that touched on Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Africa, amongst other topics.
Day One: Kraków and Warszawa (Warsaw)
In the morning, we made our way across the square to a bar overlooking the Cloth Hall, for a live interview with TVN, one of the major independent TV channels in Poland, for the morning news, which was an excellent opportunity for Moazzam and I to publicize the tour, to explain why we were in Poland, and how the Polish people can help to close Guantánamo by offering new homes to cleared prisoners. I had been interviewed in London in December by another TVN reporter, Michal Sznajder, for a programme about the British government’s financial settlement with former Guantánamo prisoners (which has not yet been broadcast), so I was aware that TVN employs some fine journalists interested in covering important topics. The presenter, Marcin Sawicki, was well prepared, having watched the film the night before, and the interview is available here (in Polish), although in retrospect it was disappointing that, in the six minutes alloted to us, we didn’t have the opportunity to raise the topic of the secret CIA prison.
After the interview, while I returned to my room to catch up on emails, Moazzam and Anna visited the Jewish Quarter, where the echoes of the Holocaust obviously left a deep impression on Moazzam (who attended a Jewish school as a child), as it was something he referred to repeatedly during the rest of his visit — and in fact, as Moazzam and I both attempted to understand modern, post-Communist Poland, on our first ever visit, and the circumstances in which a government desperate for approval from the US agreed to host a secret torture prison on Polish soil, we were constantly prompted to draw analogies with the torture and brutality of the Nazis and the Soviet Union, which provide — or ought to provide — powerful resonances for the Polish people, and unassailable reasons why new atrocities should not have been allowed to happen in their country.
After a late breakfast, we then made our way to the station to catch a train to Warsaw. In Poland’s railway stations, the ghosts of the Soviet era were more tangible than they were in the streets of Kraków in particular, which was an almost miraculous survivor of the devastation of Poland by the Nazis, and is now a major tourist attraction, but the trains, although old and slow for the most part, were a delight, with the kind of six- or eight-person compartments that have now vanished from Britain, but which have a particular charm and intimacy not replicated in modern, open-plan carriages.
Our first stop in Warsaw was Kino Muranów, where we were met by the tall and enthusiastic figure of Bartek Kurzyca of the Globale political collective, which has connections in Berlin and Montevideo, and which was the media partner for our events in Warsaw.
The first of these was a press conference with Bartlomiej Jankowski, the lawyer for Abu Zubaydah, a smart and serious man who greeted us warmly, and added depth and resonance to our introduction to the Polish media. It was a great pleasure to meet him, and the press conference was a success, with Moazzam and I interviewed afterwards by Wojciech Cegielski of Polskie Radio and Adam Krzykowski of the State broadcaster TVP. At 6 pm, TVP broadcast a report on the press conference in its news programme “Panorama,” which was useful and important.
Moazzam and Anna and I actually watched the “Panorama” report in the office of Mikołaj Pietrzak, the lawyer for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, where we had a meeting (after dropping our bags off at our hotel) that also included Irmina Pacho of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, which played a crucial role last summer in obtaining the flight logs for the flights in and out of Stare Kiejkuty between December 2002 and September 2003, and I wrote about the flight logs last August, in an article entitled New Evidence About Prisoners Held in Secret CIA Prisons in Poland and Romania and followed up with Will Poland’s Former Leaders Face War Crimes Charges for Hosting Secret CIA Prison? This was when I first made contact with Adam Bodnar of the Helsinki Foundation — a contact that led me, on this trip, to make contact with Bartlomiej Jankowski, Mikołaj Pietrzak and Irmina Pacho.
The meeting with the lawyers was particularly useful, reassuring them that their cause has not been forgotten, that it is being watched with intense interest by lawyers, activists and other decent-minded people in countries around the world (including the US and the UK) and that, despite large-scale indifference in Poland, it was also possible to stir up interest through the film and the tour, and to establish important contacts across the country, and the building blocks for a network of interested parties who can move forward with their shared interests. The meeting was also extremely useful for providing Moazzam and I with strategies for the future, and I was delighted to receive English language translations of various important documents — as well as new and relevant information — that I’ll be writing about in another article in the very near future.
