Gareth Peirce is one of Britain’s most eminent human rights lawyers. Her most celebrated cases include that of the Guildford Four – who were the victims of one of the UK’s most notorious miscarriages of justice, involving the police fabrication of evidence – and Moazzam Begg, a British citizen who experienced US extrajudicial detention at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then at Guantánamo Bay. Gareth is currently taking a case through the European Court of Human Rights that may end European extradition of certain categories of prisoners to the United States on the basis that the US Constitution does not offer the same protections as may be expected under the European Convention on Human Rights and that, in particular, these charters differ widely on the subject of solitary confinement.
This speech by Gareth was first screened on April 17th. 2011 as the keynote address at a public meeting entitled “Free Bradley Manning! End the War!” at Giuseppe Conlon House in London. The video puts what has been happening to Bradley in the context of wider issues in the US justice system and is well worth viewing in full; Gareth was also kind enough to say some words about the impact of the UK campaign to date. Selected quotes follow below the video.
“It is important that there is a big a campaign as there can be about Bradley Manning. It is incredibly impressive how many people are coming forward to say that the conditions he is held in are utterly intolerable, as indeed they are. But it would be a tragic waste of a process of a learning on the part of a wider world to not realise that this is how America treats its prisoners.”
“The deprivation of any individual of the company of his fellow man or woman is not simply the grimness of isolation, the grimness of being only with your own thoughts for all time. It actually has severe psychological effects, it causes irreparable damage to the individual and – more surprisingly perhaps – physical damage to the brain. So the infliction of solitary confinement on any individual is certainly on the cusp, if it is prolonged, of torture.
“There is another aspect to this, which is – what is the purpose of this? Is it punishment before the individual has been ever tried and convicted, or is it something else? And this is the other why and wherefore of how America deals with its criminal justice system.
“97% of people facing trial in America plead guilty. That is an extraordinary statistic. Why do it? They do it in large part because, by pleading guilty, you have a chance of negotiation and escaping the worst of the sentences that face you. If you become a cooperating witness you have another chance to escape what might be a pretty brutal fate in terms of the time you might spend serving a sentence.
“Is this what is happening to Bradley Manning? Is he under this kind of duress, this form of punitive isolation in the hope that he might become a cooperating witness against Julian Assange and therefore pave the way for an extradition request that might not otherwise be possible?”
“In this country we find it easy to condemn how others treat their prisoners, to say that we are horrified at how the death penalty still exists in America. We find it easy to say we are horrified by the continuing atrocity that is Guantánamo but, nevertheless, when you dig you find how complicit we have been here in the perpetuation of practices. How our ministers, our civil servants, our intelligence agencies combined and were complicit in the unlawful removal to Guantánamo of British citizens and British residents. Enough has been disclosed to make that process crystal clear.”
“It is a curious irony that in trying to unravel exactly what is happening to Bradley Manning in isolation, under duress, being coerced, one is having to dig deeper into the secrets of the state, of the US and how it treats its prisoners.
“In that there has been so extraordinary a campaign now that has required our Foreign Office, that has required ministers to take up the cause of a man who has a Welsh mother; insofar as that demand has been made and has been pursued, insofar as it has woken up a hundred law professors in the United States to wake up and write an open letter in the New York Times and say they regard the treatemnt of Bradley Manning as violating all of the guarantees of the US Constitution. Insofar as it is provoking that degree of public knowledge, then ironically it is providing a public service in itself.”
I have just heard (16.06.11) that Gareth Peirce is now representing Julian Assange. This is excellent news for all concerned.