A fair trial is not a “brand issue”

Human rights are trampled in unlikely places: a shopping centre in Reading is the latest example

These days at Reprieve, we seem to be doing much of our human rights work on the high street. In February, there was the "Fair Trial My Arse" underwear in Agent Provocateur shop windows. This month, more questions were being asked of the Bush administration in Lush cosmetics stores.

Lush teamed up with Reprieve to produce a "Guantanamo orange" bath ballistic that dissolves in hot water to reveal an image of Binyam Mohammed, a British resident, or of the al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, and leaves a dove of peace lurking in the vicinity of your plughole at the conclusion. (Buy one, set one free?)

Both Binyam and Sami have been held by the US without charge for several years. Binyam was tortured for 18 months in Morocco after being rendered there by the CIA, and he could now face a thoroughly unfair trial at the Guantanamo military tribunals - recently criticised by Colonel Morris Davis, a former Guantanamo chief military prosecutor, for being political trials where a conviction is preordained.

In February, Davis reported that the then Pentagon general counsel, William J Haynes II, had told him: "We can't have acquittals" at Guantanamo. After years of detention, it would look bad if prisoners were determined to be innocent. Sami's crime seems to have been his refusal to falsify stories about his al-Jazeera employers. Of course, if we could get these prisoners into proper courts, Lush would not need to put them in your bath.

The promotion of human rights by Lush is admirable, an example that should be followed by any ethical corporation. Would that more businesses truly tried to do good, as well as doing well. Enter "The Oracle" of Reading.

Political statements

The Lush displays outside its Reading store featured two posters, presented as mock-ups of a newspaper front page, with a photo of either Mr al-Haj or Mr Mohammed under the headline "A Fair Trial for Sami/Binyam".

Oracle owns the shopping centre. It was apparently the notion that the prisoners should receive a fair trial that upset Oracle's management. They suggested that this contravened the terms of Lush's lease, which bars retailers from displaying signs which, "in the reasonable opinion of the Landlord", are of a "distasteful, offensive or political nature". In issuing its edict here, Oracle had as its stated goal "to protect our brand" by avoiding political comment. Thus human rights are trampled in unlikely places.

On one level, you might question Oracle's interpretation of the terms of its own contract. Pay a passing visit to the company's website and you will see how it endorses the promotion of various messages that many might find offensive: Grand Theft Auto IV or - coming soon! - Gears of War 2 (the "tactical action/horror game") are available at the local Game store. The Vue Cinema is showing films of questionable taste, including Diary of the Dead and Rambo. In harbouring McDonald's, it is not clear what position Oracle is taking, either on taste or on the increasingly political issue of obesity.

Double standards

This is familiar territory at Reprieve, where our own battle with secret prisons involves a constant struggle with senseless censorship. Most of the evidence the Bush administration would like to classify as secret involves the abuse of the prisoners in its global torture chambers. Now Lush is being gagged in the same way - in Reading at least. Films and games that glorify war and torture are acceptable, but it is somehow wrong for Lush to highlight Binyam Mohammed's torture in the real world. Purveying fast food is OK, but Lush is not permitted to complain that Sami al-Haj has been force-fed for more than 400 days. His hunger strike has one simple demand: a fair trial.

Oracle has its work cut out to demonstrate why calling for basic fairness and decency is even political, yet numerous avowedly political campaigns have been presented in the centre's stores. Starbucks advertises its "social, environmental and economic" causes on the Oracle website. Marks & Spencer campaigns for fair trade. The Oracle has spoken: fair trade is apparently fine, fair trials are not.

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us