The circle of rendition
The great-grandfather of a Muslim man held in Guantanamo was likewise held without trial and torture
Amir Yakoub Mohammed Al Amir Mahmoud is from Sudan and is a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. For him, extraordinary rendition has come full circle. British colonial powers held his great-grandfather over a century ago and he is in the hands of US authorities today.
On 25 January 1885, General Charles Gordon died trying to maintain British control over Sudan. Victorian England was horrified. Gordon had died at the hands of the Mahdi, the spiritual leader of the "extremist" Muslims, the Dervish forces on a jihad to expel the colonialists. To the British public, the savagery of the Mahdi and his first lieutenant, the Khalifa (or Caliph) Abdullah, was epitomised by reports of Gordon's decapitation.
A clamour to avenge Gordon's death and re-establish British dominance in Sudan followed, but despite Britain's superiority in military technology, this wasn't easy. Eventually, on 2 September 1898, Colonel (later Lord) Kitchener wreaked revenge at the Battle of Omdurman. The Khalifa's army, betrayed by rival Sudanese Muslims, charged Kitchener's Maxim guns with desperate but futile valour. The day lost, the Khalifa refused to save himself, but sat awaiting death on his prayer rug as his enemies closed in.
Many of the Khalifa's family were captured. One such prisoner was the great-grandfather of the Guantanamo detainee Amir Yakoub. Al Amir Mahmoud wad Ahmed was the Khalifa's cousin. The 19th-century abuse of Amir Mahmoud began with minor humiliation: he was brought bare-headed before Kitchener. Kitchener then despatched (or, in modern terms, rendered) him, along with many Sudanese civilians, to Egypt where they were held in a prison called Abbasiyah.
Needless to say, life in the prison was brutal, without even a Geneva Convention on hand to be ignored. Amir Mahmoud died there. The women and children who managed to survive the ordeal were returned to Omdurman in 1908, after ten years of captivity. They were followed two years later by the surviving men. This repatriation was not to freedom. They were held under house arrest, with the men required to report to the authorities every morning and evening. Since they came home to an internment similar to their experience in Egypt, they dubbed the area where they were held Abbasiyah, a name that survives in Omdurman to this day.
The fact that the Victorians arranged the conditions for the prisoners' return based on such wholesale punishments without any form of trial, in violation of the very rule of law that they were supposedly imposing on Sudan, remains a dirty smudge on the British reputation for fair play.
Fast-forward a century and Amir Yakoub is in Guantanamo in 2007. Arrested in Pakistan in 2002, he had never been to Afghanistan, let alone fought jihad. But he was handed over to the US by fellow Muslims for a bounty, rendered to Afghanistan for humiliation and torture, and then despatched to Guantanamo Bay, where he remains. He is in Camp VI in solitary confinement, a maximum-security prison, without Geneva Conventions, or a trial of any kind.
I returned recently from a visit to Khartoum, where I met the Oxford-educated grandson of the Mahdi. I also met the Khalifa's grandson and various members of the government. They all expressed concern that Amir Yakoub had been illegally rendered, and was now being held, like his great-grandfather, by the hyperpower of the day, in a brutal and lawless prison far from home.
Of equal concern were the conditions that the US would like to impose on Amir Yakoub's return: that he should undergo continued detention in Sudan, based on the US military's assurance that he is a "bad man". The foreign minister complained to me that the US was insisting that Sudan violate its own constitution, which requires that a person be investigated before he can be held and charged, rather than the other way around. The US is preaching rights while perpetrating wrongs.
Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity that provides front-line investigation and legal representation to prisoners denied justice by powerful governments across the world, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. He writes this column monthly. Contact Reprieve at PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640. http://www.reprieve.org.uk