From Mikołaj Pietrzak’s office, we returned to Kino Muranów, where it was enormously satisfying to discover that the cinema was packed, and that at least 200 people had turned up to watch the film’s first public outing in Poland. After we had sneaked off, during the screening, for some food — which turned out to be a surreal meal in a Vietnamese vegan restaurant where we had to order our food based solely on rather lurid photos — we returned for the Q&A session, and were joined by Draginja Nadażdin, the director of Amnesty International Poland (which provided some support for the tour), and had our first taste of the dedication with which Polish audiences pursue opportunities to ask questions.
Day Two: Warszawa (Warsaw) and Łódź
On Wednesday morning, after breakfast and a quick tour of the centre of Warsaw, painstakingly reconstructed after its complete destruction by the Nazis, we took a taxi to the outskirts of town, to a studio where Moazzam and I were interviewed for a documentary about the secret prison that is being made by Roman Kurkiewicz, a veteran of the Solidarity movement (Solidarnosc), and also a journalist, author and professor, and the kind of principled revolutionary pro-democracy figure that I admired while watching the rise of Solidarity from afar 30 years ago. The documentary promises to be excellent, and I made sure that Roman knew that I would be delighted to tour it and make it available in the UK and the US if he makes an English version.
From the studio, we rushed to the station to catch the train to Łódź, where we were met by Marek Jedliński of of Krytyka Polityczna, and, at the cinema, his wife and the two translators for the evening. With some time to spare, we had an opportunity to chat, to enjoy some home-cooked food on sale in the basement of the cinema (which is also a cinema museum, with some wonderful old projectors filling the corners of various rooms), and also to be photographed (see the photos here and here) prior to an interview, during the screening (when we again retired downstairs), with Moazzam and I, which was conducted by a reporter from the Polish news agency Polska Agencja Prasawa, and which formed the basis of an article (available here in Polish) in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
For the second night, the cinema was packed out, with around 100 people, and the screening was followed by another lively Q&A session (audio here, in Polish and English), in which Moazzam, Anna and I were also joined by Wojciech Makowski of Amnesty International Poland. With translators (not available in Warsaw), it was, I think, a more satisfying Q&A session, with all the major topics covered, and a true abhorence of torture vividly expressed in various quarters of the crowd.
Afterwards, when I had let Wojciech Makowski know that I was happy for Amnesty to use my list of the remaining prisoners to encourage Amnesty members to write to the prisoners in Guantánamo (and also see here), the organizers took us to Ganesh, an excellent Indian restaurant, where we chatted away merrily and devoured butter chicken, garlic naan, and, in my case, some rather fine mutton with spinach, before retiring to our hotel. With two days completed, it was obvious that the tour was proving to be a great success.
Day Three: Poznań
After a late night in our hotel, in a block with an evident Soviet history, where Moazzam and I, who were sharing a room, stayed up talking about the tour, about Shaker Aamer, about anti-terror legislation in the UK, and about the plight of the Yemenis in Guantánamo (and I then retired to the bathroom to write Guantánamo: A Tale of Two Tunisians, letting Moazzam sleep), I awoke to find that Moazzam had already left for the station, to catch a train to Warsaw and a flight home. After breakfast, Anna and I returned to the station for the next stage of our journey, to Poznań, where we met up again with Draginja Nadażdin, the director of Amnesty International Poland, for a screening in another arthouse cinema, Kino Rialto.
The publicity in Poznań had been very last-minute, so there was not a huge audience, but the 30 or so people who did attend were refreshingly committed, and, after Anna, Draginja and I had grabbed some food in the only nearby place that wasn’t McDonald’s (a little pasta place), we had an excellent Q&A session, honing our messages about dispelling the lies about Guantánamo, and pushing for the resettlement of cleared prisoners and greater visibility for the topic of the torture prison.
Day Four: Wrocław
On Friday morning, after filling up on coffee and breakfast at our well-appointed hotel — where, the day before, I had thought the recent smoking ban in Poland didn’t apply, because the owner was so brazenly smoking in his own dining room — Anna and I took the train to Wrocław (formerly known as Breslau, and handed over from German to Polish control after the Second World War), where we were met by Aneta Jerska of Falanster, a collective of young activists with a lovely bookshop, and fine food and coffee, where we got to relax for an hour or so after dropping our bags off at the no-frills, Soviet-era Hotel Polonia, complete with sullen staff.
From Falanster, we made our way to Kino Warszawa, a delightfully unreconstructed old cinema (in a country with its fair share of unreconstructed old cinemas) inside a splendid old building, where I was introduced to my translator for the evening, and also to Józef Pinior, our very special guest. A former member of the Solidarity movement, he was an MEP from 2004 to 2009, and, crucially, was first a member, and then the Vice-Chair of the Subcommittee of Human Rights, where he worked with other MEPs, including the UK’s Sarah Ludford, on a crucial investigation into renditions in Europe in the “War on Terror,” which was published in January 2007, and entitled, “Report on the alleged use of European countries by the CIA for the transportation and illegal detention of prisoners” (PDF, and see the resolution here).
As a result of his investigations, Józef Pinior came across information in Poland establishing that the Polish government not only sanctioned the establishment of a secret CIA prison in Poland, but was actively involved in it (as will be discussed in more detail in a forthcoming article). Despite this, he found himself ridiculed in Poland by those he sought to expose, although his presence on Friday — and the rare opportunity to discuss the secret prison in a public forum — drew the most spirited audience of the tour, anxious to debate ways to take the story forward, and, from feedback I received afterwards, grateful that Anna and I had brought the film to Wrocław, that I was bringing news of interest in the story of the prison from outside Poland, and that Józef Pinior had an opportunity to explain what he knew to a sympathetic audience, and was able to assert that the Prosecutor’s granting of “victim” status to Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri establishes, beyond any doubt, that both men were held in the secret prison at Stare Kiejkuty.
After the screening and the Q&A session, a group of us — including Józef Pinior, Anna, Aneta and I — found a wonderful Armenian restaurant around the corner from the cinema, with great food (my beef and spinach was excellent), where we discussed the secret prison, Pinior’s investigations, and the state of politics in Poland, enabling to understand more about how he could have been so thoroughly sidelined by politicians and the media.
We also proceeded more generally to discuss the dangers of unchecked global capitalism , especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and the failure of governments to legislate against the banking sector, or to hold anyone accountable, and the need for new political responses. As throughout my visit, I was happy to point out that savage ideological cuts in the UK have provoked significant resistance by students and scholchildren, but also to concede that it does not yet constitute a new political movement, and broad coalitions (as with Solidarity) and further spurs to erode complacency and apathy will be needed before there is any real hope of a paradigm shift in the problems of the West.
Day Five: Kraków
For the last screening of the tour, Anna and I took a four and a half hour train ride back to Kraków, arriving with time to drop our cases off at Anna’s apartment, and to make our way to Kino Agrafka, another lovely arthouse cinema in a rambling old building, where another lively audience, of about 50 people, had forsworn the more recreational attractions of a Saturday night for an evening of arbitrary detention and torture. I was, by now, clinging to consciousness somewhat, but a Polish speciality for dinner — tasty meat and vegetable stew served inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread — and a few coffees brought me back to life a little for the final Q&A session of the tour, and afterwards Anna and I retired to a bar with one of the audience members.
Unwinding after an intense but rewarding week was a precursor to my final day in Kraków, which involved sleeping, eating, shopping and chatting before my flight back on Monday morning. It was not the easiest week I have ever had, as I received the sad news on Thursday evening that my father had passed away suddenly, which was difficult to deal with so far from home, but it was a very worthwhile trip, and I am deeply grateful to Anna for organizing it and funding it, and also for being there for me when I received the news about my father’s death.
In combatting the injustices of the “War on Terror,” and calling for accountability for America’s torturers (and their allies), those of us working in the US and the UK over the last nine years have realized that it is a long road, and not one for those seeking instant results. I hope that my presence, and that of Moazzam, helped to raise awareness of this amongst Poland’s anti-torture activists, as well as reassuring them that they are not alone, and I hope also that, with Anna, we helped to keep the story of the secret prison — and of cleared prisoners in Guantánamo who need new homes — alive in the media.
From my point of view, the trip was worth it alone for the audiences who saw the film and engaged in the Q&A sessions, for the media interest, and for the contacts I established with activists, lawyers and journalists, but I’m also pleased that it was more than just the sum of its parts — that Anna was such an engaging host, and that there are so many lovely people in Poland.